© Jiny Ung.
© Jiny Ung.

 —– Đọc bài tiếng Việt —– 

Who doesn’t know ‘me no say English’! It is broken English. Native English speakers think only new immigrants, older ones, or those with little education speak like that. Well, I can tell you that time has changed to the point you may or may not like it: broken English is a new trend for some educated people.

Are we that bored?

Sometimes I stand in front of the closet full of clothes and think to myself, “I have nothing to wear!” Similarly, I open the fridge full of food and yawn, “I have nothing to eat!” Does this sound familiar to you?

My question is: Are we that bored with life on earth? Food wise, because of our constant need for novelty, we dig up the earth, ebb the river, pollute the ocean. Still, we say there is nothing interesting to eat any more. What is the solution? – Foraging. It is a trend. Gourmet restaurants can really prepare savory dishes from uniquely organic, wild ingredients provided to them directly by professional foragers. In the name of fashion, people go deep into the forest to find wild mushroom or berries, rummage the sea to find rare algea, etc. All, just to make food in this boring life on earth more exciting. I see the same thing happening in language.

Many Vietnamese Americans have recently created a new trend regarding the use of the word “Việt” so that there are odd terms such as Việt people, Việt-Americans, Việt music, Việt opera, Việt sister, etc. I don’t know when it started but one explanation is that it begins with  Vietnamese people really embracing short cuts. Translating to language, they like to abbreviate. Instead of saying “Việt Nam” we say “Việt.” So, người Việt Nam (Vietnamese people) becomes người Việt (Vietnamese people). Both terms are OK in Vietnamese because either người Việt Nam or người Việt, they mean the same thing. Now may Vietnamese Americans want to shorten “Vietnamese people” to “Việt people.” This is a completely different story. First of all, an American would not understand ‘Việt people’ or ‘He is a Việt-American writer’ because that is incorrect English. Not to mention that it is incorrect in another way, and has a horrible implication.

The word Việt is short for Việt Nam, but it is also used to refer to an ethnic group called Việt as a separation from other ethnic groups such as Hmong, Han, etc. Therefore, ‘Việt people’ refers to a tribal group dated back more than two thousand years ago, and is not equivalent to ‘Vietnamese people.’ That said, by using ‘Việt people,’ are they trying to associate themselves with that ancient tribal group? And ‘Việt music’ refers to music of that tribal group? My question is: Are they bored with regular English? So much so that they become ‘language foragers’ and turn to broken English!

To be fair, there are exceptions to the use of ‘Việt.’ I could comment on how correct or incorrect the use of ‘Việt’ is in a sentence as part of a grammatical structure. But when it is part of a proper name, that is a completely different matter as there is no right or wrong in proper names.

Digging deep

The fluid exchange of communications between Vietnamese Americans and Vietnamese at home seems to create an atmosphere that makes many Vietnamese Americans feel a stronger sense of connection among themselves as a community. Many of us seem to be able to make a better sense of who we are and what we want in this global context. This is all very encouraging and which makes me wonder whether the import of authentic Vietnamese in the case of ‘Việt’ usage is in fact an expression of that piece of authentic identity, an integral layer of identity that we cannot find here in the US. It is that transnational sensibility that strangely seems to make one feel belong – a little here a little there, definitely more desirable and in many ways maybe more meaningful than belonging to neither place at all – that one can transfer back and forth between both places with ease and validity. I understand the transnational attraction, even in the unacceptable usage of the term ‘Việt people’ or ‘Việt-Americans,’ etc. Unfortunately, ‘Việt’ usage is not a ‘real deal.’

In the same line of thinking about the circularity of Vietnamese identity as Viet Thanh Nguyen discussed in his recent interview, as the use of Việt people, Việt music, etc… is catching on like fire, I could not help but wonder whether this is a new ‘circle’ of those language foragers, whether it is a sign that they hit the ceiling, that they reach the limit of their identity pool, that there is nothing else for them to dig.

Nah, maybe they are just lazy. Coming from a mono-syllable background, they are lazy to pronounce multi-syllable words. Việt is actually two syllables shorter than Vietnamese. So it is more convenient. If this is true, I can see it as just a case of broken English (tiếng Anh bồi) and nothing deeper than that. But laziness backfires, in ways so magnitude no one person can someday contain.

Without a clear explanation, the first time I read the word ‘Việt people’ I felt a strange sense of disparagement. Some time later, it became clear to me that for others to call the Vietnamese ‘Việt people’ it is like calling black people ‘negro.’

Remember ‘Nam!’ – the word with a pejorative connotation aimed at Vietnamese people and Vietnam during the Vietnam War – American soldiers shortened Vietnam to ‘Nam.’ Now many Vietnamese Americans themselves are belittling their own people and culture into ‘Việt.’ After a while, it will ring the same familiar tune to American ears… Nam! Chink! Jap! Việt! See people, laziness backfires.

New trends are known to set the fashion and change the practice. This one may do. I don’t know what it will become, this is my prediction.


Yet, whatever it becomes, I call it tiếng Anh bồi (broken English), pejorative language, degrading attitude. And however fashionable the trend may be, it does not deter me from banishing the usage from my English language. If I have to use six words to describe how I feel about the mongrelization of the word ‘Việt’ in ‘Việt people,’ or ‘Việt-American’ – they are: Degrading! Degrading! Degrading! Pejorative! Pejorative! Pejorative!

The Vietnamese version of this article has been printed and published online by the Viễn Đông Daily News. Read my online Vietnamese version