Clover is a second-year student from Hanoi, Vietnam. Studying abroad and speaking a foreign language 24/7 have made her think a lot about how the change in language has affected her identity.
I pulled out my earphones, stopped walking and stared at Prudence bewilderedly as she suddenly tapped on my shoulder.
“You called me?” – I asked, confused.
“Yep I was yelling “Clover! Clover!” like crazy! Didn’t you hear me?”
Oh, right. My name is Clover.
Actually, my new name is Clover.
My real name is Linh – a Vietnamese name that requires you to stretch your mouth and smile a bit if you want to pronounce it correctly. After many times people called me Lin, Ling, Lee, etc., I have decided to have a completely new name rather than having my name mispronounced unrecognizably. Clover is it.
I started learning English in the 1st grade. Although it’s been a long time, since Vietnamese education stressed mainly on grammars, my English writing and speaking skills still have lots of rooms for improvement. My first few days at Oberlin were tough because every one spoke so fast and I found it difficult to fully understand what they meant, not to mention having to think of appropriate responses quickly. I struggled with the lengthy process of thinking in Vietnamese then translating back to English, which often made conversations so awkward and writing so time-consuming. The vocabulary limits and cultural differences prevented me from expressing my thoughts and clarifying my ideas. Sometimes before I could come up with a response, people had already changed topic or said goodbye and walked away. This limitation made me feel so inadequate, frustrated and insecure that sometimes I chose to be silent.
Once you choose to be silent, it will gradually turn into a habit if you don’t make any changes. At times I felt safe and comfortable with my silence, as I would avoid awkward moments when I was unable to express my thoughts comprehensibly and nobody could judge me, but I felt so wrong. The questions of “Who am I?” and “What am I doing here?” constantly knocked on my head. The time and effort I spent on college research and application, the hopes and aspirations I had for my new life here, as well as the money my parents are paying for me, could not be wasted this way. A lot of my Vietnamese friends studying abroad and being in the same situation had chosen to stick with other Vietnamese students on campus, or live a quiet life for the rest of their college years; I could not, because that means giving up. The lessons from my parents’ resilience in building fortune from bare hands and Vietnam’s perseverance in gaining independence during over 2000 years of colonization had taught me to accept and get the best out of what life gives me, and run with it. I had to get out of this comfort zone.
My first change was to have a new name. Clover is a kind of leaf symbolized for luck. I bought a necklace with a clover pendant right before my college application process to wish myself best of luck. Although I am not at all a superstitious person, the clover leaf just suddenly meant so much to me as it had been my spiritual support during one of the most hysterical times I’ve experienced. And partly thanks to it, I got into Oberlin where I am now. That’s how this introduction sentence came to life: “I’m Clover.”
The new name gave me a fresh start.
I started my self-revolution by reaching out more. By signing up for clubs like Vietnamese Student Association and Chess Club, going to Day of Service and TGIF, and joining the Musical Union, I had a chance to meet lots of people. If I was in a group and nobody talked to each other, I would urge myself to actively start the conversation. It was heart-racing and scary at first, but gradually that activeness became a norm to me when I found out: behind the cold and distant masks people often put on, most of them were really nice. I learned that I was not the only one to suffer the cultural transition; a lot of other freshmen, including Americans, were on the same boat with me. We were all crawling into our shell, waiting for someone to come drag us out. The quote “Don’t judge a book by its cover” has ingrained into my mind for long, but only until recently did I truly appreciate its meaning.
I also discovered where my insecurity originated from: my self-criticism. My Vietnamese-American accent, regular misuse of grammars and lack of vocabulary made me feel unconfident. I was too worried about how people would judge my imperfect English that I paid too much attention to word choice and grammar corrections and ended up putting myself in unreasonable fear and discomfort. By pushing myself to be less of a perfectionist and an over-thinker, I had the chance to fully enjoy a conversation and became more tolerant of making mistakes. I learned to accept that nobody is perfect, and I could not excel at this second language in a day or two, which made me more willing to admit “I don’t know” and learn from others.
Cultural, intellectual and linguistic curiosity drove my self-revolution forward. I talked in English faster and more fluently as I walked faster to keep pace with my friends. I learned more new words and slangs as my vocabulary of food and spices in English increased. I started to understand the joke “That’s what she said” of New Yorkers, what people mean by saying “fingers crossed”, and why my friend told me “Roger that, captain!” I started to realize how my language automatically changed from talking to my friends to talking to professors, from “Hey fatty!” to “Excuse me, professor Dawson.” Making friends also became easier for me when I was no longer afraid of speaking up my mind. Although I spoke imperfect English, my willingness to engage in conversations boosted my openness, and I soon found some amazing friends who shared mutual interests with me. At this point, I began to understand Baldwin’s argument that “Language connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity.” Keeping silent and staying in the comfort zone made my fitting in almost impossible, while choosing to change myself and be comfortable with my English gave me an entrance to this community. Language is the door to connection with other people; to open it or to close it is one’s choice. And I chose to let it open.
In order to improve my writing in English as well, I registered for two writing intensive classes for my first semester. With the average of five essays due a week, I felt overloaded at times; the gain, however, was priceless. Each of the two classes taught me a different aspect of good writing: For Political Leadership first-year seminar program, I have been taught how to recognize and eliminate “bullshit” and cliché writing; while for Rhetoric 104, I have a chance to explore deeper into the relationship between my language and identity. The knowledge I have gained from two classes at the same time complements each other and helps me improve my writing effectively. I no longer have the fear of putting my thoughts into words, of using the word “I” to express my opinions, and of being judged for what I write.
My self-revolution to walk out of my comfort zone has progressed significantly. Starting with a new name, it has developed to a whole new language practice; and that language practice has finally become my habit.
I was unaware of my changes until a few days ago when I tried to write a status on Facebook. Although its purpose was to update to my family and friends back in Vietnam how I had been recently, in Vietnamese of course, I automatically started writing in English. I was so surprised, and a bit happy, to see my thoughts flow smoothly in English without any attempt. However, when I deleted everything and tried to rewrite in Vietnamese, I realized: I had started to brainstorm in English, and in order to write in Vietnamese again, I had to translate back from English. I had been trying so hard to reach this stage, but then when I made it, my mind was filled with unfamiliarity. My writing in Vietnamese was influenced by English grammatical structures as well, which made my status sounded so odd and unnatural.
Another time was when I skyped with my parents. I realized how difficult it was for me to express my thoughts fluently in Vietnamese without using some English words in between, and sometimes I had to pause to reconsider how to say certain things in Vietnamese. I wondered what had happened to my mother tongue.
These days, a question has been stuck in my head: Am I becoming someone else? No. I’m still an eighteen-year-old Vietnamese girl who eats a lot and loves music. Yes. My perspective towards life and values has changed a lot. No! I’m still who I was! Yes! My name is not even real and my preferred language is not even mother tongue!
I could not find a satisfactory answer for this question, until I read Fan Shen’s essay with his argument that “the process of learning to write in English is in fact a process of creating and defining a new identity and balancing it with the old identity.” Is it really necessary to differentiate your identities? And also, should identity have a plural form? A person can have a lot of masks for different social roles; he, however, is himself with one and only one identity.
To me, identity is everything that defines a person: names, nationalities, characteristics, personalities, beliefs, religions, languages, etc. Identity is inconstant; it changes depending on cultural, historical context, age, relationships and numerous other factors. As a person can speak different languages, he can also have multiple personalities and beliefs, all of which still contribute to what is regarded as his identity. Why should one insist on splitting up his identity into identities, then complicate himself by having to balance out or run around changing among those identities? Because he has failed to accept that changes are inevitable in life, which is what I had agreed upon.
The transition in my language has offered me a golden chance for self-reflection. I’m no longer puzzled or worried, because I know this preference in English, along with the new cultural values and habits, will only last for a certain amount of time before continuing its development. For me, I won’t label my changes as “Vietnamese identity” and “English identity”, or “Linh’s identity” and “Clover’s identity”, because they are just different parts of my overall identity. I have chosen to embrace whatever changes life requires from me, and to be flexible with however my identity will become.
 If Black English isn’t a language, then tell me, What is?, James Baldwin
 The Classroom and the Wilder Culture: Identity as a Key to Learning English Composition, Fan Shen