Language is weird. Conveying language is even harder. How do you make a story where the main characters are all speaking a different language, but gear it to an English-speaking audience? Do you give them vague accents or pull a Sean Connery and let Russian-in-English sound suspiciously like a Scottish brogue? Then what if the they interact with English speakers? How do you flip that sense of the other, where the person speaking the language you understand isn’t understood by the characters you’re following?
The play Vietgone, a story about Vietnamese immigrants to the US after the Fall of Saigon, merrily blazes its own path. In a delightfully post-modern fashion, Vietnamese is rendered in contemporary English. Main characters Quang and Tong interject ‘dude’ while speaking regular, American English — despite it supposed to be in Vietnamese. Because of this, we, as an audience, are firmly with them. We speak the same language, we understand them, we identify. There’s nothing stilted about it, it’s just people talking like people talk.
See, there’s this stereotype about Asians in and around the US is that they (we?) are so completely foreign, so other, that assimilation into normalcy isn’t really a thing — that the adjective in front of the noun is the more important word. It’s something that’s colored by the media in many ways, from Full Metal Jacket’s refrain of “me love you long time” to a certain recent piece by a major news show involving some idiot in Chinatown. When Vietgone positions its protagonists as speaking normal English, it empowers them to get to be normal. Quang and Tong aren’t presented as being other or foreign, instead they’re portrayed as normal as they would be had this story been about a bunch of white people moving somewhere else.
As for the Americans? Vietgone, a comedy, renders English as a series of loud, disparate, American-y words, yielding ‘sentences’ along the lines of “Cheeseburger shotgun Nixon!” It’s legitimately hilarious, but it underscores how confused and away Quang and Tong are. They don’t understand the people around them — and neither do we. As for the American who does try to learn Vietnamese and speaks it poorly, he is depicted speaking a horribly mangled version of English, flipping the funny foreigner trope well on its head. By building a language barrier that puts the audience on the in with the non-English speaking cast, Vietgone creates a space where the white Americans are seen as the other, not the immigrant Vietnamese.
So? What’s the big deal about this?
I will yammer on and on and on about this, to the point where I think 2016 is Essays, Not Rants! Year of Diversity (2015 was the Year of Feminism), and that’s because it’s important. Vietgone tells a familiar story (two people fall in love!) with a familiar backdrop (the aftermath of the Vietnam War!) but from a completely different perspective (did you know about the refugees from Vietnam in the aftermath?). Not only does it work as the story of immigrants and refugees, but, by positioning these people as the main characters the play allows them to tell their stories. This is the aftermath of the Vietnam War as told by those who saw their country and homes fall. It’s a different story, but not one that feels the need to dwell overlong on how different and special it is. It’s, like all good stories, a story about people first. One where they get to tell it and we get to listen in.