Olivia Nguyen wants to tell you a story about Vietnam.
But first, you have to know a little about her.
Nguyen, DMSB’15, grew up in suburban New Jersey, reading voraciously, playing sports, and joining clubs like any other high-achieving high school student. She knew that her parents had fled the brutal aftermath of the Vietnam War, but they didn’t talk about it much; it was too traumatic. And until Nguyen arrived at Northeastern, it seemed like ancient history.
“When I went to college, the meaning of being Vietnamese American changed,” she says. “I met Vietnamese Americans in Boston who were much more ‘Vietnamese’ than I was.”
Then, when Nguyen was 19 years old, she attended a family reunion, and, for the first time in her life, she had both the curiosity and the opportunity to learn more about her family’s past. She learned about the escape of her father’s family by boat in the dead of night, and the struggles of his nine siblings to stay together when they arrived in America speaking no English.
“I began to feel this urgency that if I didn’t attempt to explore my heritage, I would never feel whole,” she says. “I realized that my future family would be incomplete, an d that I would be dishonoring my ancestors by ignoring the past.”
So, during her senior year at Northeastern, she applied for and won a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to teach English in a remote section of North Vietnam. She arrived in August, just two months after graduation, and has spent the last seven months teaching English at a high school in Yên Bái City.
As she puts it, “I’m here to learn my story, make lifelong friends, and fall in love with the world a little more.”
Nguyen is not shy. She is a passionate and insightful observer of the human condition. She has many stories to tell of her time in Vietnam, but one stands out. It goes like this:
Sometimes there is a moment during your travels that floors you—the kind of moment that knocks the breath out of you.
I had a moment like this the other day. It was 2 in the afternoon, and there was a knock on my door. It was Mr. Nam, a highly respected literature teacher who tutors me in Vietnamese twice a week. The sessions are informal conversations to help me improve my language skills. After about an hour, I asked him how he met his wife. He told me that she had worked at a neighboring school. One day, he passed by and saw her outside … and the rest is history.
“Ah, love at first sight,” I said. “How …” I paused and had to ask how to say “romantic” in Vietnamese. He told me the word is “lãng man.” I repeated the words, and he explained that “lãng” represents the shore, and “man” represents the waves crashing onto the shore.
“That is the literal translation,” he said. “Waves crashing onto the shore, the same way that love overcomes a heart during a romance.”
That was my moment—learning how to say a single word in Vietnamese on a hot afternoon, over some tea. It was a cultural epiphany for me. I savored its music on my tongue. I have new respect for a language that I had never really cared for. I now wonder what metaphor lies behind each new word I learn. I savor the way my tongue dances in my mouth when I speak.
I am not just learning another language—I am learning poetry.