|My sister (tiger) and me (lion) on Ryan Mountain at Joshua Tree National Park.|
From the moment I first started going to school I've been interested in (a) thinking about how people use language to express themselves and (b) burying my nose in books. Although I was born in the United States, I did not learn how to speak English until I began elementary school. (And I didn't attend preschool, because there were no convenient locations in my area.)
So up until the age of five, I only spoke Thai. My mom, who emigrated from Thailand, didn't want me to speak English with an accent, so even though she spoke English, she had refrained from using it with me. In many ways, I grew up in a traditional Asian household. For example, I lived with my extended family. My mom, my sister, and I lived with my maternal grandma and my maternal aunt and her family. The nine of us made do in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house. It was a very lively environment to grow up in.
While my mom and aunt had both learned to speak English, my grandma only spoke Thai. I spent a lot of my youth in her presence, so prior to attending school, I hadn't given much thought to the English language. Once I started kindergarten, however, it felt natural for me to speak English outside of my house and Thai while at home.
I remember how prior to starting school, my mom took me for a campus visit. At least that's what I had thought it was. Shortly before getting out of the car in the school parking lot, my mom told me that all I had to do was be myself. Then everything would be okay.
I didn't understand at the time that I was going to be tested for my kindergarten readiness, but the meeting went well nonetheless. Since I couldn't speak English, instead of an interview, I was given a pile of wooden puzzles to complete as I pleased.
The one that stands out in my mind depicted a family having a picnic at a park. It was a puzzle designed for little kids, so the individual background pieces were large versions of traditional jigsaw puzzle pieces. The different family members were all their own stand-alone pieces, and each one had a red knob in the middle to make it easy to hold. (Here's an example if you're having trouble imagining the knobs.)
Tasked with completing the puzzle, I decided to put all the background pieces together first. I figured it'd be easier to tell where each family member went once the background was in place. I already had a penchant for jigsaw puzzles at this point, so I made quick work of the picnic scene.
After that, the woman tasked with my assessment began asking me questions about the scene. I didn't understand what she was saying since she was speaking English, but she was incredibly patient with me and mimed things for me as she spoke. By the end of the day, I had learned the basic words that describe a stereotypical American nuclear family: dad, mom, brother, sister, and dog.
Like many children, I felt scared and nervous on my first day of school. The fact that I couldn't speak English loomed much larger in my mind as a negative characteristic than it ever had before in my short life. But once I had been dropped off in the classroom, I noticed that most of my classmates were just walking around, waving to each other, and saying hi. I realized that I could pretty easily do what they were doing and shyly followed suit. Luckily for me, my actions produced great results, and by the end of the day, I was giving all of my classmates individual waves of good-bye while also saying bye.
And that's how I became interested in language and how people use words. I've always enjoyed observing people, so coming to terms with the fact that our world is full of individuals who speak different languages really opened my eyes to the potential for self-expression through language.
Now let's move on to point B, the bit about how I love burying my nose in books. (This'll be shorter, I promise.)
In first grade, my peers and I began reading short, simple books, and I immediately fell in love with the activity. It didn't matter that I wasn't great at it and that I struggled mightily with pronunciation.
Every night, my teacher would let us choose one book from the classroom library to take home and read to our parents. We were given time in class to practice reading our books before the end of the school day so that we could ask questions about any words that confused us. Knowing that many students at the school had immigrant parents, our teacher didn't expect our parents to correct us as we read the stories. Instead, they just had to sign our reading logs to confirm that they had listened to us read our chosen books.
The most challenging book I ever took home was one about teeth. Although it was a very short book, it was filled with words that were tough for me, such as incisor, bicuspid, and primary. During our reading time that day, I went up to my teacher over and over again to find out how to pronounce various terms. Then I'd go back to my seat and silently chant the words to myself, doing my best to commit them to memory.
That night, my reading of the tooth book to my mom was far from perfect. I was still struggling with some of the vocabulary, but I got through it all the same. My mom signed my reading log, and I ended up keeping the book for multiple nights until I could read it perfectly.
Mastering that particular book opened up the floodgates for my love of reading. In short order I discovered that while adults were a great resource for pronunciation, dictionaries were magical, and I could learn a ton from reading whatever material I could get my hands on. Be it fiction or nonfiction, my curiosity was piqued, and my imagination soared.
So that's how I came to appreciate people's usage of language, and that's why I continue to enjoying thinking about words and how they're used. And these days, while it's a shame to admit in some respects, English is most certainly my primary language; I actually now speak Thai with an accent. I don't think that's quite what my mom had in mind, but overall, I believe she's satisfied with the results.
What's up with the name Vee-moo-tee-non?
On a more entertaining note, I decided to go with the name Vee-moo-tee-non so that you would know how to pronounce my last name in English. Congratulations! Although we will likely never meet in person, you're at least now able to properly say my name with your inner voice.
You see, in my experience, I have one of those last names that scares people when they initially see it. Although it's pretty obvious by sight that I'm of Asian descent, it's often hard for people to guess where my family emigrated from.
When I was growing up, most people assumed I was Chinese. There were hardly any Asian people in my area to begin with, so it was really difficult to explain to others that I was neither Chinese nor Japanese. When I told them I was Thai, most of the time, the follow-up question was, what the heck is that? Thai food wasn't as prevalent then either. But still I would try the classic approach: "You know, like Thai food? I'm a Thai person. My family is from a place called Thailand."
Alas, my efforts were usually for naught, and whomever I was talking to would typically continue giving me a blank stare. Then I'd move on to explaining how Thailand was a country close to Vietnam. If I was lucky, the comment would conjure up so vague association in the curious person's mind, and we'd end our conversation with a lackluster oh. (On a side note, I think I met exactly two other Thai students from kindergarten through twelfth grade.)
Once I went off to college, I met numerous people who were familiar with the various Southeast Asian countries, but my last name still intimidated many of them. By Western standards, my last name is long, but it's just short enough to not look like a typical Thai last name.
At the end of the day, the clearly foreign nature of Vimuttinan has contributed to honing my observation skills and interest in language. Although I take great care to make sure my last name is spelled correctly whenever I have to submit it somewhere, I'm always amazed by how the name gets transformed down the line. The letters l, w, and z regularly end up making an appearance while I often lose my v and one t.
And most of the time, I feel bad for the stranger tasked with saying my last name out loud. As a matter of fact, I've gotten very good at anticipating the moment. My last name has been slaughtered in countless ways; the most amusing deliveries are the ones where the person who is supposed to pronounce the name has given up entirely from the start, begins with vee, and then finishes by mumbling some gibberish. For my part, I simply make my presence known when I see the look of fear in the speaker's eyes and hear vee.
But Vimuttinan isn't all that tough to pronounce once it's been broken down, right? C'mon, say it with me: vee-moo-tee-non. And just like that, you've learned something new today. If you've made it this far, thanks for reading! You're a trouper.