Wednesday, December 2, 2009

America, the beautiful mix-breed, the ugliest of massacres

"Mỹ lai" is one of the first words I ever heard. It's the Vietnamese phrase for "AmerAsian," which is what many people called me when I was a baby and a child and an adolescent, growing up in Viet Nam during the war. The many people were well-meaning when they used the term. Perhaps they were well-meaning. The connotations and the meaningful possibilities can be very hateful.

The last time another person called me "mỹ lai" was well after the war, in America. I was a graduate student in linguistics at a university in Texas. In the weight room on campus one day, I overheard two Vietnamese American students doing what linguists call "code-mixing." One asked the other, "Bao nhiêu reps cho cứng?" And I wondered to myself whether a single sentence could be an instance of code-mixing as the sociolinguist prof and the textbook written by another sociolinguist had defined it, or whether this was just bad Vietnamese-English-Vietnamese. When one of those students left the room, the other just happened to come over to where I was to ask me in English how to use the weight machine I was on. I answered in Vietnamese, and without a reply, the young man did an about-face and walked away from me. I switched to English to explain how it was I spoke Vietnamese. He explained to me that he assumed I was American, but when he heard me speaking Vietnamese he thought I was "mỹ lai."  (He did not want to talk with a "mỹ lai.")

"Mỹ lai" is not a pretty word. If you translate it into English, then it's usually either "AmerAsian" or the name of a village in Vietnam where a massacre of innocents took place by American military action.

We explain the former translation of "mỹ lai" by remembering how American military men would impregnate Vietnamese women and then abandon them to the scorn of the general Vietnamese population. I know many Amerasians who were children in orphanages in Vietnam and some of whom were as misunderstood growing up with a mixed-up identity in America.

The latter translation of "Mỹ Lai" is a transliteration. As such, the phrase is a name, a "proper noun" now, an abstraction of the sounds of the two Vietnamese syllables in flat English tones that sound like this: "the Mee Lie massacre."  What does murder and rape and a gang rape sound like?  So we read about it now in history books, or we remember it as President Obama explains last night at West Point in America how the Afghanistan war will not become another "Vietnam."

What we don't think about much is that "Mỹ" means "beautiful" or "fine." And that "lai" means "mix-breed" or "half-breed" or "little ugly mongrel bastard."

This is a funny mix of syllables in a mono-syllabic language. But the syllables "A - Mer - Ic - A" are a funny combination too. John Everett-Heath explains them on page 18 of his Concise Dictionary of World Place-Names:
The name America was first applied to South America in 1507 by Martin Waldseemüller (c.1470–c.1521), a German geographer and cartographer at the court of the Duke of Lorraine, in honour of an Italian (Florentine) explorer, Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) (Latinized in Waldseemüller's Cosmographiae Introductio to Americus Vesputius). Vespucci made a landfall in modern Guyana in 1499 and then went south. This first voyage was with Spanish support, but his subsequent voyage in 1501–2 along the coast of Brazil had the backing of the Portuguese. Vespucci came to the conclusion that during the voyages he had undertaken in 1499–1502 a 'New World' had been discovered rather than the east coast of Asia.
Notice that "Latinized" is Everett-Heath's way of saying "transliterated."  In other words, a German takes the sounds of the name of an Italian and abstracts it as Germanized Italian.  Spanish and Portuguese borrow this method of naming and renaming their 'new world.'  Never mind the names of the people and places already in that world.

Another funny thing is that peoples not "discovered" by Amerigo Vespucci have another name for this 'new world' named after him.  That is, the peoples of "the east coast of Asia" tend to call America "beautiful."

That's right.  The Germans call it "Amerika"; the Spanish and Portuguese "América"; the French "Amérique"; the Italians and English "America"; the Israelis "אמריקה‬"; and the Palestinians and Saudi Arabians and Afghanis "أمريكا."

But the Japanese call it "米" - which means "rice" (that beautiful stuff grown on abundant fields in far-reaching open land)
And the Chinese call it "美"; and the Koreans call it "미"; and the Vietnamese call it "Mỹ."  Which means "beautiful."

Why let the ironic playfulness of these words get lost in translation or in transliteration?  Beauty can and does certainly imply things ironically not beautiful.  Words -- especially words like "Mỹ" and "lai" and "mỹ lai" -- can be mixed-breed bastards that make their users who long for purity look ugly.  The "translation" Amerasian doesn't get the half of it.  And the flat-tone English transliteration "My Lai" (as a nicer short-hand for the massacre) hardly conveys all the ugliness of one of the first words I ever heard.

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