Am I Crazy to Study Vietnamese?

Đi học về—home from school—and the pros and cons of multi-tasking

This past weekend, my family attended a concert at a local Catholic church with a Vietnamese congregation. It was a fund-raiser featuring the legendary Khánh Ly, who, up until the Fall of Saigon, was akin to the Joan Baez of Vietnam. Her collaboration with the protest-songwriter Trịnh Công Sơn is still beloved by that generation of Vietnamese.

So there I was in a church basement with my family and 200-plus Vietnamese Americans. There was Khánh Ly, looking amazingly good for a woman in her mid-sixties, belting out those beautiful songs. She joked with the audience, accepting roses from her fans. She stood before multicolored tinsel streamers, a mirror ball flashing rainbow light.

I’d been nervous about attending this concert. After months of studying the language, I had performance anxiety about speaking Vietnamese. This turned out to be silly; we were in a suburb outside Boston. Yet I’d hoped to follow what was spoken on stage, if not sung.

Instead the words swirled over my head, out of reach. I felt like a frustrated cat, batting at flecks of light—or a little girl, trying hard to be an adult.

The revolving mirror ball, the language I don’t quite understand, are emblematic of so much of my multi-tasking life. My attention divides and divides again. I’m not ADD in any clinical sense, but one book that’s become a touchstone for me in the last few years has been Edward Hallowell’s CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap!

Hallowell, a psychiatrist who lives in the Boston area, popularized ADD and ADHD as diagnoses, and has written a number of well-known books about coping with these disorders. But in CrazyBusy, he goes a step farther, arguing that our multi-tasking, post-millennial, “CrackBerry” era fosters a form of cultural ADD. In that sense, we’re all suffering.

I agree. And yet a funny thing has happened this fall, as I juggle more balls than ever, and I live with the consequences of an absurd decision to study Vietnamese for a second year in a row. I’ve started wondering if divided attention is a bad thing.

Most of us middle-aged geezers complain about memory problems. It’s as if you hit forty and BAM! You can’t remember your friends’ names or how to spell words like gizzard geezer.

Most parents of young children, regardless of age, also complain about memory lapses. You’re sleep-deprived, you’re required to track dervishes in diapers, your vocabulary gets reduced to Elmo levels of comprehension. If you’re working, you’re subject to all manner of interruptions at home and the office.

As I sat down to write this, for example, my son Nick barged in and said, “Can I show you my armor?” He proceeded to put on a purple-felt apron from his dress-up box, securing it in back with a set of numchucks (string-connected sticks usually whirled around in a deadly fashion).

He placed a napkin over his head, crowning that with a robin-hood-style hat—the complete medieval samurai warrior. It was impressive.

Where was I?

I’ve been hit with a double-whammy, it seems: I’m way over forty with a seven-year-old child. (My own parents are also quite ill, but that’s another story.) I’m back to writing full-time.

Then there’s my Continuing Vietnamese class. I started studying Vietnamese because my son was born in Vietnam. (I’ve told some of this saga before in print: Click here for the long version. Also see my post “For Shame.”) But my original reasoning, with its whiff of selflessness—I’ll help Nick get in touch with his birth culture—no longer makes sense. I’m proceeding because of my own arcane interests and a stubborn need to prove myself.

Still, I almost dropped out at the beginning of this semester. It’s a very small class of four students, two of whom are fluent speakers, and a dedicated teacher. There’s absolutely no place for me to hide.

I have good days, especially when I’ve done the homework. But more often, they’re bad. Very bad. Last week, I missed half of one class because my son was home sick; I arrived at another class with the tail-end of a migraine. I couldn’t remember simple grammatical constructions. My stumblings were mixed with long, awkward silences in which I’m sure you could hear the gears grinding. I kept mumbling, “Em chưa hiểu.” (“I don’t understand yet.”)

The week before, I found myself confusing the use of “open” and “closed” in English when distracted by my son. Now all my confusion of verbs of motion and prepositions in Vietnamese seems to be transferring to my native language.

Most of each class is conducted in Vietnamese; I understand about 50 percent. My worst moments are when I’m asked direct questions in which my comprehension is zero. The words seem to bounce off me like a handful of pennies thrown at a mailbox.

At the last class, the name for the Red River—sông Hồng—near Hanoi, a name I know well, kept tripping me up.

There’s no doubt that some of my struggles are physiologically caused. Many researchers now believe that what we geezers really experience is failing attention. In “The Midlife Memory Meltdown,” an article for O magazine adapted from her book on the topic, journalist Cathryn Jakobson Ramin says of our aging brains:

“When the frontal lobes are in top form, they’re adept at figuring out what’s important for the job at hand and what’s irrelevant blather; a sort of neural “bouncer” automatically keeps out unnecessary information. In middle age, that bouncer takes a lot of coffee breaks. Instead of focusing on the report that’s due, you find yourself wondering what’s for dinner. Even background noise—the phone chatter of the coworker in the next cubicle—can impair your ability to concentrate on the task before you.”

The thing is, I’ve always been like this. I’m great at synthesizing ideas, but I’ve never been good at memorizing facts. Historical dates elude me; foreign vocabulary evaporates as soon as I’m not immersed in it.

I’m also a life-long insomniac—an Olympic champion of sleeplessness—so much so that my husband thinks Barenaked Ladies wrote “Who Needs Sleep?” for me. Lack of sleep is a major cause of memory problems.

But the ideas! My many proliferating story ideas! Here’s where I shine, and sleeplessness doesn’t seem to slow me down. It’s no accident that I’m running four blogs now—one in an editorial capacity for the Women’s Review of Books with multiple authors on various deadlines—and writing print articles and prepping for teaching my magazine class in the spring.

A few years back—say, 2006, when CrazyBusy first came out—this would have seemed even crazier to me than it does now. Yet despite the fact that my brain isn’t getting any younger, I feel more alive. I’ve gotten better at mental juggling. I won’t claim I’m more organized, but my constantly dividing and skipping attention seems to be sparking me as a writer. I find myself excited by ideas all the time.

In part, that’s because I have more control over my own writing and its distribution—a definite silver lining in these cathartic days in the publishing industry. Blogging encourages creativity on the fly.

But the study of Vietnamese also seems to be feeding my passion for words. Just the poetry of Trịnh Công Sơn’s songs, the longing for peace and a lost Saigon, testify to so much rich complexity. “Xin cho tôi” (“Please give me” or “May I”) ends with “May I ask for just one day.”

There’s another benefit, too: Experiencing bouts of incomprehension in class takes me back viscerally to what it’s like to be a child. It’s rare at my age to be humbled in quite this way. In Vietnamese class, I’m always being corrected and looking for approval; I feel by turns resentful, defiant, ashamed, and excited. I’m distracted by big booming life outside the window.

More than Vietnamese culture, then, I’m re-learning the culture of childhood. I’m that little girl listening to Khánh Ly, grasping for flecks of light. For a writer-parent, that may be the best training of all.

In CrazyBusy, Hallowell himself distinguishes between the “stress” that gets your juices flowing and the anxiety-producing mess of having too many commitments:

“If you’re busy doing what matters to you, then being busy is bliss. You’ve found a rhythm for your life that works for you. This world is bursting with possibilities; its energy can be contagious. If you catch the bug, you want to jump out of bed each day and get busy, not because you are run ragged by details or because you are keeping the wolf from your door, but because you are in love with this fast life.”

I’m often grumpy about familial distractions; I long for the kinds of writer’s retreats I used to take at colonies or in cabins by myself. The real world can get me down, no question, but I know my own work has taken off since I became a mother, despite the additional juggling.

Even the wisest of us doesn’t know everything. And perhaps there’s a real benefit to failing and stumbling and smacking up against our limitations. For writers, being in control is not necessarily a good thing.

This makes the whole concept of attention “deficit” wrong in metaphysical terms. Maybe we’re all dumb mailboxes, pennies bouncing off us in this dervish of a universe. Instead of simply coping, maybe we need to accept the pennies, the flecks of rainbow light, our disorganized version of manna from heaven.

What about you? Do you struggle with divided attention? Do you ever find it a blessing?

Where was I?