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?

12 thoughts on “Am I Crazy to Study Vietnamese?

  1. Ooh,Martha, I read your writing and wonder what the heck I'm doing. Yes, I, too, am questioning multi-tasking. It no longer works for me. I'm looking at all the things I love and having to make choices. Which do I love more? Because I can't do everything. Not if I want to do what I do as well as I can. So instead of singing in a chorus and a trio, I'm taking a sabbatical from the chorus. Like that. Great topic.

  2. You're too kind, Karen. I think you know what you're doing with your writing, and you're probably making necessary choices regarding the things you love to do. I'll be doing some more writing this week about multi-tasking and writing. Stay tuned.

  3. My middle-aged brain also goes off on many tangents and I truly mourn my lack of focus. One of the things I love about writing is that when things are really going well, I get into that state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls 'flow.' I love that creative high. That is when I am most focused.

    Given that I spend most of my life in an office, my time is not my own, much of my multi-tasking is done out of boredom. I can barely stand to stay on the task at hand when there are Facebook, Twitter, the New York Times online, and several blog sites to check in on.

    Lately, however, I've been wondering if that divided attention — spent on outside interests hasn't helped boost my work performance. So, maybe, Martha, you make a good point.

    And writing this comment makes me wonder if the divided attention phenomena you write about would make an interesting article about how online browsing in the workplace might not be so bad for productivity after all. Aha!

  4. Martha, if you are crazy than so am I. "A handful of pennies bouncing off a mailbox" that's a good one; that's me at Korean class on any given Saturday morning. In my case it's not geezer brain, but "crazy busy" brain. In fact, I'd like to read that book, but when will I find the time?

    An amusing side story – last week my Korean school had a used book sale. I picked up the Korean version of a "Lil People" board book about pre-school for my son. When I got home and looked at it, I realized I could read less than 50% of it! Humbling. Very humbling.


  5. Allison, it's definitely humbling. Maybe that's good for us. No, I know it's good for us.

    Yesterday my Vietnamese class was fascinating; I wasn't completely behind the curve; it felt worth it.

    By the way: One of the best things about *CrazyBusy* is that it's written in these short little chapters—perfect for attention-scattered readers. I highly recommend it as a self-help book that is truly helpful for analyzing what's important in your life.

  6. hi martha: a productive insomniac…now that's providence! and i agree, it's not the mania of the schedule, but the rush you get from it. if you have a passion for what you do, it's almost a relief to turn to it and let yourself get lost. for me, who like you, is an aging-brain mother, i revel in switching gears. i love multi-tasking and knowing i have more things to do (albeit not always very productively). but i feel alive and engaged on multiple fronts.

    and yes, the humility of learning a second language when others are telling you it is time to put your mind out to pasture: thrilling when it clicks and mortifying when you sit there and all you can do is stare blankly back. what do all those incomprehensible sounds mean?? yes humbling, but it's also good to have a reality check.

    i love how you put yourself out there!! fran

  7. Hi Martha,
    That first picture at the top of your post is hilarious! And yes, I think we're all multi-tasking to greater and lesser degrees of success. I can definitely relate.

    If you can, don't give up on Vietnamese just yet. My 9 year old daughter is finally developing a level in proficiency in Mandarin where she can speak in basic sentences. I've studied Mandarin off and on over the years and, just this past Sunday we began conversing together in basic (very basic!) Mandarin. She got so excited. It clearly meant a great deal to her.

    Good luck with the juggling!

  8. Thanks for the following on my blog.

    Divided attention? I think that is something that goes with the territory of being a MOM, right? If I didn't have divided attention then my kids would be able to trash the house while I cooked dinner LOL 🙂

  9. Hi Martha–

    Great post! As I'm now solidly into my 40's I notice with some alarm that life seems to be going faster and faster. Wait! I want to say, time-out! When am I going to acomplish all the things I still want to do? Between kids/family and work, there's not much time left over.

    I've tried to cope by stripping away as much clutter as I can, which for me means trying to minimize the (mostly) material excess in my life. My Dad is famously disdainful of material possesions, when I was a kid I thought this characteristic of his was kind of amusing; now I can relate more and more. You only get so much "juice"–so much time, so much energy–so you come to realize you have to make decisions about how to spend your moments, which to me feel increasingly precious as the kids grow and I get older.

    Last year I picked up the bestselling "Getting Things Done" to see if I could improve my methods and organize my life better, so to glean a little more time for pursuing long-held goals (for me, writing and music). My daughter Maya, eight at the time, saw me reading it and asked about it. I told her I was trying to figure out how to do things quicker and more effectively so I could get better at getting stuff done, and the book might show me how.

    "Does it tell you how to finish reading a dumb boring book?" she asked, and I had to laugh. She was making fun of me, but it was true, I had been having trouble actually getting through the book, it had sat on my dresser for months, in the pile of all the other loose ends of my life, like an accusation. I finally ditched it about halfway through.

    I like what you quoted about busyness being bliss, if you are busy doing what you love. Maybe if we are busy and engaged in something productive, and trying to be the best we can be for our families, then we have to accept a certain level of disorganization in our lives. I wish I had the answers!


  10. and one more thing I meant to say…

    words bouncing off you "like a handful of pennies thrown at a mailbox"–

    what a great, great string of words–I can see and hear it–a perfect description


  11. Ken: Loved that story about your daughter and the
    "dumb boring book." It's so true, we're always forcing ourselves "to get organized" when the natural state of family life may be disorganized. On good days, I embrace that; on bad, I'm out buying more dumb boring books.

  12. you ARE crazy for studying Vietnamese but i totally admire your ferocity and tenacity for doing so!!! keep up with the great work!!!

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