I did something out of character a few days ago. Something not just my friends and I, but so much of the community around here have been taught implicitly from childhood not to do—but simply to perceive and understand. A habit we’ve perpetuated and reinforced, nay, wear as a badge of honor even.
I simply said, “Thank you,” to a few of my closest friends.
Without direct cause. Without social compulsion. Outside the rehearsed rhythm of daily life. Without much reason but that it felt right. That it deserved to be said and that they deserved to hear it.
It felt out of place. But it also felt necessary.
It’s often bothered me that something so simple yet meaningful is also something so difficult to do. Why is that?
We feel this challenge as Americans, no doubt. Finding the right words and moment to show appreciation is ever a challenge. Nonetheless, there are many opportunities that arise where we could squeeze in that show of appreciation. But they often come so quickly and pass so suddenly that we miss our opportunity, right? Persisting in too many interactions are these moments where that aching flame in your soul unexpectedly ignites, sparkling with eager desire for earnest expression, but is quickly extinguished by rushing waves of words and thoughts, washing again and again onto the next topic of conversation, ceaselessly.
There’s always another topic.
So time and again, we miss the timing to squeeze in thanks. But how about the moments where we are able to grasp those fleeting opportunities?
Do these moments count: where those two words are dropped carelessly in between scripted acts of kindness in the hallway at work? Or how about these: when we open the door for a stranger and they throw those words out under their breath as if by way of cursing? Or any of the thanks we hurriedly rush in our public exchanges, for that matter?
How does it feel to receive those types of thanks? Do we truly feel the warmth of gratitude returned, or does it continue to desensitize us to the act altogether?
When do we actually break out of our daily rhythm, stop, look the person in the eye, and say firmly, slowly, sincerely: “Thank you.”
You see, what I’ve noticed as one of the biggest difference between American culture and Vietnamese-American culture is that the former heavily saturates nearly every interaction with “thank yous” and “you’re welcomes”—as if even kindness may be processed as fast-food—while the latter, at least around our local community, can in many instances become devoid of it. And I indicate Vietnamese-American culture in particular, because that in itself is quite unique, and not to be mistaken with “Vietnamese culture” (whatever the hell that means, given the extent of our diaspora), especially when we speak about this particular Vietnamese-American community in Orange County, CA.
Nonetheless, being wedged in between those two worlds—between numbing indulgence and aching abstinence—is quite an intriguing experience. I say a million thanks a day without even a tenth of the weight of the thanks I gave my friends the other day. Perhaps the extra weight was gained over time—almost two decades worth of weight-gain per person actually.
But that is not to say, we’ve never thanked one another. We have. I have. Many times. For every act of kindness, small or life-changing.
Yet there was something about thanking them without direct cause and reason that felt so gratifying. I simply wanted them to understand that I appreciated them. Nothing more. I didn’t want nor need anything else from them for those thanks to bear significance.
Perhaps that’s an intrinsic part of my sense of satisfaction—the uncanny ability to express silence in that moment. The ability to say words that in and of themselves hold meaning, without any prerequisite and not contingent upon anything else.
The comedic part in all this is that, the closer our bonds grew, the longer we remained friends, the more we did for each other, and the more we felt that we owed one another, the harder it became to give thanks.
It’s ironic, mind-boggling even, but true.
For many that I know, thanks are considered unnecessary, an insult rather, if expressed in vain.
That’s not an exaggeration! You’d easily get a response such as, “Anh em mà.” The literal translation won’t suffice here. But this phrase can be understood more aptly as “we’re brothers; no need to say stupid unnecessary shit,” and typically is accompanied by some teasing and mocking smiles. It’s the reinforcement of an implied value we learned and understood growing up, while navigating the emotions contained between unnarrated acts of affection: actions not words.
We’re constantly taught to show, not tell, to the extent where telling becomes taboo. As if the verbal expression of said action diminishes its intrinsic value. As if being able to explain the motivation for your steps alters the path or weight of your journey.
In a sense, I could understand though. As a community, I’ve seen those close to me be quite wary of fancy words and of people who may shape relationships and understandings through rhetoric only. There’s indeed a need to walk the walk, so to speak. But overzealousness towards any extreme does create some issues.
Perhaps it’s a cultural thing. The Vietnamese language itself along with the accompanying social interactions form a highly complex way of thinking about and understanding others. Not by way of grammar or rituals, however. No, inconsistent grammatical structure is more an English thing. The Vietnamese language is straightforward in terms of structure and grammar. It’s the intonations and dialects that will trip you up.
And here’s the kicker: no one speaks the language as it’s written, in daily life, unless it’s a public address or formal event. But that’s not all!
Vietnamese is complicated due to how indirect each single interaction may be. The language itself is spoken through constant use of metaphor, indirect references, and abbreviations of entire phrases and stories. Likewise, social interactions are mediated heavily via an understanding of idioms, proverbs, and implicit cues. To be fluent truly in Vietnamese, you must so too be fluent in its culture, traditions, literature, and history.
There’s such a profound fixation on the unsaid—the silence whereby meaning is kept hidden yet simultaneously illuminated via indirect allusions—that I feel that our modes of expression are altered to the core as well as a result.
In other words, if you didn’t already guess, Vietnamese people may secretly expect everyone to be mind readers. In a good way, promise! To insiders, an understanding of the implicit meanings behind words, references, social cues, and (perhaps most problematically) emotions should be maintained, lest you unwittingly steer right past the iceberg of meanings beneath the surface (idk why Titanic came to mind here).
To outsiders, the derived meanings, unsaid yet birthed, in between clashes of literal expressions may appear to be creatio ex nihilo—creation out of nothing. Impossible? Perhaps. Unreasonable? Sometimes. Amusing? Always.
Yes, it could be pretty perplexing from an American perspective. Trust me. I know. I was raised in the states, and boy was it fun having conversations with my parents growing up, while still conceptualizing the differences between the two languages, not to mention the cultures. Funny stories for another day!
On the other hand, though, there’s indeed a sense of beauty in the Vietnamese language and accompanying social interactions. Take for instance, with my writing, there are times in which I feel as if it’s a quest to find an apt metaphor–a way to express meanings clearly yet naturally. But with Vietnamese, I’d be lucky to escape its grasp and find literal meaning without first deciphering the labyrinth of implications. Whereas in English, there is a much clearer divide between the figurative and the literal, that line is blurred often or sometimes non-existent in Vietnamese.
To take it a step further, I would even posit that a new form of beauty arises in the “unspoken connection” that is felt in confidence among those “in the know”; there’s indeed a special feeling, an indescribable bond that permeates the space left empty purposely by silence. Come on, you know what I mean: think about those fanciful depictions of “destiny,” “fate,” “coincidence,” or “serendipity” in literature or media—they all rely upon the forfeiture of human control as well as the omission of words. If you don’t believe in those romanticized concepts, think more practically about shared inside-jokes that inspire a particular sense of giddiness.
There’s a lasting sense of beauty within that connection, arising from lingering words and feelings left unspoken, yet felt and understood deeply between friends, family, and loved ones. In our case here, with Vietnamese, the language acts as a vehicle that connects its speakers to a larger body of implicit cultural understandings; in a sense, it expands the space for “inside-jokes” beyond that which is shared between the few to a more collective cultural dimension. When my family used to praise younger generations for being able to “nghe một hiểu mười”—literally, hearing one thing but understanding ten—they’re not simply complimenting the kids’ skills of deduction, but also for their developing connection to the iceberg of cultural meanings. Indeed, there’s something to be admired about bonds that transcend words and explanation on a cultural level, just as there is a profound satisfaction in finding people who “just get it” on a personal level.
But conversely, a potential disconnection from those implied bonds creates space for even deeper misunderstandings. There’s much to be said about how this implied cultural space ties into the so-called process of “assimilation” for a Vietnamese-American, and how the mediating of said space informs generational gaps and ties between the older and younger generations of immigrant families as well as how it shapes the formation of communities. But my Muse is going to take off its academic hat for now—maybe more on this in future posts!
You get the point, though. Returning to our initial thought, saying thanks can be challenging, and there are multitudes of factors—both positive and negative—that may lead to its repression.
While there’s indeed a profound beauty in the feeling or perhaps the pride that arises from the ability to say, “We never had to say it. We just knew. It was simply felt,” the old adage still echoes soundly, that is, there is no medicine for regret, especially in the case of things once within your power to affect. While I still stand by my belief that the unspoken words within “inside-jokes” may embody some of the most profound connections between people and communities, I’ve come to understand also that, at the end of the day, there are notable experiences that may transcend culture and ideals altogether in life. And once we encounter said experiences, we may begin to wonder, “Was it enough? Could I have said or done more?”
Remember how I mentioned that a disconnection from implied bonds may amplify misunderstandings? Good! Let’s take a little stroll along a more morbid path.
I can’t tell you how many funerals I’ve been to, where words once muted become unsilenced through tears. Gratitude buried so deep under pressure that it erupts unexpectedly when the earth finally reveals a sliver of light. So much repressed gratitude that it encompasses all present in chilling heat, remolding, albeit temporarily, bonds and ties previously broken. I’m sure many of you can relate to those feelings of loss and regret.
Perhaps the path for exploring that form of regret heightened by words left unsaid is best paved by quoting Jack Kornfield, “The trouble is, you think you have time.” It’s in those waking moments of realization that we don’t have time that triggers profound regret in face of loss—regardless of the fanciful beliefs or values we previously held.
So we begin to think, do we have to be reminded of our own mortality before we’re able to break out of daily rhythm to say thank you, simply, to express unconditional truth and gratitude?
There are so many things we may leave to the decay of time. Some things may be laid to rest forever. But thanks and affection withheld never mix well in the dirt with soiled regret. It always, always finds a way out and back to you, but not in the form that you buried it—even if buried with good intentions and grace.
So let’s complicate our romanticized notion of beauty within “inside-jokes” a bit further. How do these types of bonds hold up in the most trying forms of human experience and loss?
For the most part, not that loss is ever easy, but the feeing of loss may be amplified further, from what I’ve witnessed. We often feel that there could have been more we could have said to friends, family, or loved ones before passing, even when words were not withheld. But consider those that have treasured words of love and gratitude in silence for years, believing that an opportunity will inevitably come where words will flow both naturally and meaningfully.
But when does this moment arrive precisely, if it ever does?
We humans have such an intriguing relation to the concept of time: with everything we do in daily life, it always feels like we have more time, until suddenly, the second kitchen timer goes ham. Then we find ourselves feverishly dashing into the kitchen only to clean up burnt scraps. In realizing our potential loss, we dig around with desperate eyes for anything to salvage, while mentally berating ourselves for not finding the motivation to check when the first timer went off. As if burnt food is merely a concept when we felt that we had more time, but when the clock stops without our notice, all of a sudden we desperately cling onto hope for any tangible remnants.
Perhaps this is what we mean when we say, “shit got real”—when our sense of reality finally catches up to our perception of time. We’re happy to float along through life’s motions as if time and choices are merely concepts. We become detached from reality, slipping into the currents of time, in the same way that a drop of water loses itself in the ocean. Until finally, something heavy enough crashes into our reality; we then awaken, as if from a nightmare, drenched in cold sweat. Except the emotions linger into reality, and begins to reshape our former notions of self. That’s when we start reaching for something tangible to provide relief—anything, everything we can hold and feel and use as grounding for stability.
It’s precisely in those moments where we begin to feel a loss of balance that we seek comfort in the familiar. It’s where we begin to trace in our minds the words left unsaid, but find instead only empty spaces occupied by silence. Though we feel from that silence a colorful array of emotions, we can’t quite find that tangible something we were hoping to grasp firmly to regain footing.
That’s the conflict I see time and again in the eyes of friends, family, and loved ones during those moments of loss.
Though the profound connections built upon silence and found within “inside-jokes” are beautiful indeed, their existence relies heavily upon the space created in-between those who share said bonds. But once we lose someone who has stood as a pillar within that space, a valuable portion of silence departs with them. So we may be left grasping for something in a void that is not quite empty; we feel that something special lies within, but our hands return with disappointment. This is because we lose that source of affirmation that’s so crucial to implied understandings. So in those moments that follow, we overcompensate, as if possessed by heavenly muses, and begin filling the cold and empty spaces with intended words, forming from lingering breaths of warm air unuttered poetry.
Now I’m not naive enough to say that words spoken are the solution, nor that verbal expression cures feelings of loss and regret. Come on, you know by now that I’m only here to burst your bubble! Nothing truly alleviates feelings brought about in the wake of loss and regret.
Nevertheless, perhaps selfishly, timely words formed and gifted to those you love may help ease latent doubts that echo within your mind, questioning maybe, just maybe, that they may not have known fully how much you cared for them. But if that’s too idealistic still, find solace in the fact that you refused to let those you care about part in the silence of night, bidding farewell instead in the warmth of laughter and celebration, filling that potential void with lingering echoes of gratitude.
So let’s break that cycle, shall we?
To return to where we started: Thank you.
To my brothers and sisters who inspired these reflections: we know, we’ve always known. But memory is a fickle thing. She sways with time and dances to tunes of circumstance. Sometimes, she’ll jest with silence, filling it with beguiling suggestions. Instead, let’s give our own voice to the melodies awaiting patiently within those treasured empty spaces. Sing the songs that we feel should be sung and let them drown out any trace of muddled memory.
Though there may be shared emotions and truths that may continue to be enshrined in the beauty of silence, we must do better not to forget that there are certain stories that need to be immortalized in more literal expressions as well. Write it clearly. Say it loudly. Not to validate its truth. Nor to dilute its significance.
But rather, so that in the echoes of shared affection, we may laugh in the face of regret. So that against the tune of fickle memory, in knowing smiles, we toast with our best drinks that have been tucked away too long in treasured cellars. So that on nights where the skies have become blinded in forgetfulness, we recall the familiar stars in our hearts that silently guide us home.