A Toad Hopping through a House in the Mekong Delta

Toad Bumps

When my husband was in middle school, he tried to get the neighborhood boys to help him catch toads to make toad soup. The other kids were scared to touch toads because they thought they would get warts. I heard that myth growing up, too. But in Vietnamese the word for warts even has toad…

Taro Leaves

Water Pouring On Taro Leaves and Other Vietnamese Sayings

Here are some Vietnamese sayings and colloquialisms I’ve picked up through the years from my husband and his family: Criticisms Talking to you is like water pouring on taro leaves. (Nước đổ lá môn.) Going in one ear and out the other. Nothing sticks. Chicken head, duck butt. Something that is trying to be something it’s not.…


Running Tables

While waiting to get into a popular phở restaurant in San Jose, my daughter tried to read the sign taped to the window. “Dad, what does that say?” she asked. “It’s a help wanted sign,” he said. My daughter studied the sign to see if she recognized any words. “What does cần mean?” “Need. It says they need a…

Cafe with free WiFi in Vietnam

Soul of the Internet

“I don’t like the Vietnamese term for the Internet,” Lượng said one night at dinner. During my husband’s childhood in Vietnam, there was no Internet, so it’s only been on recent trips back that he’s heard the Vietnamese word for it. “They don’t say Internet?” I asked. Vietnamese-American’s sprinkle English words like Internet into conversations…

18th century Japanese drawing of people capturing fireflies

Asian Cha | Flickering Little Lights

My creative nonfiction piece “Flickering Little Lights” appears in the September 2015 issue of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. Cha is an award-winning English online literary journal based in Hong Kong. “Fireflies are called flickering lights (đom đóm) in Vietnamese. As a child in the Mekong Delta, my husband saw them darting around the …” Read the rest here.…

The ladies room in a Little Saigon restaurant has fresh flowers and is stocked with personal grooming items like razors, facial wipes, deodorant, and make-up.

Eyelash Fighting

The restroom in the restaurant we stopped at in Little Saigon had everything you might need, including fresh roses and false eyelashes. I took a photo to show my husband. The multipack of false eyelashes hanging in a clear bag on the wall reminded him that a Vietnamese phrase for flirting is đá lông nheo…

Fruit from a mangrove apple (cheap tree).

What Is a Cheap Tree?

Ever since my husband first started telling me the stories of his childhood in Vietnam, he talked about cheap trees. When his family flees to Ship Island (Cồn Tàu) after the Tết Offensive: “Má points to an island in front of us that’s surrounded by cheap trees. The trees look like they’re growing out of the…


Onomatopoeia — Animal Sounds in Vietnamese

When I took Spanish, I was startled to learn that a knock on the door was toc toc and dogs barked guau guau. How could sounds be different in another language? Weren’t onomatopoeia supposed to represent how we actually heard them? But once I accepted that everything sounds different in another language I was enchanted. Upon meeting…

Fermented Soybeans

Vietnamese Names: Mr. Six Soybean and the Gecko

I wouldn’t have thought Mr. Fermented Soybean to be a common name, but two of my husband’s neighbors were called this. At one point both of the Mr. Fermented Soybeans or someone in their families probably made or sold the dish that earned them this nickname. Both neighbors are in my book, so to make…

Rambutans or chôm chôms in Vietnamese.

Steal Steal Fruit

Rambutans—Their Vietnamese name, chôm chôm, means “pointy” for the soft spines covering them. My husband says chôm also means steal. Growing up he thought the name meant “steal steal.” “Steal steal” is the perfect name because that’s how good they taste.