The other day, I talked to my parents on the phone.
It has been nearly a month since we last spoke. I have been too busy with experiments, classes, teaching, and brainstorming ideas for my thesis proposal. My parents asked me if I had already eaten dinner and whether or not I had gone grocery shopping. I tell them that, yes I had already eaten and that yes, I had gone grocery shopping. They asked me if I had been sleeping enough and whether or not I had recovered from my cold. I tell them that yes, I had been sleeping (even though in reality, I hadn’t been) and that yes, my cold has gotten better. They then ask me how work in the lab has been. I tell them that work in the lab has been great.
This is the extent of our conversations. I am a first-generation graduate student and my parents are immigrants, my father a refugee, from Viet Nam. Vietnamese was my first language and I was encouraged to speak it growing up. I remember when I was in elementary school, my mother used to spend hours on end at our kitchen table, glasses pressed up to her face, flipping furiously through her tattered, coffee-stained Viet-English dictionary. She would translate these workbooks to herself, then make me complete them to help me strengthen my English. I am not quite sure if she knew it then, that the more time she spent with this dictionary, the more English I would learn, and the farther apart we would grow in our ability to communicate with one another.
Indeed, as I grew older, my parents’ language slowly eroded off my tongue and was replaced with the English language. I now only speak the most basic level of Vietnamese and my parents speak the most basic level of English. Our heart-to-hearts are confined to hi-how-are-you’s and hi-what-are-you-up-to’s. It is not that we avoid connecting to one other on a deeper level. Rather, we are incapable of it.
I am not quite sure if she knew it then, that the more time she spent with this dictionary, the more English I would learn, and the farther apart we would grow in our ability to communicate with one another.
Recently, I watched a video of a scientist describing his research to his mother in jargon-free language. The video was part of an outreach initiative to translate scientific literature into something accessible for non-scientists. By the end of the four-minute segment, the mother understood the specifics of the research and was able to summarize its importance. Like me, the scientist did not come from a family with a strong scientific background. It was admirable how he was still able to come up with a creative way to communicate his work. I wonder though, what happens when your mother hardly speaks the same language as you do? How do you practice science communication with her then? What happens when you try to describe your research in your parents’ language and it comes out as a stream of gibberish? How do you navigate the feelings of seeing your parents stare back, blank-faced, pretend to understand, and change the topic so as not to offend you?
This past year, my lab has been very active with public outreach. We have organized several STEM days for local K-12 students and undergraduates at the university to showcase our research. Our lab studies the effects of Ophiocordyceps, a fungal parasite that manipulates the behavior of its ant host. It is a bizarre system where, upon infection, the parasite coerces the ant to leave its colony, ascend forest vegetation, and clamp down with its mandibles. The fungus then kills the ant and sprouts as a stalk, where it then releases spores to infect new hosts. It is straight from a science fiction novel. I always look forward to these events. I love watching jaws drop as students realize how strange and wildly fascinating nature can really be. Sometimes though, I can’t help but think about how much more efficient I am at communicating my research with these students than with my own parents. It’s a strange thought, isn’t it? I do not have the words for “parasite” in Vietnamese, nor do I have the words for “fungus” in Vietnamese. I had to use online translation to look up the words for “scientist” and “research” the other day.
It is not that we avoid connecting to one other on a deeper level. Rather, we are incapable of it.
As a first-generation scientist, I have had to navigate the world a bit differently. My parents do not have the social and financial mobility that my friends’ parents have. They do not understand how higher education operates, therefore, growing up, I have had to navigate these systems on my own. I have had to build my own connections and find my own resources. One thing that bothers me the most is that I will never have the ability to describe to my parents my research in-depth, make their jaws drop with how fascinating my science is. I do not have the ability to tell them what normal life in the lab is on a day-to-day basis, talk to them about the worries of publishing and graduating, or describe to them the ideas that keep me up at night. I can’t ask them for advice on whether or not I am doing this whole thing right- this whole life thing - whenever I feel like I am losing my identity in this new city. Rather, all I can tell them is whether or not I have gone grocery shopping for the week or if I had eaten dinner.
The other day, I talked to my parents on the phone. It has been nearly a month since we last spoke.
“Con ăn cơm chưa?”
“Yes Mom, I just ate dinner.”