American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Winter 2018       PERSPECTIVES

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Found in Translation

by Trinh Ha

Wearing her prom dress, Trinh Ha stands with her teacher, Sarah Ashworth. From the Editor: The United States has always been a nation of immigrants. People journey from every part of the globe to create new lives and help to build their adopted country. Inevitably some of these newcomers are blind children. They face new customs and a strange new language in addition to the challenges of mastering the skills of blindness. Through the story of her adjustment to life in a new land, Trinh Ha provides insight into the experience of blind students who immigrate from other countries. Trinh Ha was awarded an NFB National Scholarship in 2017.

On February 11, 2012, my family arrived in Fort Smith, Arkansas. For fifteen years I had grown up in the southern part of Vietnam, where it's hot year-round. I was shocked when an icy gust of wind greeted me as soon as I stepped out of the airport. "It's too cold here!" I exclaimed. The cold was my very first impression of the United States of America. Little did I know that the climate was not the only challenge awaiting me in this new journey of my life.

My first few days were tough. Due to a twelve-hour difference in time zones, my parents, my two siblings, and I would go to sleep during the day and stay awake at night. We cried a lot, too. I missed both of my grandmothers, my relatives, my friends, my house, my dog. I even missed the old mangosteen tree I loved to hide under to get away from the hot sun. I disliked car rides; they gave me terrible headaches. I missed the way the wind rustled against my hair and my skin when I rode on a motorcycle.

To make matters worse, my grandpa yelled at me whenever I told him I wanted to go back to Vietnam. He has lived here since 1975. He worked hard for twelve years to arrange for my family to come to this land of opportunity.

Surrounded by her family, Trinh Ha stands in her cap and gown at her high school graduation.About a week and a half after we arrived, Grandpa took me and my older sister to Southside High School for a meeting. Both of us have been blind since birth. At Southside I met my teacher of the visually impaired (TVI), Miss Sarah Ashworth. Initially the people in charge recommended that my sister and I should go to the Arkansas School for the Blind in Little Rock, about three hours from Fort Smith. Of course, we didn't agree. We didn't want to be even more homesick than we were already! Since we knew no English besides basic sentences, it was finally decided that we would spend the rest of the semester at Southside, working one-on-one on the language with Miss Sarah.

For the next few months I felt as though I had magically been transformed into a little kid hiding in the body of a teenager. I remember vividly that very first day I came to class. My sister, Miss Sarah, and I were the only people in the room. I sat in the first seat of the row of desks facing the door, nervously curling and uncurling a lock of hair around my finger.

"Miss Sarah, can you please say it again?" I asked shyly, trying hard to hide the little catch in my voice.

"Sure," she replied. Slowly she repeated the question she had asked me.

"I'm really sorry, but I still don't understand," I told her.

I felt hopeless. Throughout the years, I'd learned to use my other senses to master my blindness and function independently. However, nothing had prepared me for this situation. Suddenly I was struggling to communicate and understand other people.

After a few minutes of awkward silence, I heard Miss Sarah type something into her phone. "This is our classroom," she said aloud. Then she used Google Translate to provide us with the sentence in Vietnamese.

That gave me an inspiration. From my bag I pulled a sheet of paper and my slate and stylus, the only tools I had used for writing Braille back in Vietnam. "S-c-h-o-o-l," I chanted. "S-t-u-d-e-n-t." I knew the alphabet; that's what I tried to tell my vision teacher. And she got my message!

Just like that, my sister and I began to re-learn how to speak and write. We were very grateful for the fact that, except for a few minor differences, the Braille symbols for the English and Vietnamese alphabets are the same. We had to study the Braille contractions, but that wasn't too hard.

We started out by learning individual words. Before she typed each word into her phone to give us the translation, Miss Sarah would spell it out so we could write down the letters. Then she would say the word aloud and have us repeat it after her.

After a few weeks we started to work on forming complete sentences. I lost track of how many times I had to remind myself that many rules of English grammar work opposite from the rules in Vietnamese. In English, adjectives come before nouns, for instance, and my first name needs to be written before my last name.

After dinner every night I always thought about the things I wanted to tell Miss Sarah the next time I saw her. Then I would ask my grandfather to teach me how to say them in English. Most of the time during my first few months in America, I went to sleep with a working brain, silently reciting two or three sentences over and over so I wouldn't forget them in the morning.

To help with my reading and listening skills, Miss Sarah asked me to read to her, or she would read to me and ask me to answer questions. I started out with books for little kids, such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears and The Paper Crane. By the time school was out for summer, I had ventured to read the Nancy Drew series.

In the middle of June, my aunt gave me an electronic talking Vietnamese-English dictionary. The device quickly became one of my best friends. Whenever I encountered a new word I didn't understand, I used the device to translate it to my mother tongue. I also got into the habit of writing down new words I learned and putting them into a special folder I called "My Vocab List" for later reference.                                                               

When fall rolled around, my sister and I were put into regular classes along with other students. I left Vietnam in the middle of eighth grade, but I enrolled in the tenth grade. The idea was to keep me with my sister to make the transition easier for both of us as well as for the teachers. None of them would admit it at the time, but our teachers were nervous and intimidated when they found out they would have us as their students. After all, English as a second language (ESL) relies heavily on visual cues. How would they teach two blind ESL girls? Because they weren't sure what to do, our teachers tended to exempt us from any assignment they deemed too hard.

About one and a half months into the semester, the school district bought me and my sister each a Braille Sense U2. Before that, I didn't know that Braille notetakers existed. I fell in love with the device as soon as I discovered what it was capable of doing. I used it to download mystery novels from Bookshare. I used it to go to many websites to practice the rules of grammar and syntax.

A few months with Miss Sarah had helped considerably with my English, but I missed out on many aspects of social interaction. Some teachers naturally spoke very fast, and after a while I became lost and confused. It was one thing to know daily English words, but the language of subjects such as history and biology was nothing more than a jumble of foreign sounds to my ears. Most of the time I didn't understand what I was supposed to do. It was painful to sit for hours without having any clues about all the laughter or discussions in the classroom. I am still proud of myself for managing never to fall asleep during lectures.

It took me extra time to get the simplest assignments done because first I had to translate them into my mother tongue. More than once while I studied late into the night, I couldn't help wondering what made my grandpa so certain he had led me down the right path by bringing me to this country. The language was foreign, the food was foreign, the culture was foreign, and the educational system was foreign. My heart ached whenever I found myself struggling over a question that I knew was a no-brainer, simply because I didn't comprehend its meaning.

However, I didn't complain out loud. I wanted understanding from my teachers, but I didn't want them to lower their expectations for me. I would not have a chance to improve if they excluded me from class activities. They had to let me know where I excelled and where I fell short.

Sometimes during lunch at school, some friendly students who were not afraid of my blindness or my cane would come to talk to me. Unfortunately, my lack of communication eventually drove them away. I wasn't sure if they understood that just because I was blind and was not proficient in the English language yet, I was not stupid. I had experiences to share and interesting stories to tell, if they only stayed long enough, if only they were patient. I needed time to process what they said, to manipulate the thoughts in my mind, and to think of the words I could use to form appropriate answers.

I also struggled with cultural differences that led to a lot of misunderstandings. In Vietnamese culture, a person who gives a compliment never expects a thank-you in return. A verbal expression of thanks is thought to reflect a lack of modesty on the part of the person who receives the compliment. I wonder what people must have thought of me when they saw me smile and blush, or when they heard me deny their compliment by saying that I did not deserve it. Furthermore, in Vietnam hugging is reserved for relatives. I wonder what people must have felt when they saw the discomfort in my face after someone gave me a goodbye hug. It took me a long time to get used to the American way of expressing feelings.

I am forever in debt to Miss Sarah, the teacher who long ago became my second mom. She's always believed in me more than I believed in myself. She saw the adventurous, curious person behind the shy, quiet girl I seemed to be on the outside. Her love and devotion encouraged me to keep pushing to get through the difficult times. She talked to me and got to know me. She spent hours taking me around the shopping mall to introduce me to American fashion. She explained to me why people use certain phrases or idioms. She convinced me to fly to San Francisco by myself to attend a chemistry camp, even though she ended up spending a sleepless night worrying about me.

Time flies, and it's been almost six years since I stepped out of the airport on that cold February day. Currently I am a sophomore at the University of Central Arkansas, pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition. I have come to understand why millions of people dream of starting new lives in this country. I understand now why my grandpa brought my family here. I have discovered that I actually enjoy learning languages, and I have found out that I love challenges. Those months of confusion were simply a test of my diligence, creativity, and perseverance. With willpower and the right support, anything can be accomplished.

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