School district officials object to valedictorians speaking Vietnamese

I know I still need to blog the JANM conference, but I had to write about this: Officials at a Louisiana school district are trying to prevent students from including foreign languages in their graduation speeches.

The brouhaha was sparked by Vietnamese American cousins Hue and Cindy Vo, who were co-valedictorians at Ellender High School’s graduation in Houma, Louisiana. Cindy Vo spoke one sentence in Vietnamese dedicated to her parents, who don’t speak fluent English, from the podium.

Co len minh khong bang ai, co suon khong ai bang minh,” she said, and explained to her English-speaking classmates that the sentence roughly translates as “always be your own person.”

Her cousin Hue gave more of her speech in Vietnamese, but again, the point was to pay homage to her parents.

At least one member of Terrebonne Parish school district, Rickie Pitre, took offense to the Vietnamese passages, and he says that all graduation speeches should be given in solely English, or that passages can be paraphrased in foreign languages — but only after they’re spoken first in English.

“As board members, we get to observe the different ceremonies and there’s some inconsistencies I think the board or administration more importantly needs to address,” Pitre said in committee.

The Vo cousins say they simply wanted to show respect to their parents — and to their culture.

“Out of the whole speech, it’s one sentence dedicated to them to give thanks,” Vo said. “Mine was personal and general for the entire Vietnamese community and something I wanted to share with graduates.”

Hue Vo, Cindy’s cousin, was co-valedictorian at Ellender and spoke at length in Vietnamese during her speech. She used more of her native language than her cousin.

“Ellender is very diverse. We have many cultures there. They encourage us to be an individual,” said Hue Vo, who also plans to attend LSU. “That’s why I love Ellender. It helped me be an Asian American and not be ashamed of it because no one judged me.”

During her speech, Hue Vo said she expressed gratitude to her parents for the hardships they faced moving here from south Vietnam.

“It’s very important to my parents that I keep my culture,” she said. “I felt if I expressed myself in Vietnamese it would be more heartfelt.”

Pietre claims it’s discriminatory for these young women to speak in Vietnamese when the rest of the students can’t understand what they’re saying, but it sure looks like the discrimination is flowing the other way to me.

I wonder how the issue would have played out — if at all — if the women gave part of their valedictorian addresses in French, or Latin … European languages that may not carry the stigma of the “other” that Asian Americans are often given in mainstream American culture?

I first heard about this from the Japanese American Citizens League, which issued an email alert but hasn’t posted the message on its website yet.

Joe Nguyen, a fine English-language journalist of Vietnamese American heritage, has written a short but concise post about it on his Cup of Joe blog, too.

UPDATE July 10: Interesting side note — Taiwan-born Christine Chang, the morning news anchor for KMGH, Denver’s ABC affiliate, is a graduate of another Louisiana high school, Terrebonne High in Terrebonne Parish. “As a Louisiana girl, this is not only ridiculous but also embarrassing to see we still have a ways to go with this,” she says in an email this morning.

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