This is one of the most extraordinary stories Stone Soup has published in its long history. This activity focuses on how to effectively use non-standard English to define your character. “My Country and the Way to America” is a difficult story to read. It describes awful situations in which people die. The story is best read with an adult. If you are not familiar with the Vietnam War, then please read this introduction to that war before reading the story.
Project: Using non-standard English to define your character.
Huong had something to say. Despite the fact that she didn’t know English well at the time she wrote this story, she said what was burning in her heart with the words and grammatical skills in her possession.
Huang’s story is written in what we call non-standard English. In other words, it is full of grammatical “errors.” But, in this case, the grammatical errors contribute to the effectiveness of the story. The language in which the story is written lacks many of the small connector words that we usually use when we speak or write English. The verb tenses are also not always correct. But, in this story, these “errors” focus our attention on the actions that are most important, giving the prose an incredible sense of rawness and urgency.
“After three days or four days out the ocean, the boat have a hole and the water coming,” conveys the isolation and fear that overwhelms this boatload of people stuck in a sinking boat in the South China Sea more effectively than a perfectly written sentence would have.
In the case of Huong’s story, her unusual way of writing English makes her story all the more memorable and, as a work of literature, all the more effective. This story was written in 1985. In 2017, as I write this, children and families are once again fleeing in small boats from wars and mistreatment. This time, these frightening, and often fatal, voyages are taking place in the Mediterranean Sea as people flee the wars of Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan and trouble in other countries, such as Eritrea. Huong’s story brings the reality of the boat trip alive to us in a way that news articles do not.
How can you use this idea of non-standard English? For most writers, it is in writing dialogue that non-standard English is most useful as a literary tool. I suggest two projects. In one, create a character whose English is almost normal, but has a few small quirks that makes it unique. Once you have mastered a character with a few eccentric turns of phrase, write a story in which the whole story is told through a character whose language, like that Huong, is different from normal. If you choose a very young child as your character, then that story might explore the difference between what the child can say and what the child can see and understand.
To prepare for these projects, listen carefully to how people talk. Listen to people talking the way you listen to music.
For teachers, you might refer to William Faulkner’s “Sound and the Fury ” for a sense of how an adult writer uses non-standard English for expressive intent.
My Country and the Way to America
By Huong Nguyen, 11, Hosford Middle School, Portland, Oregon
Reprinted with permission from Light of the Island, © 1982
From the May/June 1985 issue of Stone Soup
I live in Vietnam. I go to school in Vietnam. I have three pigs and one dog, but the dog is dead. My mother she was sad. My mother my father my sister is go to work. Me and my younger sister we stay home. Everybody is go to work. We has a restaurant in Vietnam. So my family they work there.
In Vietnam is very awful so we leave. One night my sister she take my younger sister and I go in to the boat. But we ask her where do we going, and she said she take us to the zoo. And we very happy because we don’t know what the zoo mean. She tell us the zoo is for the animals use to live.
So we go to see we saw the lion and the tiger and the elephant and the monkey and the wolf and snake and the bear and the very old cat. The old cat is very big but if we touch that cat he bite you and you have to go to the hospital. That cat so grumpy.
After we went to the zoo and we go to buy a lot of food. My younger sister she ask what for? My oldest sister said we going to have a party.
And she take us to get on the boat. And I see too much people. When we start to go I am too small and I am so stupid.
Because they want everybody to put the children to go sleep because they start to go but I don’t want to go to sleep but I want to play with the water. I put my feet under the water. The people in the boat they gave me a medicine but I don’t know what is that. Then I drink the medicine. After I drink I was sleeping.
When I wake up I saw the ocean. And I put my feet under the water again.
After three days or four days out the ocean, the boat have a hole and the water coming. Everybody was cry and scary. The boat was rocking and raining. The people they felling down the ocean. The captain in the boat. He jump down the ocean and he help everybody to get on the boat. Then he was tired and he can’t swim no more. He dead under ocean. His wife was sad and lonely. Everybody they are wet. Me and my younger sister we are under boat. And we didn’t get drop down the ocean. My sister she said we are lucky. The people they take care of the lady because that lady she is very lonely and sad.
We stay in the ocean for a month and two days. The last day we saw a people dead on the water. We saw money and the wood, the shoe, the paper, the clothes, the pants. And everybody was scary.
Another day we saw a big ships. We are happy they let we get on the ship. We saw a lot of toys. We play on the ship for one day.
And they get my boat to Malaysia. We lived there two month.
And they take we go to Indonesia. We lived there one years. We live in Indonesia. We have no food no water to drink no soap and shampoo for hair in Indonesia is very dirty and messy. They has a lot of the bad fly. If the bad fly sting we get sick. And no medicine. The people they dead every day.
I sick one time but not much because I drink the bad water it make me sick.
My sister she think I might dead so she feel sad. And worry about my mother and my father and my sister in Vietnam.
Next morning the America people they call my family name to get on the ship. They take us go to the big mountain.
A lot some people. And we are talking to the Vietnamese people. We came to a big mountain they have everything. They have water and food, and no fly nothing. We lived there we don’t have to cook. They cook for us to eat every day. We can eat anything if we want to. Because we got to come to America some day. So we very happy.
The mountain is very beautiful. It look very big then in Vietnam. The mountain look like a city. I like America we like to live there. We live there they give us candy every day. We live there one week. Then we get on the airplane to came to Hong Kong. And we came to America. Then we live in the hotel two days in Los Angeles.