Grandpa’s notebook

Lam Thuy Vo
4 min readJul 2, 2021

A makeshift dictionary that my grandfather used to learn English became a way for me to understand how he marveled at a new world.

A self-made dictionary my grandfather made in the 1990s while learning English

My grandfather’s notebook is a collection of papers held together by decades-old glue. It is bound in adorned, emerald-green plastic that will last for at least one hundred years. The paper holding the contents of this booklet, however, is fragile, thin, and yellowing on the fringes.

You can see the most noteworthy English words that my grandfather first learned when he came to the US in the 1990s. He wrote them in the notebook in alphabetical order.

“aback: by surprise”

“binge: ăn nhậu xả láng”

“chase: pursue, hunt”

The notebook used to be on a small side table. It was a wheeled one and sat next to a faux-leather couch that would screech in protest each time you sat down on it. He kept it there for years, not using it, likely because the drone of the TV and closed captioning replaced this important little dictionary over time.

The house where it was kept was in Houston, Texas, where he settled after coming to the US as a political asylee in his sixties. It was a two-story four-bedroom house, though with only one room on the second floor, into which a variant number of family members wedged themselves. Three to four people would sleep in each room. At some point there was an entire family, two parents and their two kids, sleeping on a mattress in a closet. The house was so packed it seemed easy to lose a little notebook in it.

My grandfather was a man of few words. Contrary to him, I am a person of many words. I always found our relationship to be a push-and-pull, the kind that’s exhausting but has the potential to unearth many treasures. The ways in which we found our paths to one another involved awkward linguistic acrobatics coupled with a cultural chasm that ran deep between this man from Vietnam and this girl who grew up in Germany. But even if we couldn’t always fumble our way to the right words, there was a deep-seated understanding of our belonging to one another. I loved him, this much I knew.

When he passed, there was a sadness in me about a missed opportunity to fully know who he was, even if he likely was never going to be the one to tell me. A booklet of words that he chose to commit to memory seemed like a precious, precious way to learn about him.

To grow up visibly different from the world around you sparks an expedition back to what your parents, not you, left behind. The hue of my skin, the ways my eyes kiss in the corners, the tonality of my “I love you”s in Vietnamese — these are all unrelenting reminders of a journey someone else took but that also had such an outsized impact on me.

The immigrant of the second generation comes into her own twice: first in adolescence, trying to emulate that which is around her but that which rejects her. And then, a second time, when she finds her way back home by researching the journey her ancestors took.

This notebook represents that journey — the way the newness manifested itself in my grandfather. What piqued his curiosity enough to use ink on paper to enshrine it, to be visited again and again?

Very few people are afforded the luxury of being documented as historical fact. The vast majority of people are recorded in a utilitarian way when their existence is written down on a traffic ticket, an immigration form, an application for a job. To be a line in a spreadsheet is the most mundane way in which ordinary people exist on the record only to disappear in bureaucratic indifference.

And so… To have a booklet of how my grandfather marveled at a new world — what struck him as noteworthy, what he chose to retain — is a special gift for me and for those to come in my lineage. Isn’t it magical to know of the woes, concerns, wonders and joys of a man who just uprooted his life in dusty, humid, poverty-stricken Saigon to come to a country of concrete structures, malls, cars and odd economic dreams? Isn’t it a beautiful puzzle of impressions? Of the journey that imprinted on me long before I had the wherewithal to understand it?

Written on a Friday morning as a creative writing exercise in community with Anaheed Saatchi.



Lam Thuy Vo

Journalist. German-born Vietnamese nomad who tells stories using data, visuals & words