HAWAI‘I LANGUAGE CHAMPION: UYEN FREITASby Narin Lee, Hawai‘i Language Roadmap Initiative Intern
As a Korean-American who moved from South Korea to America, I was shaped to think that English was more important than other languages. When I moved to Hawai’i at the age of three, I dreaded going to preschool because it required me to talk in English with other students. For the first few months, I vividly remember my mother dragging me to preschool as I demanded with tears falling down my cheeks to stay home. During that time, I did not know how to speak English fluently nor did my peers know how to speak Korean. Whenever I spoke in Korean, no one understood me and in some way that made me feel as if what I had to say in Korean was insignificant. Even as a preschooler, I felt out of place in preschool because of the existing language barriers. Eventually, I unconsciously learned that I must learn English to fit in, and the Korean language was not necessary.
As time passed, I fortunately learned that Korean is equally important as English. I had many opportunities to meet various people who taught and reminded me of the importance of all languages existing in our world. One of the people who proved how powerful language can be is our Language Champion, Uyen Frietas. She is a High Honors Biochemistry graduate from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, who is originally from Vietnam. Despite coming to the United States to learn English and explore educational opportunities, she did not forget about the importance of her native language. Instead of hiding her language skills, she chose to hold on to her language deeply with her strong belief that her Vietnamese skills held value. This belief opened doors in her life to opportunities that would not have been possible without her language skills.
As a junior in her collegiate career, Uyen was deep in thought about what she would study for her Senior Thesis. She knew in her heart that she wanted to do a senior project on DNA because she was always intrigued by DNA work. Uyen states, “I was always fascinated by DNA work I had learned in my biology classes and all the work my professor, Dr. Haymer did… it was just fascinating to look at DNA from a microscopic level.” Dr. David Haymer, a Professor of the
Cell and Molecular Biology Department at the UH John A. Burns School of Medicine, whom she respected had worked closely with during her academic career, reached out to her in regards to a research project. For many years, Dr. Haymer intensively researched the DNA of oriental fruit flies known as the Bactrocerta dorsalis. According to Uyen, oriental fruit flies attack more than three hundred kinds of fruit and vegetables including: mango, avocado, banana, coffee, guava, and many others. For that reason, they are known for being a major agricultural pest in the Asia-Pacific region. For Dr. Haymer’s research, one of the tasks he focused on was the collection of information from several different countries in the region to find out if all flies were under the same species umbrella. He traveled to multiple countries in the Asia-Pacific region, collecting information from each country. He was able to compare fruit fly specimens and prove how each fly was closely related to each other in five different countries — Thailand, Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia, Okinawa –, but Vietnam was not among them.
For a long time, Dr. Haymer had wanted to step into Vietnam to conduct a study. He stated, “There was a gap within my study and in order to fully understand the fruit flies that originally came from Southeast Asia, data from Vietnam was of critical importance.” Until he met Uyen, he had refrained from planning a scientific excursion to Vietnam because of his lack of knowledge in the language and culture. He did not want to find himself lost by entering into an unknown country without a local connection who knew what they were doing. Dr. Haymer bridged the gap in his research with the assistance of Uyen who was able to utilize her depth of knowledge on the culture and language of Vietnam and the training that she received from Dr. Haymer to gain access to Vietnamese expertise on fruit flies in this region. In the long run, her knowledge opened doors to allow her to collect and legally bring back specimens to America. The project was known as “Molecular Taxonomic Identification of the Oriental Fruit Fly and the Melon Fly”, which became a two-year long study our Language Champion undertook as her Senior Project.
With Dr. Haymer’s guidance and the University of Hawai‘i’s approval, Uyen began her bilingual Cell and Molecular Biology project, bringing her Vietnamese and English language together to accomplish the challenging international research. Before Uyen began her project, she emailed various universities in Vietnam. Instead of writing her emails in English, she wrote her emails in Vietnamese to increase the level of communication with them. After writing and waiting for replies, the use of her language established a relationship with Can Tho University. Through the exchange of emails, Uyen was able to find a reliable connection that gave her a place to conduct her three-week research in Vietnam.
During Uyen’s time in Vietnam, she had the opportunity to collect fruit flies and conduct various experiments to identify and help fill gaps in knowledge about the fruit flies from this region. However, in order to begin the process of experimentation and research of the fruit fly DNA, Uyen needed to capture flies first. Through her connection with Can Tho University, she was
able to learn about the hot spots to go to find fruit flies. She was kindly introduced to different sites from the Can Tho University members where she was able to place her tiny fly traps. Uyen went to a bitter melon farm, a mango farm, and other farms where she placed fly traps every five miles. The traps that she set up for such complex research were surprisingly simple, however, and consisted of paper cups containing fly attractant to lure in male flies. She collected specimens to take back to Hawai’i where Uyen and Dr. Haymer were able to prove the similarity between fruit flies from Vietnam and other oriental fruit flies. Uyen’s project was highly recognized and the data she collected was added to the GenBank database, a collection of publicly available DNA sequences by the National Institute of Health. Even as Uyen looks back to her impactful study she conducted during for her Senior Project, she states, “I could not believe that I did all of it. Now looking back at all the work I did, I was impressed. We had our DNA sequences up on [the] GenBank database. The project was time consuming, but the result was fascinating.”
Uyen continues to demonstrate that her Vietnamese language plays a significant role in her life as she balances work and school. She is currently a student in the DNP program, which is a graduate program of the Nursing Department at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Along with attending school, she is working at Leahi Hospital near Diamond Head as a nurse where her language makes a difference in various people’s lives. Within the hospital setting, she states that being able to converse and help others both in English and Vietnamese is what she enjoys most about her job. As a nurse, Uyen has the opportunity and time to interact with her patients. One of her interactions included a conversation with a Vietnamese speaking patient who refused to take cough syrup. The patient was in pain because of his cough, but chose to eat chocolates over his medication to ease his pain. When Uyen saw the Vietnamese speaking patient deliberately choosing to eat chocolates over proper medication, she conversed with him in Vietnamese. Through her conversation with him, she learned that he was choosing to eat chocolate because he truly believed that consuming chocolate would help lessen his cough. From that small conversation, she was able to explain that taking cough syrup is necessary because it will clear his mucus and help his symptoms. By connecting with the patient in his native language, she was able to make an impact on another person’s life.
Along with the daily conversations she holds with various patients, she continues to show the importance of language in the hospital by being there to help when least expected. For instance, in a hospital setting, if an interpreter is needed, the hospital must call the interpreting service to schedule an interpreter for a meeting ahead of time. In situations such as these, patients understand what is being told to them due to the presence of an interpreter. However, interpreters are only present during important meetings and must be scheduled ahead of time. Yet, there are many situations in which bilingual personnel are required but oftentimes, these situations cannot be foreseen.
For instance, one such unforeseeable circumstance arose during Uyen’s time at the hospital. A nurse found a Vietnamese speaking patient sitting on the bathroom floor. At that moment, the hospital staff were filled with worry because they did not know what had happened. Since they were not aware of what happened prior to finding the patient on the floor, and since, in the absence of an interpreter, they could not properly communicate with him to get this information, they immediately assumed the worst: the patient needs emergency care. As everyone was hurrying to take care of this patient, Uyen noticed him. Uyen recognized that the patient was a Vietnamese speaker, conversed with him in Vietnamese, and learned that everyone’s assumption was wrong. From that simple conversation, Uyen was able to learn that the patient was not in critical condition. He did not faint, but was simply sitting on the ground to rest, after having experienced a dizzy spell. As a result of this communication, the call for an emergency response was cancelled, and both the patient and the staff were spared a significant amount of unnecessary, and costly, medical procedures.
The power of language can clearly be seen in the life and experiences of our Language Champion, Uyen Frietas. Her stories of her life and journey where Vietnamese has played a critical part illustrate that the popular opinion that English is the only valuable language is false. People like Uyen remind me, a Korean-American who once believed my Korean language did not have value, that whatever your language may be, your language has the ability to impact others. Your language helps bring clarity to others. Your language opens doors to scientific discovery that could not have been accomplished without someone like you. Your language has the power to inform others in moments of great need. No matter what level of proficiency you are at, your language holds value. As our Language Champion, Uyen proudly states, “It is amazing to speak another language. Language is important. Language shapes the way you think. When you speak the same language, people begin to share almost the same values, beliefs, and culture. It allows people to connect with each other and build trust. You can help other people with that.” Your language matters.
Author: Narin Lee is a Senior attending the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa as an English major. Her normal day starts off with a good cup of coffee, without it she will not be able to function well. If someone were to see her on a day without coffee, they would be able to immediately recognize a difference in her persona. With her daily dose of coffee fulfilled, she is like day, someone who is attentive and full of energy. Without her daily dose? I’d rather not talk about it. Other than her serious dependence on caffeine, she has an enormous soft spot in her heart for dogs.