Thursday 21 August 2014

“When autumn comes, that one sad place is Vietnam, my dear!”

  • Translated by Trần Quỳnh Vi

First day of autumn. The lifeless sunshine. One empty soul.

Two years ago around this same time, the feeling was similar. Under the bright sunshine and one blue sky, yet all that I could feel was my weariness and a sense of ultimate emptiness. Only then, I came to truly understand the state of mind of the poet who wrote: “I kept walking, unable to see the town or any of its homes. Before my very own eyes, only raindrops kept falling on the color of the red flag.”

I have never experienced such feeling in this utmost distinctiveness: My very own hometown, right at this moment has ceased from being my own.

My native hometown, the place where I have memorized every old, broken bricked and peeled off wall, every street corner busied with small shops, every French styled window, every deep green shadow made by the Khaya wood trees each winter that would fully awake once spring came … The town where my “Tây An Nam” [1] friends and I have become so attached to and where we have treasured it so much that we would not want to destroy even just one of its leaves or one of its road bricks because we have always felt that Hanoi and Vietnam have become such fragile bodies that continuously being crushed.

Such emotion, perhaps, cannot be called patriotism as we only dare to consider it an attachment. We have become so accustomed to its beauty, loveliness, and purity to love even the cluttered and unkempt space of our native land. The more we look at it, witness it, and experience it, the more we come to love it…

Such a town has now ceased from being my own. It has become the private realm of uneducated persons with red bands wrapped around their arms and the whistles readily to sound off on their puffing mouths; of the secret agents and police officers in uniforms or plain clothes, overly confident; of those “who’s who” that we all knew of, with their shameless faces and their increasingly fattened up bellies.

In such a realm, those people have an absolute right to act according to how they feel like. They can put tens of those banners which state “Crowd Gathering is Strictly Prohibited” in the back of their cars, tour around the city, and when and if they feel like it, they can just drop off those banners at the city’s garden, park, lake, or at the base of the Ly Thai To statute. They can grab one’s shirt, lift one up by the shoulders, or pull away the arms of those unarmed youths to drag them onto their buses to be improperly taken to the police station, and yet their mouths unctuously announced: “We are inviting you to come along, we are not arresting anyone”. Dear Lord, would any of us ever invite another person in such manner?

Under the broad, wide and fully insured helmet named “homeland security,” they can listen to telephone conversations, entrap emails, and entrap chat messages of any individual or organization whom they have concerns with. Those activities would have to be authorized by a court of law or a prosecution office in other countries. However, in this private realm which belongs to those people, sometimes all that they need is the fact that they are members of a specific profession.

And there are many more things that they could have done to you if they feel like it. At this time, it seems like the fight against the country’s inflation, and the improvement of public welfare are the only issues that are not on their to-do list, or perhaps, they have no potential to do anything about those issues.

That one town, as of now, has ceased from being our own.

* * *

This alienated feeling has come and gone from time to time. The first time it happened when I was really young, around five-year-old. Back then, my parents often took me to visit my grandparents at their home – which was an attic in the historic downtown, tiny and insanely hot with a round window in an exquisitely beautiful, antique blue color, which really had nothing to do with the blotching wallpaper in a room that could not be any smaller. It was a window from the time of the French colonization.

Back then, I did not know that very window belonged to a sizeable French styled villa. When “peace” was reestablished in Hanoi, that villa was divided into many smaller sections, and my grandparents were assigned to the attic. The rest of the villa was designated to the newly occupying officials who were members of the “take-over” forces.

I remembered that I enthusiastically went to get usable water for my grandparents. I went down to the water pump, filled up the container, then waddled up the stairs. When I came to the common courtyard that had an area of about three square meters, in front of a tightly shut room, I heedlessly put down the container. The water in the uncovered container teetered, tottered, and poured onto the ground. The door swung open, and a man dashed out. As he looked at the water on the ground, his face became wrinkly, and he shrieked loudly: “Damn this girl, this girl...

The five-year-old girl was terrified and stood there motionlessly, her face turned blue (maybe). Fortunately, her grandfather appeared just in time, said his apology to the neighbor, and took her back to their home. Afterward, the girl was told by the adults that the neighbor was a police officer named M., who was very strict. And because it was her who caused the water to pour onto the ground of the common courtyard right in front of that man’s front door, she therefore was rightly deserved to be scolded. Since that day, a little girl became frightful, and she often wondered how could such kind people like her grandparents live together with the awfully mean police officer who was like a monster to her? She was just being a typical child. Children often think that the world is full of kind people who would coddle them just like their grandparents and parents; good people most definitely have to live together with good people.

The little girl had no idea that such villa no longer belonged to her grandparents since the day the Capitol was liberated.

* * *

I have since grown up, and my grandparents have passed away for a long time now. Their old villa has become more alienated to me. Occasionally, I found myself thinking of my grandfather (like at this very moment), and I still remembered the image of me sitting on his lap – he was a history and math teacher at the Hang Ken school – listening to him whispered dearly in my ears: “Tell me, my granddaughter, how many kings did the Later Le Dynasty have?” And I would happily exclaim: “I already know, ‘During the reigns of King Thai To and King Thai Tong; picking up a child, holding up a child, walking with a child, and carrying a child,' as the beginning always had to start with King Thai To… “That’s correct; my granddaughter is so great. Well then, how many kings did the Nguyen Dynasty have?” “Well, there was Gia Long, Minh Mang, Thieu Tri…”

My dear grandfather, during your lifetime, had you ever contemplated that your granddaughter would grow up to be a member of the “social discontent,” “the resistance”, and had been accused of “subversion of the state’s national security”? Could you ever imagine that a friend of mine, a young man who loves and studies Vietnamese history very well, is being detained somewhere “over there” because he participates in a rally to protest against … China’s aggression, my beloved grandfather?

My brother wrote this poem:

… When will our past come to be our present 
For me once again become that little boy, sitting on my grandfather’s lap?

But I don’t know how to write poems. My wish is that my grandparents are still with me… I would ask them many questions about our country’s history and about Vietnam in the twentieth century of yore: during the French colonization, the anxious yesteryears before the general uprising, the 1945 Fall Revolution, the temporary occupancy, the silent resistance of the people residing within the inner city, the coming of the communist military to the capitol, the signing of the treaty dividing our country into two separate states, the migration from the North to the South, the sound of a mother’s crying call for her child, those nights in Kham Thien where fire consumed and turned the sky red, the celebrated victory, and then the time of those meals with semolina grains, mixed rice, broken rice, and those food coupons…

And then, I will ask him: My dear grandfather, when one faces the question, to be or not to be patriotic and attached to our beloved homeland, shall he be?

Written in Hanoi, one empty afternoon on August 21, 2011

[1] A slang term used by the young people of Hanoi, Vietnam to describe Vietnamese people who do not think, act, or behave like a typical Vietnamese, but more like foreigners or people who belong to another realm.

A young girl cried as she was watching police and "civil order defenders" 
cracked down on protesters in Hanoi on August 21, 2011. Photo by Đoàn Bảo Châu

A clip by Đoàn Bảo Châu telling "the story of a Vietnamese German girl 
protesting in Hanoi on August 21, 2011". 
English subtitles by Trí Tuệ.