i know what you mean!

things that happened this morning

Posted on: September 28, 2006

a net “friend” from Viet Nam sent me an instant message this morning, asking me if it’s possible for me to write about how Vietnamese overseas (U.S.)are raptly anticipating the Autumn Festival.

In the U.S.

Possibly me included.

It’s one of those moment where I lost my ability to respond honestly.  Like that one time when my professor turned to me with great concerns in her eyes and told me “Did you know, Linh, that Polpot just died?”  I wrote a poem about it.  I gave it to her.  She showed it to our school’s poet lauderate, who said I definitely have the “je ne sais quoi” touch.  That poem went on to earn some nods from, oh I don’t know, whoever.  I can’t remember the 5,6 lines of it now.  I think it went something like:

You told me Polpot died this morning
I was caught offguard – I
stumbling for words …

I’m not sure those are even the right lines, but something like that.  Everyone assumed that the reason why I studdered and stumbled for words was because Polpot was Hitler and I was a Jew or something.  It didn’t occur to anyone that, upon hearing the news, I had to quickly register the fact who Polpot was, and came to a flash conclusion that he wasn’t Uncle Ho, and that he killed CAMBODIANS, whereas I’m a Vietnamese.  The solemnity and implied importance that my professor placed in her words caugh me off guard, made me lost in thoughts about why should I care about Polpot being dead…   That didn’t come across.  Am I to embody the continent? The world?  Am I the totem pole of tradition and history and culture and everything else?

Autumn Festival.  I didn’t experience the joy of anticipating Autumn Festival, even when I was a kid in VietNam.  I knew what the celebration entails, but my memory of the actual event is muddled.  There were years when chi Dieu or chi Thanh would come over, the years when I was younger.  They brought me some candies, cookies, and nice lanterns in the shapes of fishes or butterflies.  The frame was made of bamboo slats.  Then colored celloplane papers were taped around the frame to give color and body to the animal.  Then finally, some one took a paint pen and drew designs.  You light a single candle inside, and supposedly, you parade through the streets, singing songs or … something.  You get treats.  Or money sometimes, thought that’s not customary.  It’s our Halloween equivalent.  Sometimes my lanterns were lit, but there was no where to go.  The candle quickly expired, and shortly after the full moon night, the papers were torn, the lanterns turned ugly, and in the end, became fuel for the stove.

I don’t remember any anticipation.  I have never rightly celebrated a Full moon festival.  I ate the mooncakes, the candied lotus seeds, cookies too,  but the joy was never there.  Or I don’t remember it.  Communism casted a shaddow on many’s childhoods, some much more severed than mine, but mine bears the imprints of its shaddow nonetheless.  Joys were taken out of many things.  Holidays were abandoned, traditions undone as fathers got locked away in forced labor camps, and mothers tread the dirt roads smooth up and down the S shaped country in search of ways to feed the family.

Big holidays like Tet were still faithfully upheld because there are many supersititions about it.  And in the worst of times, no one wanted to upset the gods.  So the poors still lit incenses, made rice wine, and bought fruits to pray for a better year.  But holidays that are based on a laidback attitude, one of sitting by the door to gaze at the full moon, drinking tea, eating delicacies… such as the Autumn Festival, they paled and wanned even in the darkest of nights.  From the time I was in 3rd grade on, I don’t remember celebrating moon festival anymore.  My little brother received a latern instead of me, still a lantern that wouldn’t take you anywhere.

After we moved to the US, Dad’s attitude was “forget VietNam.”  Us young kids were encouraged to fully assimilate into the American culture.  Tet faded.  Autumn festival was just whatever. I have never made an effort to acknowledge this holiday until last year.  For the first time, for Son’s sake, I went out, bought some moon cake, got some lotus tea, and we duly acknowledged this festival, without any festivity.

And this morning, someone from Vietname YMed me to ask if I could write an article on how we Vietnamese oversea raptly prepare for this festival.  It’s one of those rare occasions where words failed me.  When words fail you,  you can either keep silent or scream out nonsense.  Or you betray words and pretend to be dumb, not understanding what has just been asked of you.  Or you invite misunderstanding.  I invited misunderstandings, because trying to invite understanding would just provide the same result.  When someone is incapable of comprehending the truth, what do you tell them?  From someone who had grown up in VN, but had been fed with a silverspoon since birth, someone from the priviledged “them” class, someone who believes in the goodness of the hands that had fed him (you can’t blame him right? because those hands had not hurt him), even if you tell him the truth, it’s incongruent with his plane of existence.  So a dialogue with him runs parallel, you say whatever you want to say and believe whatever you want to believe, and he will do the same.  But your & his thoughts and words will never meet.  This is what it’s like, talking to the “them.”  A kind hearted, helpful, peace-loving person.  He was vexed when he heard me talk the first time of wanting nothing to do with VietNam anymore.  Incredulous that a Vietnamese person, if given a choice and right condition, would actively choose not to return to motherland.  A person whose heart is no longer seaking out the beacon on the shores of her eastern shores…

Words fail me.

To assume that my life here in the US should always be a backward glance to the past, to the roots, to my ancestry whose footsteps had trodden up and down the S shapped country, to deny me of who I am today by such assumptions.  And the only thing I could say was “oh I am not one who upholds such tradition.  I’ll talk to some other Vietnamese who are more involved in the VNese communities, maybe they can help you.”  That was the only thing I could say.  I wonder what he thinks?  I was always one to give such answers in the past.

How frequently do you read Vietnamese newspapers?  once a day?
– actually I don’t read those at all.  Maybe once a month if I’m bored?

Are you knowledgeable of current writers in Vietnam?
– actually I am pretty ignorant and I don’t really care

Are you going home this Tet to be with your family?
– I have work that whole week, my husband has school, so I’ll just carry on life as usual…

The questions are endless, and each makes me sadder than the next.
I’m not sorry that my life is like this, that things Vietnamese are just a flake here, a flake there whenever I’m in the mood for them.  Things Vietnamese still touch me strongly in many aspects of lives, but they are not rooted in what have been taught as the foremost important elements anymore.  I rarely observe holidays and celebrations.  I don’t uphold many values, which so often, here, begin with “The Americans, they are so ………………., whereas we Vietnamese, we know …………… and ……………….” I would stop whatever I’m doing when I spot a communist Vietnamese handwriting. It’s a penmanship style that came out in 1985, forcing everyone into one mold.  I correct people’s pronunciation of Vietnamese names if they allow me.  I defend Vietnamese dishes and customs that come under attack as being barbaric or backward – I don’t deny, but I demand that the assailants understand the whole story before they judge.  I feel ashamed when I hear about a Vietnamese behaving badly…  These things cannot be categorized nor labeled.  They are just the Vietnamese reflected in me.  I don’t feel sad knowing that I will die in this country.  There’s not much left of the physical Vietnam that I once knew anyway…

How can I make all this about me understood to someone like him?  Someone who communicates with me in Vietnamese, and only seems to be interested in the Vietnamese part of me, which is never any part of me, because you cannot separate my Vietnameseness from my Americanness.

Over here, my net “friend,” I have no autumn moon.  Often at night, the bay fog rolls in, and makes us all shiver.  All industrialized nation lights set the horizon ablazed, and from the air, you see Bay Area light up like a circuit board, with yellow grids.  To the east of where I live, Kensington hills rise up with further spaced lights, because the rich can afford not to touch elbows with one another.  To the west of where I live, a whole mall rises up with 10+ restaurants opening until the wee hours of every morning.  Beyond the mall, there’s a freeway, and beyond the freeway, a poluted bayshore.  We have no autumn moon.  I come to gaze at autumn moons on Japanese silk screens sold in high end shops.  I come to gaze at autumn moons printed on wallpapers and greeting cards.  Sometimes lazy and unrefined, I do a google search or flickr search for “autumn moon.”  It’s a different plane of existence, and it’s possible



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