I was invited to speak at an innovative event on translation and creative expression organized by the scholar Catherine H. Nguyen from the Committee on Degrees in History and Literature and the Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, and Rights at Harvard University. Together with poet-scholar Quan Tran, we shared our scholarship and arts practice. I spoke about my scholarly research and its intersections with artistic expression and personal history. It was a refreshing and radical opportunity to speak honestly about my ‘historian-artist’ identity and diverse body of work–from research essays and teaching on Vietnamese history to film-poetry on translation and feminist performance art.
Update 4/10/2020: Thank you so much for the kind and loving words of support! As a grassroots deployment of our skills during this difficult time, we have now started a “Long Hai Feeds You” Campaign to feed frontline medical workers. Read more and donate here. Thank you for the love and stay safe!
As a historian, I analyze continuity and change. How do moments of upheaval affect people, states, institutions, across time and space? I consider the nuances of change for certain communities—the degree of rupture from previous ways of life and the resiliency of individual lives, social practices, and cultural norms.
I examine the history of Vietnam, where war haunts all aspects of life and sense of temporality. Disruption was the only constant, and fear functioned as a stimulus for survival. The prolonged state of uncertainty led to the utter abandonment of all trust in the socio-political fabric of governmental systems, economic stability, and sense of community. Vietnamese lived at the boundary of divine intervention and fated misery. A sense of a non-future and the loss of human agency shrouded the everyday. I have come to understand this reality through my mother and father’s life. They were kids forced to become adults in the midst of war, created a family out of tentative dreams and functional necessity, and escaped their war torn world in hopes for any kind of future for their family. I am deeply embedded within this traumatic history as a child of the Vietnam War, born in a refugee camp in Malaysia, and growing up in America the land of promise, hope, and hypocrisy.
Yet, it was not until COVID-19 that I now know what it means to live through history. While this moment is not the same as war, I have become familiar with its symptoms and side effects. The loss of human agency in everyday action. The inability to fathom a future. The surrender to fated defeat and existential misery.
Film & Poem by Cindy A. Nguyen
What year did that happen?
Before liberation. / Trước khi giải phóng
When did you go to school?
When did you become a farmer?
When did you meet dad?
When did you want to leave?
And when was I born?
After liberation. / Sau khi giải phóng
What is liberation?
Liberation was a time.
It was a demarcation
of what came before
and what came after.
Liberation was a place.
where everyone was invited
and forever remained guests.
Awaiting an alternative future.
Liberation was a friend.
a neighbor, a brother
a believer, a dreamer
familiar, familial, filial.
Liberation was a sound
repeated, whispered echoes
to cleanse and empty
the evils of the past,
the errors of the past
the past, the past, the past.
Ngày xưa, ngày xưa, ngày xưa.
My mom speaks a particular linguistic formula of Vietnamese.
Take two generations of refugees,
Multiply it by memory, nostalgia, and fierce loyalty,
Subtract contemporary Vietnamese đổi mới economic changes and internet slang,
Add some Catholic guilt, the weekly Penny Saver free section, and just enough American English to avoid jury duty.
And as a result, we have the language of 1990’s Little Saigon, California:
We just moved here. = Tôi mới ‘mu’ (move) đây.
You have a duty to your family. = Con có ‘bổn phận’ (antiquated Sino-Vietnamese to mean obligation, citizen’s official liabilities) với gia đình.
The market has a sale. 5 pounds of apples for 1 buck. = “Chợ đang có ‘seo.’ Năm ‘paon’ táo cho một ‘bức.’
It’s a familial language of living history.
It’s a parental language to instill morality and gratitude.
It’s a mother’s language of survival.
And it was the language that I was raised on. Before I found my time structured by recess, arts and crafts, and English grammar, I absorbed the world around me. I helped my mom cut away the loose threads of her day’s garment work. I watched Vietnamese children’s karaoke and learned about sweeping the house, playing with fireworks, and cooking for your grandparents. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, I traced my mom’s handwriting of my name, Nguyễn Thị Kim Anh.
Utterances of sacrifice, duty, and reputation inserted themselves between meals and commercial breaks. These were the Vietnamese words that guided my everyday. But then I started to learn a new language at school. This language had other rules, speech patterns, and ideals. It was unlike the religious creeds my grandmother whispered, or the ethics of family forever first.
New authority figures who did not look like my parents told me,
“You can be whoever you want to be.”
“Everyone is different. Cindy has a flat nose.”
“You plagiarized. Your English essay is too good.”
And classmates who were supposed to be something called ‘peers’ told me,
“You are a Communist.”
And I would say, ”No I’m not. I came to America on a boat.”
And then everyone would laugh.
A different set of pronouns and names governed my existence.
At school I was the neutral pronoun “I” and the newly chosen name “Cindy Nguyen,” (“Cin-dy Win,” I would enunciate slowly each day during roll call. Yes, it’s okay, you don’t need to bother with my real name.)
At home I was a child (con) and the affectionate term of endearment “little one” (bé). But more often than not, you would find me in trouble—a disappointment to my entire family, kneeling in the corner and thinking about all of my sins. At that time my parents called me by my Vietnamese name, “Kim Anh”. Or on worse days, they called me, “someone else’s child” (con nhà ai).
I never questioned if I was ‘fluent’ in English or Vietnamese. Until that stale suburban afternoon during my third grade parent-teacher conference, when my mom screeched “My children talk English good! She not ESL. She do good job in school.”
I remember it very clearly as a screech because all the little hairs along the back of my neck stood on end. I replayed in my head not what my mother said, but how she said it. I wanted her to stop speaking, because it resembled the scratching of distorted static—the slow undoing of velcro shoes (something I yearned for) during Catholic confession (something I feared). She sounded foreign, bizarre, comedic even. That day I learned that the English language could be something called ‘broken.’ And for the first time I was embarrassed of my mom.
And day by day, the Vietnamese language that I was raised on turned into a secret language. Take my mother’s version of Vietnamese, then
Multiply by 12 years of American public school peer pressure,
Subtract the ability to read and write Vietnamese,
Add some creative misunderstandings, unspoken teenage resentment, and dreams of the American sitcom family.
And as a result, we have the language of my Vietn-America. This language was contained within the perimeter of
The five apartments we lived in during my childhood,
The fifty person weekly reunions with extended family,
The five o’clock afternoon routine of sleepy Sunday mass.
My version of Vietnamese mechanically activates after I enter these spaces. Automatically, my head tilts downwards, my shoulders hunch, and the weight of loss, sacrifice, and misguided hope force my arms to cross over each other.
I lose the ability to look at someone in the eye.
I lose a vocabulary of expression, of empowerment, of individuality.
I lose the pronoun “I.”
School was good. = “Gút”
I’m sorry mom, I made you sad. = “Xin lỗi mẹ, con làm mẹ buồn.”
Thank you Mom and Dad, for taking care of us kids. = “Cảm ơn bố mẹ đã “trông sóc”… (Apparently this is not actually a word, as confirmed by the Vietnamese dictionary, but a creative combination of “trông nom” + “chăm sóc.”)
Your bittermelon soup was delicious! (I love you.) = “Canh khổ qua mẹ nấu ngon lắm!”
It’s a familial language of food (and love).
It’s a child’s language to ask for forgiveness.
It’s a girl’s language of broken translations and dreams.
Hanoi, February 2017