In 2017 while in Hanoi, I wrote this poem in English about my grandmother. It remained in draft version as I worked on the translation, feeling inadequate and lost. During this month of Black April and remembrance, I remember them both by finally letting it go.
To you Grandmother,
Love your bạn, em, chị, cháu [friend, younger sister, older sister, granddaughter]:
Bà đâu rồi, cháu siêu nhớ bà.
Bà có nhớ cháu của bà không?
[Where are you grandmother? Granddaughter painfully misses you so.
Does grandmother remember her granddaughter?]
And you respond,
Hôm nay tôi mệt quá. Thôi đi về đi, tôi có nhiều việc làm.
[Today I am so tired. Sigh, go home. I’m really busy.]
Today you are tôi and I the distant stranger.
By midday you transform to chị and I em. You nurture with sisterly tenderness and wonder why I keep asking you to walk with me, eat with me, and answer questions you find obvious and exhausting.
Chị no rồi, em ăn trước đi. Ngon lắm em, ăn giỏi đi.
[Older sister is full, go ahead and eat first younger sister. It’s very delicious, eat well.]
You awaken from a nap and we switch places. You clench your fingers against your body and stubbornly shut your eyes to the world spiraling around you. Không, you utter with a force of firm defiance. The sound falls like a heavy weight between us. A hollow breath and you hesitantly blink open your eyes in a frantic search for something or someone. Your eyes slip past mine.
Em mệt, chị để em nghỉ. Em không cần gì, kệ mặc em đi.
[Younger sister is so tired, let me sleep already. I don’t need anything, leave me alone. ]
Somewhere out of time and place, you find what you have been searching for. In one sweeping inhale, you proclaim the devotional melody, “Cầu xin Chúa Thánh Thần.” Each sound a ritual invocation spanning generations, moral universes, and the before/afterlife.
- Cầu: You fall into the deep resonance of ‘pray.’
- Chúa Thánh Thần: A rising, outstretched yearning where your voice cracks at ‘Holy Spirit.’
We chant together, sing our Ave Maria’s, and you remind your granddaughter the power of faith and prayer.
Cháu nhớ mỗi ngày phải cầu nguyện và giữ lòng tin.
[Granddaughter, remember to pray each day and hold onto your faith.]
A flicker of familiarity.
Bạn, em, chị, cháu. We sleep and wake up to a new day.
A whispered profession to only you:
Bà bị lẫn nhưng cháu không bao giờ
- lẫn đường về vì bà dạy cháu cẩn thận đi theo bà
- lẫn lộn những kinh và bài hát đọc hàng ngày. Trước khi ăn, ngủ, khi lo sợ, khi đau buồn, khi thất vọng.
For much of my life I had dreamt of one day writing down my family’s refugee narrative. I had envisioned a beautiful photo, audio, and essay project that would do justice to their story. But I never quite got there.
I would begin to write, transcribe her words, and then weep. Putting into words her refugee story somehow made it real. It was not just a distant tale of heroism, escape, and hope. It was my mother, my family, me, who lived this reality.
Currently: I am re-examining my relationship to my body–that forgotten instrument, a vehicle of my consciousness, an extension of self, my best friend and foe.
Command + A step here.
Control + Zipper. No, zebra. A zigging and zagging and surrender to the zephyr on my cheek.
Option + Alt you. You hilarious tease of forgotten functions.
Mavis Beacon, did you say something?
I can’t hear you between the patterned pecks of perfect precision.
Move/Be/Do Here, there. now. Everywhere. Nowhere.
A song in my stomach, twisted into computerized contortions
A wellspring of movement, made mistakenly malicious.
The way you make me feel, I make me feel, I make me me.
Seeps out, secretly through the meticulous cracks of caked fears.
A nod. Then two.
A twitch of the finger
tips of the toes bounce in the tight space between.
>>> spam = ‘A mischievous literary litany’
A sly smile, a knowing glance
to the Miss Step, who was always there,
Shibuya, Tokyo 2018
Written to the rhythm of Dirty Computer, Janelle Monae.
I never learned the word ‘mental health’ in English (my language of primary expression) until my 20’s. It took nearly another decade until I actually began to understand what that even meant. I am still learning this word in Vietnamese (my language of communication with my parents).
However, language is more than the sum of vocabulary words. Language is context, subtle unspoken gestures, symbolic actions and its mis/interpretations. Language is when my mom made me canh khổ qua (bittermelon soup, my favorite) after I mumbled through tears that I needed to get mental health support.
I am sharing with you meaningful news of my project “Mẹ [Mom], Translated,” because you have helped to contribute to its fruition in some way shape or form–from teaching me about Vietnamese history, language, and Asian American identity to empowering my artistic voice to write, express, and share my work.
“Mẹ [Mom], Translated” is a mixed-media art project on love, language, memory and everything lost in translation. Inspired by the work of Viet Thanh Nguyen, I made this project intentionally not for the dominant audience. Rather, I sought to dwell on the act of translation — that universal human yearning to understand and be understood. Vietnamese words in the pieces are not always translated to English because I wanted to convey the complexity of comprehension/miscomprehension between different languages, generations, and also through the nostalgic and bittersweet filters of memory.However, I explain the concepts through poetic voice and through visual symbols, actions, and subtle gestures.
A film on the bittersweet nature of love, language, and memory.
We hover around the curved glass of the monitor, its blue light washes over my brother and sister’s faces–innocent and focused. I squeeze between my siblings and shove from my face the static strands of my hair. With a few soft clicks and precise movement, my brother maneuvers the mouse to bring up the surveillance footage named “02-04-1999-23_00.mov”
My fingers mechanically twist the worn metal clasp of my red Tết purse —a nervous twitch that returned around the months of January to February when Lunar New Year’s invited family gatherings, gambling, and lucky money gifts. This year’s bounty was a proud 8 dollars and 32 cents.
I squint at the black and white thumbnail image. My round unsure eyes discern what appears to be the laundromat–a quiet thief in the night it snatched my parents away every Sunday before mass, early mornings before we prepared for school, and late nights after we went to bed. For the past three months I had begged them to let me come along to help. But unlike the garment factory, the restaurant, the daycare, I was not allowed to follow my parents on their second-third-fourth-job at the laundromat because they said the neighborhood was too dangerous.
Instead, I imagined with a childlike wonder that place my parents referred to in broken English as ‘con-lon-di’. The sounds of the ringed master keys formed a familiar jingle, entering my half dream half awake state each night that signaled my father returning home. On lucky weekends I sat on a wooden stool and observed my father tinker with a broken coin operated mechanical horse. One day, the worn out horse came back to life! Giggling I climbed up and down its repainted blue back, greedily shoving my coins into the slot knowing that my father would open up the coin bank with his keys to retrieve my coins. It was the ultimate game of no risk, only reward. Over and over and over.
My father brought home for me the fragmented personal affects of laundromat life: an abandoned earring missing its pair, a tangled necklace possibly 14 karat, a foreign coin maybe from France. I cherished each of these trinkets pried from the machine’s lint catch—each imbued with my father’s quiet affection but also with a mystique of stolen stories from strange faraway places.
My brother clicks the triangle play button. That mysterious magical place stretches across the thirteen inch monitor rendered in blurry black and white silent stills. A pixelated tranquil landscape: the mechanical horse sits in a corner, aisles of laundry machines, an empty metal basket on its side. A figure appears in a stilted stop motion of five frames per second. It’s my father.
My father’s voice pulls us back into the reality of our task at hand. On the computer desk sits a chewed #2 pencil and a free notepad that reads “David Pham Real Estate. We find your home and make it home.”
“Xem kỹ đi con. Có gì thì viết xuống cho ba bằng tiếng anh để cho cảnh sát biết. Watch closely children. See if there is anything important to write down in English so dad can give information to the police.”
I inch closer to the screen, intrigued by the image of my father rendered in choppy black and white movements. He bends over to clean the machines I think, or maybe he found something in the lint catch for me?
I blink and the scene transforms. My father stands stiff and upright, hands in the air still clutching a cloth. No longer alone, he is surrounded by a darkness I do not comprehend.
23:03 Ba / Take 1
My brother pauses the scene and replays it again and again. My well-trained brain quiets my pounding heart with a categorical logic of explanation: three masked figures, armed robbery, Thursday night.
23:03 Ba / Take 2
My mind floats faraway, falling into a fantastical rendition of sounds, colors, abstractions of the surveillance scene. From an aerial distance I hear my father humming sweetly while cleaning the machines. A sudden crescendo and abrupt silence. Hurried steps, a gasp, muffled commands to hand over the money.
23:03 Ba / Take 3
I imagine his first sounds to be that familiar “Nooo! Đừng! Nooo! Không!”—an exasperated croak that escaped whenever my father was flustered and slipped between Vietnamese and English.
23:03 Ba / Take 4
Cut scene to the black shiny gun. Cut to his eyes tearing up, his hands shaking. Cut to a cloth sack that appears out of nowhere marked with a green $. Action background music and the expectation of a heroic climax of justice delivered in technicolor.
I blink and the dark figures are gone, but the darkness remains. In the silent black and white shadows my father stands alone again, shoulders slumped and hands empty. He bends over, picks up the fallen cloth, and resumes his cleaning.
My brother right clicks the video file and renames it “Ba.”