“Mẹ [Mom], Translated” is a project on intergenerational language and love.
I seek to dwell on the act of translation– that universal human yearning to understand and be understood. I do not always translate Vietnamese words in the piece to English because I hope to convey the moments of comprehension/miscomprehension between different languages and generational divides. We do not just translate words. We translate moments and grasp for meaning. We translate across time and glance backwards through the bittersweet filters of nostalgia and loss.
Many of the pieces in “Mẹ, Translated” started off as conversations between my mom and me. “___là gì? What does this word, this phrase mean mom?” The conversations and collective remembering transformed into poetic essays and art pieces. To encapsulate the textures and sounds of the in-between state of translation, “Mẹ, Translated” will take the form of film (watch and comment on my most recent film: “The Undeniable Force of Khó Khăn,”) soundscapes, and a material book.
I honestly do not know exactly where this is headed, but wanted you to be part of the journey. I feel a certain frenetic motivation that I “must” make this, and make this soon given the current political and social climate of misunderstanding and fear. But I also have had a personal epiphany recently that this project on my mother is not “my” project and thus I cannot be held by back by my own insecurities of impostor syndrome or inadequacy in creating it. This project is beyond me as an individual and uncategorizable within the simple confines of art for and about Vietnamese Americans, multi-lingual speakers, immigrants and refugees. This project is an homage to my mother, and to all of humanity–its bittersweet beauty, its complex language, and the power of story. Life is too fleeting to be afraid. It’s about time we share this story.
Please share this project with anyone who
- has felt misunderstood
- dances freely or uneasily between categories and languages
- has used google translate with their parents and family
- has been told “you are not really ____”
- does not know where or who ‘home’ is
- wanders and wonders why
Artists, bilinguists, academics, Asian Americans, Vietnamese, everyone…I would really appreciate your feedback on the project. Please share your thoughts, feelings, feedback with me at email@example.com
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I was raised by the moral compass of Confucian duty, Catholic guilt, and Vietnamese refugee fears of the unknown. As a child I held on to every story my mother shared about our family’s escape from war torn Vietnam and my miracle birth in a Malaysian refugee camp. Between Catholic prayer and helping out at our family restaurant, my mother bestowed upon me her secret language of refugee survival: hy sinh (sacrifice), khó khăn (suffering), and perseverance (chịu khó).Growing up in America, my language of expression slowly transformed from Vietnamese to English, and my mother’s cultural vocabulary became increasingly foreign but powerfully totemic. I have studied Vietnamese language and history for over 8 years, and I am now a Ph.D candidate in Vietnamese history at UC Berkeley. I now re-examine those linguistic totems of my childhood with a scholarly intensity and compassionate vulnerability. I research, write, and make art about Vietnamese culture, history, memory, and language.
artist | mis-reading.com
+ academic | cindyanguyen.com
+ CEO | hapticindustries.com
+ publisher | hapticpress.com
Excerpts of Working Chapters
She used a certain vocabulary to tell her stories.
I did not understand their precise meanings, but became familiar with their sounds. Whispers of the past professed through stories of struggle and sacrifice.
The words were fragmented totems—heavy with a metaphysics of meaning and untranslatable into the American English of my suburban childhood realities. I held the totems in my hands, ran my fingers along their textures, and carefully placed them in my treasure chest.
The words represented my mother’s life. Each word embodied tales of worlds past, dreams lost, the impossible overcome.
– Published in Diacritics & Forthcoming Ajar Press Issue
Inhale the air
of tiger balm
of the damp, dark, disinfected hallway
of alcoholic concoctions of ginseng, seahorse, and powdery dreams.
Hold your breath to the melody
of spilled pills
of hesitant doors opening and closing
of the rhythmic hum of snores, sniffles, and television whispers.
So this is the sound of my voice
if I, your mother, were to speak to you, my child.
Nhưng tại sao tiếng mẹ nghe lạ quá vậy?
You translated me.
Rendered me visible, comprehensible, communicable
outside of that time and place where no words were exchanged,
only faraway glances, tensed shoulders, and clenched fists.
Gestures imbued with meaning: disappointment, guilt, exasperation.
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.
Bà đâu rồi, cháu siêu nhớ bà.
Bà có nhớ cháu của bà không?
And you respond,
Hôm nay tôi mệt quá. Thôi đi về đi, tôi có nhiều việc làm.
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.
October 10, 2008
Yesterday, my history professor ordered me to stay after class and then apologized to me.
“We are sorry for everything that we did. Vietnam was such a beautiful place with beautiful people.”
I shifted awkwardly, unsure if this was the beginning or the end of the conversation. I adjusted my backpack bringing it up to my tense shoulders. Not sure of what else to do with my hands, I touched the split ends of my hair. I folded the corner of my final exam booklet back and forth, creasing the edge between my sweaty fingers until it ripped off.
I nodded slowly and mouthed goodbye to the last student filing out of the classroom. “You know, Vietnam was my home. I knew immediately on the first day my boots touched that red earth. I was just a little over 20, but I knew that Vietnam would change me forever.”
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.
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.