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.
9/28/2019 Update: My film was accepted to be featured at the annual Viet Film Fest 2019 at AMC 30 in Orange, California! Come screen the film with me October 11, 2019. Email me for details (email@example.com) or check out the festival information here. >
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.
October 10, 2008
Los Angeles, CA
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 glanced around the now empty room, my eyes tracing the peeling pale blue paint around the door. All of a sudden I felt eyes directed downwards at me and I became acutely aware of my small stature under his gaze. “I was just about your age probably. Where did you say your family was from?”
I never said anything, I thought to myself. Instead, I politely told him everything he wanted to hear.
My family is from Biên Hoà.
“Oh of course! I flew out of ‘Bin Wa’ airbase there many times.” Looks at me for some confirmation or…was it affirmation (?) of his Vietnamese pronunciation.
I fled Vietnam by boat.
“It was horrible, horrible what we did. How could we abandon so many good, honest, hard working people? It was the American government, they lied to everyone, especially the troops.” Proceeds to sing that worn down American tale, a familiar tune that goes something like,
doo da corruption, liberal press, threat of Communism…
dee dee Now what they want you to believe is…
doo da We learned our lesson there in Nam…
Actually, I do not remember saying much at all come to think of it. I nodded silently while he spoke. Sometimes I submitted those signals that said we were in a conversation by sprinkling in ‘hmm’ and ‘oh really?’ When he looked at me and paused to take a breath or to let the heaviness of his words sink in—I hurriedly wrinkled my lips to convey empathy and understanding as a substitute for looking him in the eye.
I was not sure which social cues and staged behavior a situation like this required. What did he want me to say? Did he want me to say anything? Did it matter what I said? Did it have to be me or any other representative of Nam would do?
I wondered how and when and why he strategized his approach. Was it my last name that gave it away? Was it because of how I looked? Was it something about my homework assignments that gave away that ‘vibe’ to invite him to a reconciliation session of his wartorn past? Did he want to approach me sooner, but waited until the last possible minute when the class had finished because…because he no longer owed me anything as my teacher? or maybe because he might never see me again?
Then suddenly he interrupted my looped performance of hmms and frowned lip wrinkling with another “We are sorry for everything we did in Nam.”
Before I could even take a breath and stop the words from escaping, spilling out from my lips, I mechanically muttered.
Gia đình phải hy sinh cho nhau.
Mẹ đã trải qua nhiều khó khăn.
Con phải chịu khó thì sẽ thành công.
My mother’s words play back like a scratchy recording. Quiet, muffled, persistent.
Could we just for a second, disrupt this bizarre normalcy
Of hatred, massacres, injustice, disillusionment disguised into a muffled calm?
Could those who have been talking take a moment to listen
to pause, to look, to touch and feel
the fabric of our shared humanity?
A second turns to minutes turns to movements.
Turn off the channels of fearfeeds and misunderstanding.
Turn to a stranger, a neighbor, yourself.
Ask why and be uncomfortable by the answer.
Stop repeating start creating.
Think, write, speak for yourself and the collective we.
Because it is time for a radical change of the everyday me.
You might know me as the quiet muse from #cindyproject, as an academic writing on Vietnamese history of libraries, or you might not know me at all. For a long time, I tried to delicately parse out the various identities I had to preserve my ‘professionalism’ and protect the ‘personal.’ I was told by men, women, old, young that a curated identity was for my own good.
But for someone whose work meditates on bringing nuance to history and art, I now confront my pursuit to be disingenuous. Neatly sectioned off, curated identities is a scam. It shrouds the beautiful mess of reality. It reinforces the existing hegemonic structure of social expectations and categories. ‘Artists are X. Academics are Y. Women are 1. Men are 2. Anything in-between or beyond these categories is not legitimate.’ This is false.
I am tired of treading softly between glass boundaries of what is considered ‘appropriate.’ I am tired of listening obediently to the voices of Reason, the Future, and Others tell me that I must be more or less. I want to look in the mirror and see myself, not others.
I was afraid to publish my art. I thought that by exposing my art to the world, I was exposing myself to public scrutiny. I was afraid that others would think that I was full of myself. That somehow Cindy thought she was
- Hard working
But I realize that in fact, I am.
Or maybe this filmpoetry will ruin my reputation
- Make me difficult to hire.
- Make others feel uncomfortable .
- Make others not take me seriously.
- A ‘scarlet letter’ signaling to the world that I had a voice, a personality, a message.
But I realize that in fact, others should take me seriously. I can be difficult if I want to be.
Rather than be afraid, I wear the badge of humanity and vulnerability proudly. Because I have something to say that I truly believe in. That message is powerful. It shakes and moves me to write it. It will make you uncomfortable.
I am Cindy. I have something important to say.
“The fit is not flattering”
She mouths their murmurs
to the reflection before her.
Eyes scan a faintly familiar figure.
Of crossed legs, brushed hair, slouched shoulders.
It is her, it is she, it is me.
Clean contours of plastic perfection
Support, mould the reformed body,
an ivory bust
an empire waistline awaits its ruler.
The patchwork of metal and fabric croak.
It is her, it is she, it is me.
She inches towards the mirror
Inhales the clinical scent of new merchandise
Examines the blurry fingerprints of those before her
Smeared across the reflection of her body.
A palimpsest of hourglass dreams.
It is her, it is she, it is me.
Mascara lashes fall softly
Lacquered lips press against the cold glass.
Farewell distorted distant stranger.
And hello nice to see you again old friend.
Miss Fists crushes the glass apparition
In a splendid reckoning of femme fury.
It is her, it is she, it is me.
‘MISS FIT’ Filmpoetry Credits
Directed, Produced, Edited, Artistic Concept, Poem Written by Cindy Nguyen
Cinematography by Eric Kim
Beats by Bass N Instrumental Instrumental of ‘Feeling Myself – Nicki Minaj ft Beyonce’
Inspired by a lifetime of looking into the mirror and never seeing myself.
P.S. When the haters and patriarchal self-indulging bull-shitters feel the need to troll my filmpoetry, I will say: ‘Cool, bro. But that ain’t me you’re hurting. It’s you projecting your insecurities, prejudices, and impulse to mansplain in the human hope that you will be heard.’
[Typo version, but it works too: ‘It’s you projecting your insecurities, prejudices, and impulse to mansplain in the human hope that you will be hard.’]