A few weeks ago, I went to Quiet Imprint, a ballet piece featuring legendary Vietnamese singer Khanh Ly and the Ballet Austin Company II. It was my intention to take notes and write a quick, informal review for Pacific Ties. But when the performance started, I quickly realized that even the most informal of reviews was beyond my reach. Instead, all I have to contribute here is an introspective post that has little to do with the technical aspects of song and dance, and much more to do with language, and history, and culture: all those complicated, tangled things that leave an imprint, quiet but indelible, on us.
The main reason why I’m unable to write a review is actually a little embarrassing: I didn’t understand the songs well enough. I know enough Vietnamese to be able to communicate with my family, but technically, I have the grammar and vocabulary of a first grader (maybe even worse). My dad had to translate the lyrics of the songs, typing them onto his phone and then showing them to me.
If I had to talk about the emotional effect those songs had on me, though, I would have to say that they made me…sad. Not just because I was unable to understand them that well, but because they were about Vietnam: my parents’ homeland, and, in some strange way, my country of origin. So much of my sense of self is bound up in Vietnam. I wasn’t born there, but being the child of immigrants, I feel a lot of nostalgia for the country. The last few years of my parents’ residence there were marked by war and death, but before that there was laughter and hope–an entire childhood and adolescence, left behind when they fled with hundreds of other boat people.
On another level, the performance saddened me because it reminded me how little I know about Vietnam. My history books in high school spent two paragraphs on the War, and focused more on the U.S. government’s attempts to halt Communism than on the devastating effect the war inflicted on civilians like my parents and grandparents. My dad says that of course the history books would only talk about the U.S. government and soldiers–it was their war, an American war. But what am I but an American? I might be Vietnamese American, but that doesn’t make me less of a citizen.
It’s an isolating feeling for your family and community history to remain unacknowledged by the history books. No history, no self. It’s like being invisible. I do ask my parents about their experiences during the war, but when they tell me, it only emphasizes how little I know and how few opportunities I have in my “official” education to learn.
After the performance, my dad tried to explain to me why Khanh Ly and the songs she sang are so popular in the Vietnamese community. The songs’ composer, Trinh Cong Son (who died in 2001) was, according to my dad, the Bob Dylan of Vietnam. Although he was long rumored to have Communist sympathies, the refugee Vietnamese community loved his songs because they were anti-war and called for peace, something which they could relate to.
“The war was complicated,” my dad explained. “It was brothers against brothers, fathers against children.” Things were not was black and white as my history books made them out to be, with a clear line drawn between the Communists and those who opposed them. Victory for someone could have meant the death of a loved one. Blood blurred and complicated the lines between two sides.
So between those blurred lines and my lack of language, I feel as if I’ll never be able to truly understand the Vietnam War, which, in some ways, is two wars for me: the U.S.’s war against Communism, which I’m a part of because I’m an American; and my parents’ war, which forced them to flee their home. They’re linked, and I know it, even if I can’t articulate it that well. But the way history has been constructed here in America means that there’s a disjunction between those two wars. I’m left always holding the pieces of a bigger picture, poignant but incomplete.