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(Notes) From the Other Shore

By Dao Strom, photographs by Kyle Macdonald.

Came down from the mountain area of Tam Dao National Park on the 30th. Entered the bustling Hanoi streets to be met by the sight of red flags with single yellow stars hanging in front of most shops and the nighttime traffic fairly insane, the borders of Hoan Kiem Lake festively lit up. Throngs of people – mostly young (too young to actually remember April 30, 1975) – cruising and eating ice cream and playing hacky-sack in large loose circles, clustering the lake shore paths and streets. The taxi driver who took us from Tam Dao to Hanoi had a tattoo on his arm: it said “1975.”

This is the first time I get to experience April 30 in the geography of where it is celebrated as “Reunification Day.” This moniker in opposition to the denomination it was given by both the South Vietnamese and the Americans, who since 1975 have commemorated it as “The Fall of Saigon.” From the western and diasporic perspectives on history the whole month, in fact, is termed “Black April”: a contradiction of spring, of union; a Biblical-themed casting out of the garden; a common consequence – classically – to the sin and degradation and over-reaching that humans so often have tended toward. But here, on Vietnamese ground, technically one day after the day I left 39 years ago, now I get to witness it as what it is here: a day of celebration and patriotism, at least on surface appearance – the equivalent of the 4th of July to Americans, which, in America, one might also choose to celebrate with either sincerity or irony. Depending on how you feel about it.

Patriotism, as I see it at least, is a naive and necessarily semi-blind position to take, whatever your side of the coin may be. And I’ve never been able to be absolutely sincere in my regard of it, whatever side I’ve strayed to stand along. Maybe because I always felt more comfortable hanging in the shadows, on the peripheries of festivities, looking in, wondering slightly.

It has been more than fifteen years since I was here. The last time, 1996, was the first time I’d come back since the “Fall” of 1975. I was 23 years old. It was an emotional trip, largely because I encountered cousins who hadn’t seen me since ‘75 and I also met my birth father for the first time since my infancy. It was a first return to a Vietnam I’d not expected ever to return to or know, and that had not expected ever to see me (or any remnants of my family) again either.

This time, though, I am older and returns are a far more common occurrence. Overseas Vietnamese come and go now; some have even returned to live here. For many, it’s no big deal anymore. The divide is not the impassable sea, storm, unknown, that it once was. That I’d gotten so used to residing on the other side of.

This is the reality: I encounter discomfiting truths here, within and outside of myself. How for years I’ve longed to come back, felt some piece of me missing for not reckoning with the Vietnam that was left behind, and then to come back and have to admit the ways I still feel I do not belong.

One big thing is: I don’t speak the language. Though I have the same skin and some similar facial aspects, I don’t really look like a local; people stare at me. I also travel in the company of white men – my closest two companions have joined me here: my half-white, half-Vietnamese son; and my husband, a well-traveled but still born-and-bred Californian. My clothes stand out here, too, as do – it seems – my tattoos.

In the mountain town of Tam Dao, a man in the market points to the Chinese character tattoos on my right forearm – which are the ancient characters for my given name “Tiêu-Dao” – and says: “Not good.” I ask him why, try to indicate that they are my name, that they are “Hán script,” or chữ Nôm in fact, which, technically, is still Vietnamese. He says, “No good, this Vietnam.” I understand he is only citing the long well-known animosity – the resistance – the Vietnamese have harbored against China, due to the previous thousand years of invasions and warfare they have waged with the Chinese. But my understanding, as the daughter of former writers and scholars, is also that the Vietnamese language borrowed from the Chinese, and, even if it was controversial and at times not welcome, some of this intermingling was poetic and productive. Before Vietnam had her own written language, her scribes adapted the Chinese script into a form called chữ Nôm, or chu Hán. The Vietnamese also borrowed words and phrases from the Chinese; my given name, Tiêu-Dao, is one of those. My mother has said it is an unusual name to give to a Vietnamese child because it derives from a philosophical phrase about “wandering” – something Vietnamese people, who like to keep their families together, would not wish upon (especially) a daughter.

Once, I encountered a Taiwanese traveler who recognized the characters on my arm as meaning, in his words: “Freedom.” I can’t say I inhabit the name to quite that degree of meaning, however.

But, going back to the case of what is truly Vietnamese and what is “not good” because it is not “Vietnam” enough… Ironically, the Vietnamese acquired their written language only in the 1600s. This was given them by Portuguese missionaries who had landed with the goal of converting the Vietnamese, from their heathen whatever-were-their-multiple-gods state, to the lofty monotheistic state of Christianity. The missionaries adapted the phonetic sounds of the Vietnamese language to the Roman alphabet, to have a means by which they could convey the Bible to the Vietnamese natives. This is the written language (quốc ngữ) the Vietnamese still use today.

I honestly don’t know which is the more incriminating – if we stop to think about it. The language appropriated via the Chinese characters tattooed on my arm; or the one fed to the Vietnamese via abstract Latinate markings in order to teach them the Bible.

This is hardly something I can articulate to the man in the Tam Dao market, however. He is friendly enough to me, despite the nationalistically offending nature of my tattoos, and holds out his cigarette pack, offering me one. I appreciate this gesture though I don’t smoke; I smile and decline, tell him no thank you.

The nature of words, the different naming of same points in history, the ways in which we do or do not inhabit the names – the first identities – we are given; the ways we commemorate – define, try to claim ownership of – events of the past; the ways we choose to remember or deny or silence or forget: these are all matters I am wrestling with in being here, especially on this particular “holiday.”

I don’t have an easy take on it.

All I can say for sure is: language has its limitations. Language – from the very point we attempt to codify, capture, call it our own, or insist via our version of it — becomes potentially unreliable.

The same event, traumatic movements of people on either side of a forming chasm, no matter how you choose to frame it, has no one definitive name. Can really and truly be given no name. Because maybe there are no words for it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dao Strom is a writer and musician based in Portland, OR. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and has published two books of fiction, Grass Roof, Tin Roof and The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys. She received a 2014 RACC (Regional Arts and Cultural Council) Grant and a 2013 Oregon Arts Commission Individual Artist Fellowship for her forthcoming work, a hybrid music-literary-visual project, We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People. Previously, she has received a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, a James Michener Fellowship, and the Nelson Algren Award. She was born in Vietnam and grew up in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 18th, 2014.