Always Waiting — Kathy Nguyen
*TOP CONTRIBUTOR IN HYBRID WORK, VOLUME THREE, 2020*
Tình đẹp là tình bơ vơ Beautiful love is lonely
Chờ người đến bao giờ...? How long can a person wait?
Relistening to nhạc Việt Nam always brings me back to a time when my parents, particularly my mother, culturally maintained my siblings and me by regulating what types of music we could listen to. Nhạc Việt Nam occupied a large space in the house with the gentle yet purposeful slow vibrations of chordophones or the breezy wooden flute sounds serving as overtures in an otherwise quietly guarded house. The textures of those sounds, sometimes dramatic, sometimes providing a sense of hopefulness, sometimes creating a metrical combination of dichotomous words. But when listening to the music’s flow, it always fluctuated between connotations and ambiance, inevitably creating tensions and instability in our family when only one type of music and sounds that defined our parents’ life. Whether in an open space or behind closed doors, it was not difficult to observe the looks of resignation and years of suppressed historical fatigue on our parents’ stilled faces as they carefully listened to each nốt nhạc. With ears comfortable to the sounds of the hums of quê hương, or quê nhà, nhạc Việt Nam evoked a past that reverberated well into their present. These very sounds, as beautiful and tragically poignant as they are, sometimes suffocated me at night in my own familiar home.
Though Vietnamese with some Chinese heritage on our father’s side, we didn’t speak in Mandarin. Our tongues immediately assimilated to the Southern Vietnamese accent since birth, ears recognizing the steady lilts of our parents’ tongue; the only language that they fluently and contentedly communicated in, recognized, and understood. Vietnamese is a beautiful, poetic language, entangled with such metaphors and colloquialisms; my mother’s tone is brassy, a sonic contrast from my father’s soft, calm intonations; their Vietnamese remained smooth, steady in articulation while my own grasp of Vietnamese remains languid, insecure, and intermittently shaky depending on who I’m conversing with.
And yet we were allowed to listen to Cantonese and Mandarin pop songs because we were fans of the wuxia genre, particularly fight scenes that included the martial arts legends: the Shaw Brothers’ Venom Mob from the 1970s and 1980s. Brutal and gruesome duels to the death, yet brilliantly fluid choregraphed scenes appeared on an otherwise plain tubed television screen, projecting abstract, fantastical, and sometimes illogical with both archaic worldviews, but it was the juxtaposition between violence and beautiful melodies and singing that somehow defied the logic of violence. The evenly paced rhythms that hum evocatively, that echo off screen became the ultimate reason I often prefer Chinese love ballads, even if I never understood the context or story behind the song; a language that we never spoke and were unable to decrypt became aural preferences. The joy is/was in the catchy hooks and ostinatos. The inability to understand the context and subtext can’t hurt you. Ignorance is painless until the sensation becomes palpable whenever it erupts, destabilizing that musical rhapsody that we heard but couldn’t comprehend.
Raised in a country where the second language in the house becomes the dominant language outside of the secure spaces of a home becomes a warring conflict as tongues clashed, as my Americanized Vietnamese tongue materialized, causing divergences and collisions, breaking the solid rhythms of the language we used as a form of familial verbal communication, with English steadily dominating the nouns and verbs that I often used in Vietnamese. The day I used the vague English version of you rather than anh to address my older brother was perhaps the singular moment where my mother knew that language carries an inescapable in-betweenness that’s difficult to reconcile. My parents were always speaking in fluid Vietnamese, allowing our tongues to become more in tune and in sync with their dialetitcal patterns. Yet, English loomed over them like a dominant power, pervasive and quite omnipotent, relying on our tongues’ capability to becoming their interpreters and translators, further constructing another barrier between us/them. Language placed a distance between us and our siblings; multiple occurrences frequently happened where my parents awkwardly stood or sat down in-between an authority figure while we spoke for them. No one wants to be spoken for when multiple voices want to be heard. There were instances wherein I saw myself as an unreliable narrator/translator when these memories resurfaced, but I could be identified as a Vietnamese American with English words forming as it became difficult to balance two languages. Tongues hardened when words become scrambled, riddled in contradicting conjugations and translations became more difficult with each passing day.
Any form of American music, regardless of genre or the safe teen bops by the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, or Britney Spears, who all once, during a fleeting cultural era of dominating TRL countdowns, were forbidden in the off-white walls that have been blemished by time, unpainted due to exhausted working schedules and often collapsing from overworking with a minimum hourly pay.
Back when television networks didn’t conform to propagating reality shows, competing for dominance and ratings and falsely equating how competition shows were a shortcut to achieving the American. VH1, a channel that used to focus solely on music, was one of my favorite channels to turn to, watching old and new music videos. Pop-Up Video remains a favorite childhood show for me, where I sat down on a worn brown couch to watch the encyclopedic pop-up bubbles with brief background information, almost analogous to an interactive PowerPoint presentation, overloading my curious mind with pop culture factoids. My parents complained that those were times wasted, but it was a time when I thought I got to temporarily experience a form of American childhood, watching popular programs, regardless of how minute that time was. While I did get to experience partial sounds that defined the 90s, it was difficult not to compare how Western music became timeless discographies while some aged out—some aging very badly—while the present musicscape capitalizes on nostalgia to move forward. I don’t know much about music, selectively watching the same music video replays my sisters often watched and listening to the catchy tunes of whatever was on constant airplay.
Restrictions came with cultural maintenance. Days were spent secretly listening to the top airplay singles on the radio; sometimes the parents just had to accept that they couldn’t control the radio. There was a time when my brother hid his first Tupac CD that he somehow covertly purchased when he didn’t even have his license yet. My sister had a small collection of cassette tapes that hazardously piled on a cheap pink shelf nailed onto the wall, ranging from the Spice Girls to Britney Spears to the Titanic soundtrack I remembered purchasing for her as a birthday gift after weeks of saving my allowance, and other artists who dominated the 90s musicscape. Our auditory systems were heightened, thrilled by lyrics and the catchy basic beats of sounds forbidden in the secure, comforting confinements of our house became a different listening experience as familiar and recognized phrases became sources of comfort as opposed to the poetic imagery framed in nhạc Việt Nam. If you didn’t understand, you simply weren’t fluent enough, which outsiders will question your level of Asianness, or in our case, how authentic our Vietnamese identities were.
Having never purchased any form of Western music for myself during my childhood, I do remember fondly listening to Savage Garden, an Australian duo, perhaps best known for their ballad, “Truly Madly Deeply,” during the height of the 90s love songs’ playlist. As I relistened to my favorite track of theirs after experiencing an unfathomable yearning to listen to past filled with regulated, forbidden childhood sounds. “To the Moon and Back,” a surprisingly dark song from a duo that often recorded very saccharine love ballads, evidence of alienation and pain were reflected in the lyrics: “She can’t remember a time when she felt needed / If love was red then she was color-blind / All her friends, they’ve been tried for treason / And crimes that were never defined.” Colorblind. Treason. Undefined crimes. Themes that tragically remain as common refrains in this very socio-political climate and discourse. Just hearing the words, undefined crimes, conjures several images of marginalized communities in the United States being criminalized for their skin color. Even if I’m listening to the lyrics out of context, questions continue to arise: who gets tried for treason for undefined crimes? Why is colorblind unrecognized and undefined when crimes are based on color?
Darren Hayes, the duo’s vocalist, continues to sing “She’s saying, love is like a barren place / And reaching out for human faith is / Is like a journey I just don’t have a map for.” Raised from parents who became hardened by life due to their survival, and perhaps not a clearly defined sense of directions, intensified by circumstances and factors, I never understood but resented them for as I inevitably inherited their own detachment and cynicism marred by their exile and geographical distance where time doesn’t move for them. Their concept of time was never becoming synchronized with the passage of time winded by others, but they constantly forced themselves to move forward without allotted time for themselves to heal and to process, resituating themselves in a new world that xenophobically dehumanizes people of color, immigrants, and refugees, creating harmful separations and distances by constructing borders and fences between us/them, keeping them/us out as they wait to live like humans and not as people whose freedom of movement have been violently restricted. My parents were always moving, tirelessly, never stopping, to survive. My mother remains moving, never at a standstill, moving from there until waiting for an elsewhere. “Thì cũng phải tiếp tục sống,” my mother sometimes gently says, her tone drawing on a softer inflection than her normal loud voice. She repeated this statement every few years as if reminding herself about the reality of this society. Perhaps for my mother, sounds of movements are a reflection of her survival and her needs for us to survive, but at the same time she continues to look back as she moves forward. Stepping back, moving forward, going ahead, regressing in steps; they all seem like variable moving flows that are often rife with cacophonous missteps. Her loudness marks her survival while her quiet tenors sometimes reveal her trauma.
But cultural beats could always be heard and discerned; it was difficult not to notice the defining differences between Vietnamese music and Western music and the stories behind them. Vietnamese music was a sound of stillness, unmoving, sometimes unprogressive, and repetitive. Hooks remained the same, refrains sounded familiar, but for Ba and Má, Vietnamese music was historical sounds and artifacts of their existence and life prior to becoming refugees. As they waited to listen, to return to the times they were familiar with as they continued waiting to live like accepted and recognized citizen. Continuing to sometimes cautiously listen to American music, as children, my siblings and I also awaited a time about having a conversation with Ba and Má about our hyphenated identity with displaced, faraway roots that have yet to be recovered.
Though sounds remained alive through YouTube and nostalgic airplays, cassettes were a relic of the past that became expendable and discarded for something more favorably advanced. That included the continually changing preference in music as we comparatively decide which songs have become outdated artifacts of an era we were once a part of, but those, too, became a distant memory, waiting to rematerialize after multiple passages of time.
I think for most children with parents who are refugees, music becomes a difficult negotiation and segue between two cultures, two languages, and two conflicting sounds where points of commonalities between notes and tones become difficult to thread. Playlists become a source for cultural and generational clashes.
Linguistic indoctrination is a living norm in the United States where fluency determines opportunities. Vietnamese was the language to be spoken at home, but in a world built with exclusive walls, English was the indoctrinated language that protected us and legitimized us as natural born citizens. The distant American Dream, which metamorphosized into recurrent nightmares for my parents, became closer. I recognize that the American Dream is a frequent theme when writing and speaking about refugees and im/migrants. In his interview with The Nation, Viet Thanh Nguyen tells Jon Wiener that the American Dream is “the immigrant idea,” noting that there is a difference between immigrants and refugees. Immigrants may “fit” into the American landscape because, as Nguyen asserts, America is a “nation of immigrants.” There may be spaces for them; however, there are no geographical spaces for refugees. Stories of refugees do not fit the American mold.
What is the American Dream for refugees? For my parents, both who escaped Việt Nam due to the communist takeover in 1975, a conversation which remains a contesting point within the Vietnamese community, there was no dream but a desire to survive, with a daughter who was born a few years before the war ended and too young to retain any of the historical and political atrocities. Without a doubt, this conversation prompts a sensitive series of questions and ideas about war, history and identity, and will become a part of an inter-generational inheritance where we have to reconcile our renegotiations of our family’s ideologies and involvement of the Việt Nam War. Sometimes intrusive and opening up my mother’s unhealed wounds, I once asked my mother about her American Dream. In an unsteady voice, she once replied, “Má nằm mơ thấy Chị Hai, Anh Ba.” They never made it and they would never know what the American Dream was; their deaths often left my mother awake at night, experiencing nightmares more than falling into a dream realm. As a person born and made in America—something Viet Thanh Nguyen often ruminates about in his writing—I could never clearly articulate what the American Dream is to myself and to my parents; there’s really no living proof of anyone who achieved it without being vilified for taking over American-made jobs or being a victim of racism and xenophobic rhetoric. Alive or dead, I think that some of us don’t even know what the American Dream is or what it entails and what it means to live in a country where dreams are fenced and bordered, driving people away. All of which involve waiting and then being forcibly removed. I would think the American Dream is an illusion, shattered, to unveil a nightmare filled with hostility and violence. The cost of achieving the American Dream is a simultaneous action and inaction: to always wait, whether waiting for legal documents, waiting to be reunited with family, or waiting to be treated as humans.
Speaking in English became a partial mode for survival for us, and yet at home, some of us are being surveilled at home to oblige our parents and their precarious allegiance to their birth country, honoring our cultural traditions became overwhelming with a spirit and autonomy diminished by forced burden, while simultaneously confining ourselves to whatever. The weight became unbearable as monosyllables sparred with multi-syllable rhymes.
Even with the company of coworkers and the accompaniment of silvery rusted machines’ droning, my parents combatted loneliness and their irritation by American music that were unable to identify with, by listening to nhạc Việt Nam or cải lương9; lyrical words that told their stories that are muted and foreign to American outsiders, but voluble within the confinements of our house and my parents’ friends’ houses, and in local phở restaurants where both nhạc vàng and nhạc trẻ—a genre that my parents weren’t particularly fond of, citing generational differences in musical preferences—were always playing, welcoming Vietnamese customers in a way that provided a significant source of comfort for my parents. In our family, Vietnamese music was the ultimate bias, undying and never truly aging out, remaining in its familiar sounds of diasporic yearning. Like an unchanging melody that couldn’t possibly be surpassed from initial recordings or altered in its original compositions, Vietnamese music for Ba was a living constant. It was an immutable form that continued to sound off, reigniting memories of a revised history and a neglected historical peril of the plight of war refugees and survivors. Perhaps to maintain and preserve the Vietnamese language in the house, nhạc vàng Việt Nam, Vietnamese diasporic music, became a constant sound to re-member, refamiliarize, and retain. For my parents, who are refugees, to be displaced into a foreign country while simultaneously being labeled as foreigners invading spaces and benefits that should be entitled to natural-born American citizens and not someone who fled or migrated due to circumstance. Familiar Vietnamese songs unwaveringly flowed from the bedroom to the living room. Constant, lingering sounds of the diaspora that were inescapable. Multiple classic sound/tracks that I can remember the words to, singing in an unpleasantly tone-deaf rhythm that made my parents cover their ears, blandly informing me that I had no future of becoming the next ca sĩ Việt Nam. I knew my strengths and was equally aware of my weaknesses: I could never make it as a Vietnamese singer. Besides the realization of never becoming a singer, the tragically yet fondly harmonizing stories prewar were focal conversational topics between my parents, especially my father, whose life was, at times, encompassed by Vietnamese music.
Nights when it’s quiet and I’m attempting to write, sometimes in memory of my father and his stories that he used to repeatedly re-tell, I listen to nhạc thu âm trước 1975, for both nostalgia and to remember my own conflicting feelings about Vietnamese music, as I wait for ineffable reasons. Old cassette tapes and CDs that were re-recorded and re-released to maintain the crackling sounds of Vietnamese yellow music that once belonged to my father remain in a box; a few times when I return to my mother’s house, I listen to them, but on nights where yowling cats and voices that ricochet due to thin walls accompany me on quiet nights, I selectively listen to the Vietnamese singers my parents, mostly my father, listened to, inheriting his musical preference. It’s difficult to singularly describe nhạc Việt Nam; it’s very encompassing, compiled with a range of ballad, romance, tragic love songs, war songs, and other synonymous compositions.
I think most Vietnamese parents have specific musical preferences, desiring to relisten to singers that will remain as immortal historical figures of pre-1975 nhạc Việt Nam: Thanh Thúy, Mai Lệ Huyền, Thanh Tuyền, Phương Dung, Hoàng Oanh, Hương Lan, Thiên Trang, Duy Khánh, Trần Thiện Thanh, Chế Linh, Hùng Cường, Trung Chỉnh. This isn’t half of the list of singers who defined nhạc vàng, but these are some of the many singers I grew up listening to or watched on the many VHS tapes and DVD collections my parents purchased from Asia Entertainment, Thúy Nga, and Vân Sơn Vietnamese musical variety shows. Aside from my parents’ stories, these entertainment companies often retold and replicated images and the plight of refugees and the lives of both Vietnamese soldiers and civilians during the war, which became essential sources of understanding the Vietnamese diaspora and the Việt Nam War. Stories about people that American schools never included, excluding them further into the invisible margins of obscurity.
Times when a sizeable 5-disc CD changer micro system, where music never stops playing as the machine shuffles through multiple CDs, decorated our living room, I remember constantly listening to Như Quỳnh’s first CD, Chuyện Hoa Sim, produced by Asia Entertainment and released in 1995. Như Quỳnh would be categorized as part of the 1.5 Vietnamese generation, who was born in the 1970s, during the Việt Nam War, but too young to remember it. My parents were indifferent to Như Quỳnh, specifically my father because he maintained that first-generation voices remain a part of the Vietnamese musicscape and they were untouchable and irreplaceable. When Duy Khánh passed away in 2003, my father once claimed, “Duy Khánh chết rồi không ai hát như vậy được nữa,” which became his appeal once other Vietnamese diasporic singers started passing away. But my mother did have a soft preference for her thanh thoát, singing in a slow yet somber tone as she narrates a familiar story about the war and diaspora. When I was still following her career through several obscure websites with hyperlinks that have long died as the Internet expands in rapid development, Chuyện Hoa Sim was reportedly the best-selling CD in 1995, and it wasn’t difficult to determine the reason. People living in the diaspora and waiting in a constant state of limbo consume nostalgia, holding onto those memories of war and survival while remembering the dead. Fighting in a war meant leaving people behind. Hopelessness of fighting an ongoing, even non-winnable war, compounded by memories of both the living and dead, becomes a daily struggle. For some of the living, this becomes survivor’s guilt. As painful as these memories are, survivors will maintain and preserve them, always remembering them. Several renditions have been recorded since Như Quỳnh’s version, but her version remains the most popular and memorable. In the điệp khúc, Như Quỳnh narrates:
Ôi lấy chồng chiến binh
Oh marrying a warrior
Lấy chồng thời chiến chinh,
mấy người đi trở lại
Marrying during wartime,
how many people will return
Sợ khi mình đi mãi,
sợ khi mình không về
Afraid that I will leave forever,
afraid that I will never return
Thì thương người vợ
bé bỏng chiều quê
I love my wife
Nhưng không chết
người trai khói lửa
But the warrior isn’t dead
Mà chết người em nhỏ
But the little sister is dead
Mà chết người em gái
But my dear sister I love is dead
The song is based on a poem, “Màu Tím Hoa Sim,” written by Hữu Loan, who was inspired by the events during the Indochina War. Several nhạc Việt Nam narrate stories about the fear of not returning home from war and the ones being left behind, usually women, having to wait for men to return home. When listening to this song in the present, I’m reminded of Hanif Abdurraqib’s analysis of Kendrick Lamar’s song, “Alright,” where the song “promises nothing.” The history behind the song, “Chuyện Hoa Sim” doesn’t change all that much when considering its solemn and tragic tone, it’s still very much a song about the brutalities and realities of war; war almost always promises nothing, but the story’s context doesn’t change, the story’s context does: war impacts women yet their voices are hardly ever heard and their stories are relegated to the invisible margins of footnotes. Vietnamese Women did serve in the war, but history pays very little attention to their contributions. Women who did not serve in the war are relegated to becoming waiting figures. The glorification and selective remembering of war becomes a gendered perspective. Men and women were/are both victims and survivors of war, but unlike men, no one waits for women to return.
Ha Jin’s novel, Waiting, centers on three characters: Lin Kong, an army doctor; Manna Wu, a nurse and Lin’s girlfriend; and Shuyu, Lin’s wife. Each waiting for decisions to be made: a long wait of promises of matrimony, a stalling waiting period of an impending divorce, and waiting for life’s fulfilment. Lin does proceed with the divorcing, leaving Shuyu after 18 years to marry Manna, but in the end of the novel, Manna’s heart fails after giving birth to their twins, and Lin asks Shuyu to forgive and reconcile with him after Manna dies since she doesn’t have much time to live. Shuyu agrees, and another waiting period continues the cycle as the women wait for a man to decide his life’s trajectory. Life isn’t always structured in this pattern of fragmented promises and fractured relationships; like refrains, they’re common, but vary depending on context and the circumstances. But perhaps like the characters in Waiting, we’re always in a queue, remaining to connect to a line only to be disconnected, lingering on the margins, and simply waiting. But who waits longer in the infinite queue? And in life?
Waiting, both a ubiquitous term and action, is a universal theme in nhạc Việt Nam, too. War waits for no one; it’s almost as if the prerequisite of war is to leave people behind, making them wait for someone’s return. After years of reflectively relistening to nhạc Việt Nam as an older adult, though nostalgia accompanied by beautifully composed music that’s atmospheric, it’s difficult to deny that I’ve developed volatile ears when it came to Vietnamese music, a shared sentiment shared by some of my siblings I grew up with. Như Quỳnh’s song, “Chờ Người,” composed by Khánh Băng, which is sung in almost a cold, fatalistic tone, captures a woman, standing there, observing, waiting for someone to return. As much as Vietnamese war chronicles and reveals several unknown perspectives about wartime and war life in Việt Nam, most famous and remembered Vietnamese composers were/are men, writing about the fate of women. Waiting for someone to return isn’t at all reciprocal or equitable. Echoing in common refrains, women are either waiting forever for soldiers, or in general, men, to return, get married off while the soldier or former love sings in a depressing tempo, or they get killed off while their waiting period ends abruptly. Women’s partial lives are dedicated as lyrics. Their deaths and waiting figures remain in memory, but I don’t think anyone else will continue waiting for them.
Like Shuyu in the novel, Waiting, Vietnamese women are written as passive romantic loyalists, never leaving, always waiting. Unable to keep up with my mother’s many stories, I often forget whether she’s waited for anyone in her life when she was still living in Việt Nam; there’s always that reemerging impulse to know if and how long she’s waited for someone, or if that person she waited for was my father. The question becomes muted whenever I stare at my mother.
Vietnamese women in nhạc Việt Nam become waiting subjects in each line and note. It’s a stagnancy and lull in the music, but they have yet to redefine their sound since the same songs are being re-recorded. Perhaps this is the industry’s inertia, unwilling to accommodate or redefine sounds and songs, restricting to tell other stories beyond the familiar. Many times do I hear my parents’ friends using “it’s just a part of our culture” to justify and perpetuate the exclusions and oppressions of other perspectives that do not align with traditional Confucian perspectives. Even life in America does not exempt Vietnamese American women from becoming waiting subjects. There have been a few times where my status as a leftover woman who is aging out of the marriage system became a focal point of discussion. Multiple Vietnamese women have asked my mother when I will get married or if I am in a long-term relationship that will secure a future marriage or whether I was merely waiting for someone to select me like in The Bachelor. My response has always been a firm no since marriage isn’t a priority, something my parents surprisingly agreed with as they became an outlier of several dominating and overbearing Vietnamese parents. But this scenario reminds me of the Vietnamese songs I listen to, neither diverse nor welcoming. In 2010, Như Quỳnh released a song, “Duyên Phận,” composed by Thái Thịnh, which is really about how Vietnamese women are predestined to be married off. Như Quỳnh concludes the song by asking, “Đời người con gái không muốn yêu ai được không?” The song unpacks the traditional fate of women, but what does maintaining traditions and culture mean or look like in modern life? I’m sure there’s an answer, but one that is shrouded with contradictions and regrets. Ba and Má knew I wasn’t waiting for someone, but for something.
Songs never have a timestamp on them, but perhaps in Vietnamese music, those that have repeatedly been re-sung and re-recorded inflect a sentiment of postwar grief, a grief that’s indescribable to me, yet I’m wondering if I’ve inherited that generational grief. I can see how that grief never dissipates. When I listen to certain songs, I contemplate the many unresolved feelings, lingering resentments, or attachments from the past that my parents carried over into the present, projecting some of these feelings onto us. Maybe those resentments and conflicting feelings become a part of diasporic family’s inheritance. It’s not material, but very tangible and difficult to let go.
Some nights exist when the last string riffs cease into a noiseless, motionless coda; I observe my mother at a short distant, not wanting to be in touching proximity yet close enough for my eyes to stare at her. On those nights her body is still as her face, wrinkled from time and scarred by decades of trauma, remaining thoughtful yet restless, as if remembering some nights when the familiar desperate sounds of nhạc Việt Nam transitions painfully from a gentle ritardando to an eventual fading diminuendo remind her of those who once survived to live. And on those nights, we both grieve, sometimes for the same person, but for my mother, she’s remained in a quiet, tragically uninterrupted grieving state since 1975, witnessing multiple deaths and having to bury them away from her motherland as she weeps for how dead our immediate family remains longitudinally displaced and forgotten. Our souls momentarily disappear as I continuously cry into the night, remembering my father.
We both wonder who’s the next one waiting as soundless shadows fade into the night, only to return and repeat.