diaCRITICIZE: Loudspeakers in different languages

diaCRITICIZE is the periodic editors’ note or guest editorial. Here, Nguyen Qui Duc reflects on some legacies of war.

The war’s over. I am so glad. I can go back to sleep. I haven’t been able to for most of April.

All of last month, the war raged on. Yes: that war. You know what I’m talking about. That little annoying thing that made no sense to so many people. The one that changed America, and Viet Nam. It won’t friggin’ go away. That stubborn thing ended in April, 35 years ago, but it’s still here.

Public loudspeakers have been a feature of life here in Ha Noi for decades. Government news and directives. Productivity and corruption. The week’s social campaign. Party meetings. Neighborhood alerts to new trash and parking policies. Martial music.

When I moved here three years ago, the public loudspeakers stopped being so loud. The people were complaining. No one really listened to them. They disrupted the buying and selling. The loudspeakers interfered with many of us trying to read other news on the internet. They contradicted what people experienced in their real lives.

I’m told some people sneaked up to their roofs at night like thieves and reached out to cut the wires. Others paid workers to point the thing skyward and waited for the rain.

For a while, it seemed the loudspeakers listened to the people for a change. They just simply shut up, or faded away.

Little did I know. The wire were still live. This past April, the loudspeakers were at it again. It was the war, all over again. 8am. 4pm. 8pm. War, war, war.

During the war, the loudspeakers must have been helpful. Sirens, air attack alerts, orders to evacuate and seek shelter. Last month, as the loudspeakers went back to work, they might have reminded the older generation of those difficult and hurtful days when American aircraft sent bombs exploding all over the place. Rolling thunders, or some such awe-inspiring war campaign slogans.

Now, there’s a new generation. And what comes out of the loudspeakers is simply a bothersome, irritating chatter. It keeps you from sleeping or enjoying your coffee, it makes it difficult to listen to your i-pod.

And it talks about something no one really wants to hear in this town. The Vietnam War.

They sure like to make a big deal of that victory. And believe me, 35 years later, that victory—the ‘liberation of South Viet Nam’ and the ‘nation’s reunification’ is a big deal. Some say it’s just a way for the party to maintain moral authority. We did it.  We defeated a big country. We reunified the nation. That just went on and on and on on the loudspeakers for most of April.

Doesn’t matter that some people also think ‘we’ defeated the country only to surrender to its economic and Kentucky Fried Chicken power a couple of decades later. And some have also been talking about reunification, except that they wonder what would have happened if the nation had been reunified under a different regime.

Visiting Saigon, a Ha Noi friend wistfully said, “Sometimes I wish the Americans, and the French could have stayed longer. Give the North some of the openness of Saigon.”

She was referring both to architectural openness, the wide streets and more orderly construction. And she was also referring to the cafés, the shops, and the sidewalks where people openly go about their business, enjoying themselves, with little apparent interference from the police, and the bureaucrats. And she was referring to the attitude of the people, saying what they mean, and meaning it.

She’s of a generation that hadn’t really thought about the war, other than the stuff told in school. The hard sacrifices and the determination of her parents’  generation, the heroic exploits to defeat a big and brutal enemy. Some of that is true, but as time passes, she’s learning other things.

Back in Ha Noi, she and her friends came to hear three Vietnamese American writers read at the gallery and café I run. She says her English wasn’t good enough to get it all, but she was beginning to get a sense of what it meant. For the people who weren’t victors. Who sought refuge in America and worked hard to create jobs, new roots and new identity for themselves outside the country.

That was the stuff writers Ben Tran and Andrew Lam talked about one night in the gallery . They talked of defeat, of new opportunities, of memories of another Viet Nam.

Andrew Lam at Tadioto

Not too many people attended the reading, but those who did walked away saying nothing like that had been said in public in Ha Noi. Damn right, you wouldn’t hear this stuff on the loudspeakers. (Watch for another post when I tell you what happened when Andrew Lam and his journalistic colleagues left my joint. Friends were questioned, people I don’t particular like showed up at my place. That’s another saga.)

And my Ha Noi friends also said, you guys overseas—you Viet Kieu—are obsessed with the Viet Nam war.

Damn right we are. I didn’t quite respond that way. But I tried to explain that it’s a situation forced upon us. While many Vietnamese artists and writers overseas don’t like to dwell on it, others are asked to do so all the time. Give us your war, give us your experience, your poor history, your personal tragedies, so we can understand what we did in the war, so we might figure out what to do with this vague guilt. Some of us overseas artists definitely feel a need to tell that story—it isn’t really told anywhere else.

I was sticking to my Irish whiskey, and noticed my friend was drinking a definitely American thing, a Kentucky bourbon. She kept going, but why won’t you move on from the war?

We tried, and we are still trying. But that’s our identity, partly, I said. It’s who we are, who we were forced to be. A displaced, uprooted people with the word war imprinted on our face, in our heart, and on the stuff we produce as filmmakers, journalists, writers, painters, etc. We remember the war.

I’ve always thought it’s the people inside that don’t remember. First it was the harsh post-war life that didn’t allow people to indulge in the past. No sense thinking about some other misery when you’re struggling inside another. Then, as the country opened up and became richer, a younger generation’s looking to the future, where there are SUVs and i-pods and foreign universities and hip-hop music.

The loudspeakers may remember that war, and their victory of 35 years ago. But some here in Viet Nam have seemed to adopt the American habit of simply thinking of historical dates as a chance for a short vacation, and some discounted shopping at the local mall.

Maybe in the countryside, things are a little bit different but here in Ha Noi, it’s no use living in the past.

And so after le thi diem thuy, another Vietnamese-American, finished her performance, and read from her book The Gangster We Are All Looking For, my local friends repaired to their Jack Daniel glasses and bar stools, and commented on our obsession.

It would have been tough for them to understand the irony in the fact that the obsession with the war also drove people like le thi diem thuy mad. America’s obsessed. And we needed to talk. Le thi diem thuy wrote a poem with the line “Vietnam is not a war,” in bold.

le thi diem thuy

I explained to my local friends that we artists in the diaspora have a dual role. We have to keep the memory alive, while speaking to another audience who doesn’t seem to get that Vietnam is a country, a nation, a culture, a people. That, boy and girlfriends, is a loud problem for us. How to make people understand we’re not all peasants in black pajamas running around trenches with AK54s, being blown up by guys named Rambo. We’re a nation, not a ready metaphor for new American experiences in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now that I live here, I’m glad to have the opportunities to bring diasporic voices to audiences inside the country. We come back, and through our artistic work, some of us correct the image of Viet Kieu as enemies of the people, or as moneyed idiots. We talk to them of our defeat inside Viet Nam 35 years ago, of humility and of hardships and triumphs elsewhere in the world.

It’s a small audience. Nothing compared to the amount of people literally losing sleep because of the loudspeakers. We’re all taking about the same thing.

That war that won’t go away. Especially at the arrival of anniversaries.

But people like Ben Tran, and Andrew Lam, and le thi diem thuy, we’re talking about that past in different ways. We aren’t the loudspeakers. And the loudspeakers don’t talk like we do.

It’s not quite a war anymore between us. No more shouting match: it’s been 35 years. But we’ll be talking for another 35 or 40 or 50 years before we speak the same language. Who knows, maybe the Vietnam War will never end.

Nguyễn Quí Đức

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  1. Well, yes, even in the deep South of the Dong Bang, the loudspeakers go on and on and on when we get to 30/4. 37 years of liberation and what’s there? The only thing i feel grateful for is that my husband gets to come back for the ancestral anniversaries now, that my sons and daughter can visit. Small mercies.

  2. If you’re in Ha Noi, twelve of Nguyen Van Cuong’s vases, with hand painted images of a society gone mad, are in an exhibit.
    From Hanoi Grapevine review – 16 June 2009
    “[At Tadioto] …. there’s the aggressively satirical work of Nguyen Van Cuong. It’s the symbolic drawings on the vessels standing along a shelf that demand and deserve lots of viewer time. They speak of power, corruption, sexism, racism plus a few other isms. Of all the young artists poking their tongues out at modern society Cuong is perhaps the most in your face. He’s been exploring the concept for some years now and the developing results are exciting and make you laugh out loud and at the same time leave you with a bit of an empty pit at the bottom of your stomach. To say the work is uniquely Vietnamese in focus misses the finger pointing at globalized greed, power and corruption that stigmatizes the innocent and the powerless. Fabulous stuff.”
    There are also two of his dollar-bill drawings, one about 10 years old, one brand new.
    Fabulous article.

  3. I went on a trip with some Semester at Sea students from America. They struck me as one said, “When I hear of Vietnam, the first image that pops up in my head is war.”

    On the one hand, the government here wants to portray Vietnam as a new, dynamic country (if not economy). On the other hand, it also wants to reiterate the victory, which would automatically bring the tearful images of war.

    I don’t know how long it’ll take people to get out of the trap.

    You might be interested in this BBC article http://www.bbc.co.uk/vietnamese/vietnam/story/2009/01/090118_viet_american_views.shtmlents from America. They stroke me when the

  4. Thank you for the thoughtful comment. We are encouraged that some voices are being heard, books written, translated. As for books and voices being read, heard, understood, accepted, let us hope we shall not have to wait for 100 years. The same goes for the Vietnamese abroad – with each generation, new perspectives on Viet Nam are acquired, developed. Beyond arts and literature, there’s commerce, and education, etc., activities that can help people to co-exist.

  5. I understand that the policy of simplifying the war experience to glory and grandeur postponed much of the grief of the experience, which would eventually breakout. Personal grief cannot be switched on and off. As an Australian, whose countrymen revel in the Gallipoli experience every April, since losing the battle in 1915, I would not find it at all surprising that a government choses to remind all, that they won the war in 1975, amidst great hardship.
    Tis better to talk than fight, but let the loudspeakers give voice to a range of experiences in order to unite the people in their grief and loss. All certainly lost their security and serenity -tis the nature of war.
    This article complains so, that little voice is given to the life changing experiences of those who lived through the war.
    I want to hear from those with diverse experiences, to contemplate how these groups can coexist.

  6. “When people fall in love with each other, they don’t use megaphone to reach out…they whisper
    Great piece!”

  7. A response via Facebook from Anh-Minh Andy Do
    “Interesting thoughtful article. Speaking from the younger generation and myself, I don’t feel the same way about the war, it’s rather alien to me and appears like a blinding or distressing aspect of the growth of country and overseas community.”

  8. some of the tourists were asking each other whether the man in some of the pictures was mao ze dong.
    i whispered, it’s pol pot.
    don’t think they heard me.

  9. Well, to be fair it was the People’s Army who ran the Red Khmer out of Tuol Sleng and piled up the skulls in memorial. So, the tourists were being appropriate, but no they probably didn’t know that either.

  10. btw your hat is bôn-shê-vích.
    makes me think of the tourists wearing red shirts with gold star walking around tuol sleng, the khờ me rouge torture center. don’t think they were aware of the irony. are you?

  11. boat people? do we have to deal with that too?

    love to nam uy.
    and his mother.
    and you.

    you know who this is.

  12. Encouraging that some efforts are being made to present voices from abroad. Monique Truong’s Book of Salt was being translated at one point.
    A publisher here is working to translate le thi diem thuy’s book. Local magazine interviewed her while she was here. She had a reading at Sàn Art in Saigon as well. And other overseas artists are working here, exhibiting,… Some don’t, some do have the war as part of their expression.
    (There’s also an interest in “American GI grunt” books. Larry Heinemann and Wayne Karlin are two authors whose books are being translated. There have been translations of short stories as well… )


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