Dao Strom: From the Other Shore

Dao Strom reflects on her experience of celebrating “Black April” in Vietnam on April 30th for the first time since she left in 1975. A follow-up post  by Viet Thanh Nguyen discussing the significance of “Black April”, as featured before on our diaCRITICIZE column, will be translated into Vietnamese, so stay tuned!

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April 30th/May 1st, 2014 — I am in a hotel room in Hanoi, Vietnam. Drove down from the mountain area of Tam Dao National Park yesterday 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 and beautifully lit up. Throngs of people – mostly young (too young to actually remember April 30, 1975) – cruising and hackey-sacking and eating ice cream and clustering the lake shore paths and the 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 have experienced April 30th in the geography of where it is celebrated as “Reunification Day” – versus the denomination it was given by both the South Vietnamese and the Americans, who remember it as “The Fall of Saigon” and the whole month as “Black April” — a contradiction of spring, of union, a Biblical-themed casting out of the garden, in fact; a common consequence – classically – to the sin and degradation and over-reaching that humans so often have, historically, tended toward. But here, on Vietnamese ground, technically one day after I left 39 years ago, now I get to witness it as what it is here – a day of celebration, of patriotism, at least on its surface appearance – the equivalent of the Fourth of July to Americans: which, in America, one might choose to celebrate with either sincerity or irony, depending on however it is 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. I’ve never been able to be absolutely sincere in my regard of it, whatever side I’ve strayed to stand along. Maybe I’ve always felt a little more comfortable hanging in the shadows, on the peripheries of the festivities, looking in, wondering slightly.

It has been more than 15 years since I was here last. The last time, which was the first time I had come back since that “Fall” of 1975, it was 1996 and I was 23 years old. It was an emotional trip, largely because I encountered cousins who hadn’t seen me since  1975 and I also met my birth father for the first time since my infancy – it was a first return to a Vietnam that I had not expected ever to return to or to know, and that had not expected ever to see me (or any remnants of my family) again.

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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 indefinitely. For many, it’s no big deal anymore. The divide is not the impassable sea, storm, unknown, that it once was. That I had gotten so used to residing on the other side of.

And yet: I encounter discomfiting truths here, within and outside of myself. How I have for years 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 aspects of the faces here, I also do not look like the other women here; people stare at me. I travel also in the company of white men – my closest (and favorite) two companions in the world have joined me here: my half-white, half-Vietnamese son; 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 “Han script,” or chữ Nôm in fact, which, technically, is still Vietnamese. He says, “No good, this Vietnam.” I understand that 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 yet also poetic and productive — before Vietnam had her own written language, her scribes adapted the Chinese script into a form called chữ Nôm, or chữ Hán. The Vietnamese also borrowed words and phrases from the Chinese; my given name, Tiêu-Dao, was one of these. My mother has said it is an unusual name to give to a Vietnamese child because it essentially derives from a philosophical phrase about “wandering” – something Vietnamese people, who like to keep their families together, would not wish upon (especially) a daughter. Most of my mother’s family took the name at its literal meaning, though – the two words separately translate as “pepper” and “knife” – hence the nickname my cousins used to use for me when I was young: “Pepper-knife.”

Once, I encountered a Taiwanese traveler (who stayed a few days in our AirBnB room in Portland, Ore.) who recognized the characters on my arm as meaning, in his words, “Freedom.” I can’t say I have inhabited the name to quite that degree of meaning, though.

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 own written language only sometime in the 1600s. This was given to them by the Portuguese missionaries, who had landed with the goal of converting the Vietnamese from their heathen whatever-were-their-multiple-gods state, to Christianity. The missionaries adapted the phonetic sounds of the Vietnamese language to the Roman alphabet, in order 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 worse – if we really 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, though, 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 at the moment.

All I can say for sure is this: language has its limitations. Language – from the very point we attempt to codify it, to capture it, to call it our own, or to 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 look at it, has no one definitive name. Can really and truly be given no name. Because maybe there are no words for it, in a true manner of perceiving.

Dao Strom is the Oregon-based author of the the novel Grass Roof, Tin Roof and the short story collection The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys. She is also a musician with two albums, Everything that Blooms Wrecks Meand Send Me Home. More info here.

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