In 1980, the name Đặng Thái Sơn was everywhere: on the lips of the ladies at the market, in the newspapers I saved from food wrappings, on the nightly news, and blaring from our neighborhood loudspeakers. He even made it to our dinner table.
Bố [i]said, “Đặng Thái Sơn — what an accomplishment to win the International Chopin Competition.”
“I hope they won’t put him into re-education camp when he returns,” Great Uncle responded. It was one of the rare nights that Nội[ii]‘s younger brother wasn’t too drunk to make it to our dinner table.
“Đặng Thái Sơn is the country’s new hero. A shining star for Communist Vietnam,” Nội responded.
Great Uncle pursed his lips at Nội and said, “Playing the piano is bourgeois. Owning a piano is bourgeois. Doing anything remotely related to culture and art is bourgeois. They would prefer you do nothing. Just be a waste of time and space and be nothing.”
“But this is a big accomplishment for Vietnam,” Bố continued.
“Ah! You forgot already! The biggest accomplishment was kicking the Americans out.” Great Uncle motioned his index finger toward the front door.
In 1980, I had been out of school for two years. The government had taken our hộ khẩu[iii] when we applied to immigrate to America. Má[iv] managed to keep us in school for a while after the Communist took over, but by 1978 the government finally caught up to us and we couldn’t go to school anymore. In the beginning, I didn’t mind not going and didn’t ask any questions. But two years later, I missed it. Maybe that was why I became interested in the piano. I thought, if they wanted to put Đặng Thái Sơn into a re-education camp, then it must be a good camp because he would get some sort of education.
I was bored at home and had to devise activities to pass the time. My sibling and I were kept pad-locked behind the thick iron gate of our house because the neighbors might be watching and report our wrongdoings or not wrongdoings to the local police. So, I prepared a few options:
- Spying on my brothers playing their war games. May join them if they let me.
- Torturing my little sister, Út[v], by making her play “school.” Of course, I was the teacher, and she, the unwilling student.
- If I was lucky, I might get a story from Nội. She was an excellent storyteller. My favorites were the French stories with the Musketeers.
- Maybe, just maybe, I could add a fourth option: Learning how to play the piano.
Even back then, I knew that in our family, decision-making had an order and authority that was similar to the Communist Party. A decision would pass from one adult to the next, then up to a higher command, then back down to the second in command, and then, once approved, return to the first for the final approval. By the time this process was done, I would forget what I wanted in the first place. To help me figure this out, I drew a decision tree with some branches and wrote down Má, Bố, and Nội in different orders.
I decided to approach Má first. I mapped out that she would refer me to Bố. Then Bố would say, “Ask grandma.” And Nội would respond, “I’m really not the person to make decisions about your education and it’s really up to your parents.” So, I then started the process over again, but this time, I started with Bố first hoping that my luck would change. I had a lot of time on my hands to experiment.
With my decision tree in hand, I was ready to face the institution. I choose my words carefully: “Má, do you think maybe piano would be interesting?”
I didn’t use the word “want” because we shouldn’t “want” anything for ourselves. It would be selfish. If I used the word “want,” it should be “wanting something for the whole family.” I chose “interesting” instead of “fun.” With the famine, hardship, and loss of everything we had, we shouldn’t have “fun” or even want to have “fun.” But maybe my word choices were too careful. She gave me a puzzled look, said, “Hmm…” and walked away. She didn’t even send me to talk to Bố. Defeated, I imagined that my vague question disappeared as soon as the next thought entered her mind. I returned to mentally filling days upon days of emptiness.
Then one afternoon Má said, “Tomorrow, I will take you to have your first piano lesson.” Surprise and excitement filled my chest. Then Má said, “But on one condition.” My heart fell into a deep dark well. Would she make me bring Út to the lessons or would I be stuck washing all the dishes from now on? I hated washing dishes. One of those days that I had to wash so many dishes, I pretended to break a few bowls by accident. I made sure they were old ones. Má was so mad that I was banned from touching the dishes for days but that only lasted a week before she put me back on dishwashing again.
I closed my eyes waiting for the verdict. “If you take piano lessons,” Má continued, “You have to stick with it and not give up.” I couldn’t believe it. Was that it? Relieved, I opened one eye first and peeked to make sure that she was not joking. That was it? That was easy. I cheerfully replied, “Dạ[vi], Má. I promise.”
On the day of my first lesson, I rose early and wore my favorite blue dress that Bố had brought from America. I washed my hands twice to get the dirt out from under my fingernails. I wanted clean hands to touch the piano. Má took me on our old rusty orange bicycle. We rode past Tân Định church, which was next to my old elementary school, trường Thiên Phước. Or was it trường Hai Ba Trưng? The names of streets, schools and buildings kept changing to make them sound more communist. Đường Tự Do, Freedom Street, became Đồng Khởi, a united front to fight the Americans. Caravelle Hotel changed to khách sạn Độc Lập, Independence Hotel, to erase the legacy of French colonization.
Má stopped in the courtyard where I had attended first and second grade. But unlike the noisy schoolyard I remembered, on this Saturday, it was empty and quiet. I was confused. Was piano school the same as regular school? Má led me through the yard to a tall steel gate and a sign that said Cấm không vào![vii] My teachers had warned us not to enter this gate, and I had imagined horrible things would happen if we crossed. Without hesitation, Má pushed the gate open and walked in. Was Má breaking the law?
Beyond the gate was a sunlit barren concrete courtyard. Through the glare of the sun, I could make out a series of rooms at the other end. They were hidden in the shade behind a row of mustard-colored arches supporting a deteriorating terra-cotta roof. As we got closer, the rooms became even darker.
Má and I passed the arches and arrived at the first doorway. Peering into the darkness, I saw a white triangle on top of another longer white triangle floating slowly toward us. Moving closer to the light, within the top triangle emerged a small long face—it was a nun walking toward us. Dread and fear strangled my excitement. I was so excited to learn the piano, but I dreaded that it could be from a nun. I grew up hearing scary corporal punishment stories of nuns firmly wielding the wooden rulers – a lot of red, swollen, and even bleeding hands. I closed my eyes and prayed to God that the nuns wouldn’t be my teacher.
The room contained three pianos, each in a different corner of the room. Paralyzed by fear and confusion, I missed the conversation between Má and the nun until Má nudged me and said, “I will come back to pick you up in an hour.”
What I wanted to say was, “Wait! Is this nun my teacher? How come you’re not staying? I don’t want to be here by myself!” Instead, I just nodded and said, “Dạ, Má. I will see you soon.”
“Come back.” A faint voice called out from the back of the room. I got up and followed towards the far side. My eyes adjusted to the darkness. The space widened, deepened and felt colder and colder with each step. I saw a small figure of white floating toward me. A cold breeze swept through like someone just slammed the door, and the air broke with a sharp, “Come here, child! Where are you going?” I turned. Behind me was a body draped in a curtain of white with a black outline. It looked like the keys of the piano were draped over her collar and the trim of her white headdress.
She was not very tall. She had no ears and no visible hair. They were hidden behind the black and white head-cloth that hung to the middle of her back. A shiny silver cross dangled below her stiff black collar. She had a big tall nose that filled most of her face. She had wrinkled eyes and wrinkled hands, but not as wrinkled as Nội. She also was skinny and shrunk with her habit hung loosely around her. I nicknamed her bà Nhăn Nheo Rụt Rịt Rút Rít, wrinkly and small…Shrinkly!
“Show me your hands,” Shrinkly demanded. I offered my hands palms up, dreading that she might start the lesson by hitting me with a ruler. She peered at them and moved with her index finger in a circle. I nodded and presented the other side. I was glad I had washed them. “Good. Make sure you come to class with clean hands.”
Shrinkly pointed to the chair and table next to the piano and asked me to sit down. The tabletop had a white strip of paper taped on it. On the paper was a hand-drawn copy of the piano keys. Why was she making me sit down here on this table with this fake piano when there were three empty pianos to use? I obediently sat down. She walked behind me, lifted my right elbow, and dropped my hand onto the table. She then took my thumb and dragged it to a white space between two black lines. She said, “Do,” and asked me to repeat after her. I murmured, “Do.”
Shrinkly shook her head, “You must sing louder and listen carefully to get the right tone.” Her voice had a deep vibration as if she had drunk too much coffee and there was a hard candy stuck in the middle of her throat. I took a deep breath and exhaled “Do” as loud as I could. She nodded approvingly. Using her index finger, she pushed my right index finger onto the adjacent white space. She sang, “Re,” and I repeated, “Re.” She did the same for the next three fingers on my right hand, “Mi,” “Fa,” “Sol.”
Then from the stack of books above the piano, Shrinkly pulled a thin pink book. She pointed to the cover Méthode Rose and said, “Your mom will need to get you this book. For now, you can borrow this until you get your own.” She opened the first page. There was a cute fluffy white cat with a giant red bow on its neck standing with its paws pressed down on the white piano keys. Shrinkly pointed to the four lines with the black circle nestled between two lines on the second row and told me that it was “Do.” She then showed me the rest of the notes and their position on the page. A few rounds and I got the notes down.
She lifted my left hand and dropped it onto the table, but instead of my left thumb, she moved my left pinkie to a white key and said, “Do.” We went back and forth between the left and right hand, having me play Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, Fa, Mi, Re, Do at least ten times. Satisfied that I had mastered this simple routine, she said, “Now do it with both hands. This means you will start with your left pinky and your right thumb at the same time on ‘Do.’”
I looked at the now-familiar paper keys and felt confident to take on this new challenge. The right hand was easy, and the left wasn’t too bad. I lifted both hands and placed the left pinky and right thumb on the white note in front of the two black keys. I started “Do,” but both my thumbs went down instead of my pinky and thumb. I lifted both my hands to figure out what had just happened. Annoyed, I stuck my left thumb to the side of my index finger and pulled my left pinky up, ready to follow orders. Again, trying to play “Do,” both thumbs went down while my left pinky was still left wavering in the air. Determined, I tucked my left thumb in the underside of my palm and this time forced my left pinky to go down first, then my right thumb following “Do.” There, I did it!
With intense concentration, I willed each finger from both hands to follow my commands “Do,” “Re,” “Mi,” “Fa,” “Sol,” “Fa,” “Mi,” “Re,” “Do.” Shrinkly left me there to practice this scale and she disappeared to the back of the room.
Bang, bang, tap, tap, the tips of my fingers carefully placed on the flat table surface between the band of white spaces and black lines. I liked “Mi” the best because it used the middle finger on both hands. “Do” and “Sol” were the hardest. Then the occasional unruly “Fa” and “Re” mix themselves up. It was not me who made the mistakes but the stubborn fingers themselves. They simply could not follow my clear directions. It seemed like I was on the saddle taming ten wild horses.
With the fingers settling into a rhythm, it freed my mind and eyes to quickly scan the room. Next to my table was a real piano with sleek black and white keys. I wondered how they would feel or sound when I pressed on them. Would they be heavy or light? I imagined their cool, smooth, and silky surfaces—so much for me washing my hands twice this morning. They certainly won’t sound like what I was humming in my head.
I tried to picture the mechanics inside this magical wooden box. What went on inside? What created the sound if I pressed the keys? Was there a tiny little person plugging or pounding something every time a key was hit? Did he or she run back and forth between the right hand and the left hand or were there two little people, one for the right and one for the left hand, dancing and singing out the notes when pressed the keys. The Méthode Rose book had cats pressing on the piano keys, but I was smart enough to know that there weren’t cats inside the piano, maybe rats, but definitely not cats.
My fingers tapped the unforgiving rigid wooden table, playing the five-note concerto. I transformed my clumsy fingers into an international prize-winning piano prodigy playing to an audience of ghostly white nuns floating around my corner. I searched for the white figure from earlier and felt a cool breeze gently brush my little fingers.
“Why aren’t you singing the notes?” snapped me back to the dark room, to life under the Communists, and to the scary nun, hands on her hips, head cocked to one side. Shrinkly demanded a choir to my five-note concerto.
I opened my mouth. Notes floated up like bubbles from a fish. Opened and closed, I mouthed the notes like a fish out of water gasping for air, tóp tép[viii]…tóp tép…
Tongue clicking sounds interrupted my gasp for air. The forceful string of “No! No! No! No…” delivered with head shakes and finger-wagging like the tail of an excited dog in front of a giant pile of bones. “Not in tune. Not the right note.” A quick pause then, “Not it. Not the tones.” Shrinkly inhaled deeply, “Listen for the tone. Mi, not mì or mí.” Her hands delivered these words like an important speech, “It’s mi here in the middle,” with fingers spreading wide to spew venom.
How many wrong things can I collect in one day? Were all new students like this or was it just me? Was I that bad? I knew that I wasn’t a good student, but I thought I was better after a two years break or was I just out of practice with learning. I would never be good at anything. Just like my family said, “Girls are never good at anything.”
I wished that there were other students in this room learning so I could see if others would get yelled at like I was. I didn’t want to get kicked out after the first lesson. That would be so shameful for my family. “Concentrate! Focus!” I verbally beat it into my head, “Work harder! Make it better!” I resigned that God had abandoned me. God didn’t answer my prayer and, instead, had given me Shrinkly as my teacher.
I started to hear a “Yes. That’s it!” but then followed immediately by, “No! No!” At least it was two “Noes” this time and not four.
Intense dread overpowered my excitement of learning music and piano. I felt triple stuck; with Shrinkly as my piano teacher, in this dark room with pianos I couldn’t touch, on top of it all, being stuck in Communist Vietnam where I couldn’t go to school. Would I be here learning the piano in this room until we leave Vietnam? I just had my first lesson. Had I even been accepted as a student? I wanted to be accepted. I learned a lot today and, at times, it was fun especially when I finally tamed my wild fingers. Why didn’t she let me play on the actual piano? I wouldn’t need to do the stupid humming if I played on the piano. I must try to get myself to the piano. But the tone or tune or notes that she wanted me to hum along was confusing. So much yelling so many “Noes.” I was uncertain if I wanted to be accepted as a student and also unsure about wanting to learn the piano.
I closed my eyes, concentrated, and prayed again, “Please God, come and save me.”
I heard the faint clicking of a bicycle wheel. It was getting louder and louder, followed by the clip clop echo of a familiar guốc gỗ[ix] smacking the tiles. No, God did not answer my prayers today. Má did. Má arrived in time to save me.
[ii] Paternal grandmother
[iii] Census book
[v] A common nick name for the youngest child in the family.
[vii] No Entry
[viii] Open and closed mouth sound. Chewing or onomatopoeia of mouth moving up and down.
[ix] Traditional Vietnamese wooden clogs
Born and raised in Sài Gòn, BeBe Khuê Jacobs moved to New York in her teens. Graduated from the University of Virginia with an M.A. in Architecture, she helped build a new city in Vietnam called “Saigon South.” A perennial artist, she managed an animation studio, served as art curator for the City of Los Angeles, and freelances as a photographer. Passionate about writing, her many projects include a memoir detailing her childhood under Communist Vietnam, writing poetry, and translating her grandmother’s Vietnamese poems into English verse and visual art.