Vietnamese Song #0.5: Thành Phố Buồn

While food tends to act as a gateway to my childhood, music also summons the past into the present. I remember listening to Savage Garden’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply” as it played from our radio in the kitchen. I’d wondered how the singer planned to stand on a mountain (of all places!). During long car rides to Virginia, where my older cousins still reside, my siblings and I fell asleep to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” And Nsync’s “Bye Bye Bye” will always bring me back to the moment I made a complete fool of myself as I mimicked the choreography from the music video.

In old family videos, if I concentrate, I can hear my parents’ music playing in the background. A ballad or a saxophone here and there. This is the sound of nhạc tình yêu, or love songs filled with yearning. The genre is popular here with the overseas community since it recalls life in pre-war Vietnam.

I told my parents that I would try and translate the song, “Thành Phố Buồn,” but I committed an immediate faux pas when I chose the version by Đàm Vĩnh Hưng. Sympathetic toward the Communist government, he’s so despised here in the states that the Vietnamese community in California protested one of his concerts. They view him as a symbol of the government that drove them away years ago. An activist even pepper-sprayed him in 2010!

Instead, my mom referred me to Trường Vũ, whom she claims is one of the best singers still alive. As a child, I’ve seen him multiple times on “Paris by Night” (I thought of him as the weird-looking man. I’m sorry; I was just a kid). According to her, he sings sincerely and masterfully while Dam Vinh Huong sings “dở ẹt!”

I worked through the song with my mom’s help. The song’s set in a northern city called Đà Lạt. Đà Lạt back then felt like a Western city (thành phố tây phương), where people wore jackets and shoes mimicking Paris life and fashion–something that my mother envied. She had hoped to live there one day.

She told me about her visit to the city after high school. She stayed somewhere at a high altitude, so high that fog was suspended in the air. And she’d wake to the cold, refreshing air with a cup of coffee. A willow tree stood outside her friend’s house, red flowers in bloom.

With a landscape that inspires romance, it makes sense for writers to find refuge in Đà Lạt. Hence this song that I’m going to translate.

In general, this narrator is missing his lover. He’s drawing up their memories together in Đà Lạt, imploring her, from wherever she is, to do the same. The reason for their separation? Read on, but based on history only: the song was released in 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam War, during a time when carefree moments were punctuated with despair and casualty. Perhaps that’s what the songwriter was thinking about. In a way, I imagine it’s not just the woman the narrator missed, but the happier memories in general.

The words in bold are meant to signal words that go together in phrases. To translate the verses, I first looked up the typical definition or consulted my mom. It was difficult since I wanted to translate the song word-for-word, but as you’ll see below, the straight-forward translation doesn’t always make sense, so I needed to think about the artist’s intention.

Vietnamese: Thành phố nào nhớ không em?

Direct translation: City which remember/miss don’t you (younger woman, his lover)

Artistic translation: Which city do you remember, Love?

I thought the singer was personifying the city, that the city was doing the “remembering,” remembering his lover, who he refers to as em. The Vietnamese language emphasizes pronouns and age differences. Usually, em is someone younger than yourself. Here, it’s the pronoun for his lover.

My mom tells me that he’s asking his lover if he remembers their city.

Nhớ in Vietnamese also means to miss (someone).

Nơi chúng mình tìm phút êm đềm

Place we seek minutes tranquil/serene

The place where we found tranquil times

The tense switch isn’t obvious, but here the narrator refers to their time in the past. êm đềm was a new word for me, because I’ve heard of êm, which means comfortable or soft, but đềm apparently acts as an adverb that softens êm even more. So: tranquil, serene, fond.

Thành phố nào vừa đi đã mỏi

City which is enough to walk until tired

The city where we walked and walked

Okay, so: My mom laughed at how literal I was with the translation. “He’s just saying the city is small. Small enough to walk and be just a bit tired, not completely tired.” The city has hills, requiring steep climbs, which is how he remembers their walks. So, it’s not the distance this couple walked that the narrator remembers; it’s the route that they had taken. It’s a beautiful memory, a further indication of how action affects memory, how the smallest of gestures linger in our mind afterward.

Đường quanh co quyện gốc thông già

Road winding/zig-zagging tangled roots of old pine trees

The winding road with tangled roots of old pine trees

Here the author continues to describe the scenery. When I first translated this line, I thought: “Pine?” The Vietnam I’m most familiar with has coconut trees and palm trees, but pine seems so . . . Northeastern! However, Đà Lạt is in the north and is known for its pine trees. The soil can handle it better, as well as other vegetables like cabbage, carrot, and cauliflower (did I mean to use alliteration, you’ll never know).

When I looked up gốc, the word origin came up, which made me think of roots. Here I imagined the kind of roots that live above ground, all tangled up so that you’d need to step over it. My mother made a face at this: if the songwriter wanted to use roots, why didn’t he use rể?

We’ll agree to disagree here.

Chiều đan tay nghe nắng chan hòa

Afternoon knit hand hear sunny pour dissolve (?)

In the afternoon, we held hands, letting the light pour into us, bringing us a feeling of peace. 

I know. You’re thinking: That’s too many words, Loan!

I was confused as hell translating this since I took it literally. My mom’s eyes lit up at this verse. To describe holding hands, I’ve heard mostly nắm tay, but dan tay, or knitting hands, feels rather specific, more artfully done.

Hòa bình is the word for peace; hòa alone isn’t often used alone, according to my mom. I figured the songwriter omitted the second word because the sound isn’t as pleasant as the word alone.

So, nghe means hear. I adore the songwriter’s synesthesiac take here. The narrator doesn’t just feel the light. He hears it. Isn’t that more powerful? It’s not about feeling light, which seems fleeting, but an emotion deep inside him: peace.

Instead of understanding this line word-for-word, I think I felt it more.

Nắng hôn nhẹ làm hồng môi em

Sunny kiss lightly makes pink lips yours

The sun kisses your lips, turning it pink

I imagine they’re close now, so close that the narrator sees his lover clearly.

Mắt em buồn trong sương chiều..

Eyes yours sad inside dew afternoon

Now, in the foggy/dewy afternoon, your sad eyes . . 

Anh thấy đẹp hơn ..

I see, beautiful more

. . . Makes you more beautiful

My mom thought sương meant fog, but I would think the artist meant dew, which feels more romantic, right? Then again, it depends! In some horror movies, fog = serial killer stalking me, get away, please. In other usages, especially Pride and Prejudice, fog = a hunk emerges. Plus, THAT MUSIC YO!

[cue instrumental]

Một sáng nào nhớ không em?

One morning which remember don’t you?

Which morning do you remember?

Ngày Chúa Nhật ngày của riêng mình

Sunday day of private/especially us

Sundays which were ours alone

I had to wonder again what drew them apart, what took them away from their Sundays.

Thành phố buồn nằm nghe khói tỏa

City sad laying hearing smoke spread

In the sad city where we would lay and listen to the spreading smoke

Perhaps the singer compares the fog to smoke or refers to both of them in one. My mom thought he was describing the mornings where people would cook for themselves, the smoke of their rising fires.

Again, I really appreciate his use of nghe (hearing a sensation instead of feeling it).

Người lưa thưa chìm dưới sương mù 

People thin/sparse sink deeply fog

Thin spread of people lost inside the fog

What a beautiful image. Imagine, people wandering into thick fog, sinking into the fog. GAH.

Quỳ bên nhau trong góc giáo đường

Kneel beside each other inside

We kneel beside each other inside the corner church

I’m the last person to talk about anything related to religion. But the act of kneeling calls to mind marriage, a partnership, a Hallmark movie in which a young blonde is crowned princess besides her prince . . .

In a way, I’m imagining this is their unofficial version of marrying one another, showing their love before their god.

Tiếng kinh cầu đệp mộng yêu đương

The sound prayers beautiful dream/wish love path

The beautiful sound of prayers of dreams and love 

Can you see it in your head?

Chúa thương tình, sẽ cho mình mãi mãi gần nhau

God loves, will let us forever and forever near each other

God willing, He’ll let us be near each other forever and ever

Love the reverence here.

*

Since Vietnamese classes at the Center have started up again–and we’re required to speak and write entirely in Vietnamese–I’m trying my best to read and write Vietnamese every day in some form. I’m aiming to start a segment called “Lost in Translation.”

Translating even a portion of this took a bit out of me. I haven’t been able to tackle the second part of the song, which takes us on another emotional journey.

Stay tuned for the second part in the near future!

Vietnamese Folk Poem #1

Photo_Vietnamese classYeah, I take Vietnamese classes on Wednesday nights.

But . . . aren’t you Vietnamese?

*

At first, I thought learning Vietnamese in a class setting would only further embarrass me. It’s gonna be full of non-Vietnamese people and they’re going to look down on me. They’ll think, “Why is she in this class?” I always felt self-conscious speaking in my mother tongue. Even worse: I couldn’t read it! Me, a reader and writer who couldn’t read or write in Vietnamese?! The shame!!! Just as shameful as using three exclamation points in one sentence. 

I was glad to discover that my classmates were like me: Vietnamese-American adults who spoke the language as children, then lost it along the way. After taking level one and level two, which will, sadly, conclude in two weeks, I’ve steadily grown confident. And that’s something I want to celebrate.

I appreciate the camaraderie inside the classroom—we easily trade American jokes mixed with some typical Vietnamese craziness—but most of all, I love the cultural aspects that inevitably come from our lessons. Our teacher is young and more modern, and I’m learning how some commonly used words may seem outdated to younger Vietnamese people. One example is the word for hospital, which is bệnh viện. When I told my teacher that I’ve only used nhà thương, he kind of chuckled, saying that gave away my parents’ ages (mine are older than most of my peers’ parents). Other times, the vocabulary varies based on region, and your word choice will out you immediately. 

The class remains especially enlightening because it’s giving me a taste of what my parents had learned as children. In Vietnamese schools and homes, children are taught ca dao, or folk poems. These pieces teach life lessons, and some sound as rigid as one would expect, while others are quite lovely. A common subject centers on the child’s duty to his or her parents, a notion that’s entirely absent in the American school system, where students are mostly taught to obey teachers.

But for Vietnamese people, the real teaching starts at home. I want to share one ca dao just to give you a taste of my language!

Vietnamese

Cá không ăn muối cá ươn

Con cãi cha mẹ trăm đường con hư

English (translated roughly word-for-word and disregarding syntax)

Fish that don’t eat salt goes rotten,

You (child) argue with us (parents) in a hundred ways you are bad. 

Essentially, the poem says children who don’t listen to their parents or take their lessons to heart will turn out unruly. As someone who’s still navigating the language, I can’t quite confirm whether the author was trying to be playful . . . BUT I noticed the use of đường, which means sugar: muối and đường, salt and sugar. At the same time, đường also means road or path. 

Next up: I’m attempting to translate a song I’ve been listening to non-stop: “Thành Phố Buồn.” Even my mom says this might be hard to translate correctly! Challenge accepted. 

 

 

back to nonfiction

In one of my groups, a nonfiction writer who was testing out a chapter of a novella lamented that fiction was more difficult to write than nonfiction*. His admission stunned me because I thought the exact opposite. He argued fiction writers had more groundwork ahead of them; he struggled the most with creating situations and characters. True, I said. But the act of purposefully summoning a memory that you’ve spent your whole life running away from or writing about people close to you terrifies me. Nonfiction writers possess the fortitude to admit their flaws, excavate truths hidden in their bodies. This isn’t easy, especially for an introvert like me.

I’m not new to nonfiction writing, but I’m still an acquaintance. I guess this website, where I publish most of my stupid thoughts, counts as nonfiction. In college, I took a creative nonfiction class—the class that launched my serious commitment to writing. We had to write a political essay and a personal essay. It was such a wonderful experience seeing my inner thoughts—mine, not another character’s—crowd the pages. One of my pieces eventually won an English Department award; I felt honored and my parents were there to hear a reading. Since the piece was about my mother’s late younger sister, I was moved when she cried and told me she was proud of me.

But as rewarding as the piece made me feel, I think revealing myself in this medium led to an invisible wound. I wanted to collect my words and thoughts before they could be put under further scrutiny. I shied away from nonfiction until a few months ago honestly. I tackled a nonfiction piece about fan fiction writing that’s been sitting in my files for ages, and I’m pleased to say that it’ll be up on Submittable in September. As the subject might suggest, it’s not exactly a “serious” creative nonfiction piece, but it’s a piece where my voice dominates the pages. And it’s honest. I’ve been lying way too much with fiction!

My next piece-in-progress deals with a childhood incident that’s bled into my writing and into my life as a young woman. The latter was a recent revelation. The writing process for this piece is similar to being in a car that’s alternatively stalling and jerking. I’m resisting my instinct to “pull away” in my writing—like if I touch it, I’ll get burned. Knowing this, I’m still clawing my way to the finish line, not for the purpose of publication or likes or follows, but for myself.

I’m writing this post at the point where I’m starting to think I should just store this piece. Then again, there’s a fifty percent chance of me abandoning it . . .

I’m quite jealous and awed by a nonfiction author my imprint had just published. Michael Arceneaux, now the New York Times bestselling author of I Can’t Date Jesus, makes a living writing things that are true, but this book of essays is all about him, his sexuality, his family. I saw him at a Strand event, where, despite being nervous  before speaking to an audience (about 100 people!), he seemed incredibly at ease with the fact that his life is laid bare in this book. The aftermath of catharsis, I suppose.

What nonfiction reading material would you recommend to a short story writer experimenting with the genre?

*my initial thought: well, yeah, you’re writing a novella.

Gaw Gaw: fairytale or real?

My short story, “Gaw Gaw, ” was recently published by Mud Season Review, a magazine run by the people behind the Burlington Writers Workshop in Vermont. I can’t thank them enough for accepting my piece and revising it with such care. Also, I love the artwork they decided to use for my story. Please read and enjoy.

Mud Season Review

Why You Write

A short manifesto I wrote for Causeway Lit, a literary magazine run by Fairfield University’s MFA Program.

causewaylit

Written by: Loan Le – Fiction Section Editor

So, here you are. You have turned down invitations to parties and happy hours, because you cannot socialize when you have a character in your mind, her voice echoing like a message over a PA system in an empty hallway. You have endured strangers’ tilted heads, the sardonic curl of their lips, the upspeak “Oh, really?” when you explain that you are a writer. Your worth has been challenged and measured against already established writers. Your work is “not the right fit” for this journal or that magazine. All of this has left you despairing, wondering why you have chosen this particular way of being, which lately brings much more pain than reward.

5765352856_11ba0095ff_zCredit: John Liu

Step back. Somewhere, find a pocket of peace where your thoughts are your own, where you hear only yourself. Recognize, first, that by writing, you have…

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I didn’t know how much I needed this . . .

I didn’t know how much I needed my MFA retreat until I arrived on Ender’s Island on July 15, sat down under the gazebo facing the Long Island Sound, and heard only this:

Last winter was cold on the island. We had spent most nights lounging in the common rooms, dressed in layers of sweatpants and hooded sweatshirts. Outside, the water encasing this little island crashed against the boulders and stone walls, threatening to pull down anyone who came close. I remember reading one of my stories out loud by the Seaside Chapel, letting the water’s assault drown out any quiver in my voice.

The months in-between the winter retreat and the summer retreat were challenging. I made a lateral move within my workplace, threw myself into my writing, and helped form a new writing group. So much to do, all the time. I began to feel burnt out. My vision became a little more cloudy, it was harder to get up in the morning, it was difficult to read anything for fun because I had work to do. And this all happened because of . . .

Because of what?

I’m not going to say depression because I think that word sounds far too serious for what I feel sometimes (which I think most creatives also experience). I also don’t believe there’s any need for alarm. And maybe I was feeling down because it seems like the world is crashing, burning, coming to an end—and at our own hands . . .

So I’ll settle for melancholy, because that word has always been beautiful to me, and something beautiful always pulls me out of this state.

This time, that “something beautiful” was surely the summer retreat. God, there was so much light. Birds (including an elusive red cardinal). Lapping water. Somewhere, a wind chime. Beauty is hidden in the city, but at Ender’s Island, the restorative spirit manifested everywhere.

I was glad to be around people sharing the same goal, which is to write, to externalize what’s been inside them for the longest time. We writers come from all different walks of life. I met a new student, a recently retired Wall Street guy who had always loved writing. I’m always fascinated by these people who had walked different paths, knew so much of a certain life, then turned around to make a new path. While I consider my journey as a writer a nearly straight one, others’ journeys are looped and scattered, but hey, we ended up at Ender’s Island. Imagine that.

Of course, the retreat was not completely a vacation, even though my social media posts certainly suggested it. We had workshops and seminars every day—taught by amazing, brilliant professors/writers/spirit animals—where we closely analyzed different writers’ works. We learned to shift and reconsider some of our writing habits. Now, I love workshops. I no longer feel self-conscious about my mistakes; instead I anticipate for them to be spotted. I have blind spots and count on my fellow writers to recognize them. And they do, believe me.

I especially love when I, as the writer, cease to exist, and the writers discuss my characters like they’re real. Would she do thisNo, she doesn’t seem like the type. During one of my workshops, for a flash moment, I imagined myself cloaked and invisible to my writers. I thought my character was simple, but my classmates had so many interpretations of her. At the end of a workshop, the professor asked, “What do you want from us as readers?” To which, as usual, I shrugged. It seemed less about my wants, and more about my characters’ needs. Since enrolling into this program, I’ve become more aware of that.

One of the most common things I’d heard from the newest cohort was that the environment here was not as cutthroat as expected. Once I thought about it, I had to agree. I don’t think we’re encouraged to compete against one another. I actually thought about what happened when one of our own had passed away in-between retreats. We had a formal ceremony for him during the retreat—it was a Catholic ceremony attended by not just us but his family and other friends, but some MFAers thought there was so much more to be said, more of his story to share. Later that night, the stories and tributes about him were sad, funny, beautiful, and I just thought, “I hope he knew how much people had cared for him.” So no, we’re not pitted against each other, and I like that. This particular program emphasizes the journey of learning about yourself first, which inevitably allows you to share your strength with others.

I could go on about how much this summer retreat has helped me, but I don’t want anyone to think that I’m getting paid to write this 😉

To conclude, I’ll leave this with you.

 

More from Me:

What I Do

Posts about Writing

Posts about Life

 

 

What happens when there’s a sick passenger

The simultaneous turn of heads compels you to pause your music. You were lost in your own world before, hypnotized by chaotic rhythms that get you through the morning commute. You look left when you see synchronized movement and notice, a couple of seats away, a man on the ground. He is still. You look twice, thinking he’s homeless or mentally ill; you’ve trained yourself to spare a glance—and only that—to people like them: those whose homes are in public spaces, bodies splayed across park benches, subway seats, or outside suit-and-tie offices. But this man is slumped against the door. He wears khaki pants, a red-and-white argyle sweater, and Sperrys. A briefcase lies beside him.

Headphones are removed, murmurs bubble from the mouths of those too far away to see, and when the door finally opens at the platform, you hear one person scream for help.

The MTA employees who are under-qualified to handle medical crisis arrive surprisingly quick. One man rushes forward. You’re surprised to see that he cares—in fact you’re thrilled to hear the panic in his voice; normally these employees wear their apathy like a uniform accessory. One passenger in the car comes to help when someone shouts Is anyone here a doctor? You had sat next to this doctor, remembered how at first glance she appeared meek and compliant, hands folded on her lap. You didn’t think much of her, but now she has transformed. Still, you wonder if she is truly the only doctor or if she is the only doctor to volunteer.

They don’t know his name, so they say, Hey.

Hey, can you hear me?

Hey, can you hear me?

Hey, can you hear me?

You wait to see what happens next. A newly arrived passenger thinking he’d caught the train in time comes in unbothered by this sight. He glances down as if to check for gum under his shoes, and makes his way to the other side. You want to ask if he’s blind. This train will not be moving.

The man is still still, save for the slow rise of his chest. A squad of MTA employees tells everyone to GET OUT, so you are pushed outwards by a flood of people as if they’re running from an infectious disease. Rather than moving down the platform, as requested, this crowd stays affixed to the car.

Attention: we are being held at this station due to a sick passenger. All Manhattan-bound A and C trains are out of service . . .

A singular complaint arises from the crowd: how am I going to get to work? This is ridiculous. An employee standing guard for the EMT fixes the complainer with a look, then points to the G train across the platform.

You stand so that you’re looking at the crowd that’s peering into the car. Mouths open. Hands to their hearts. Front row seats to a spectacle of suspense. Someone in the front starts yelling Jesus. Jesus. JESUS. Standing up to see better, you spot a woman, dressed business-like regardless of her religious zeal. She throws invisible prayers with her open hands and you can’t help but think that at least she, among the rubberneckers, is trying in her own way.

You peer behind to see if the EMTs have arrived. No such luck. Next to you, in a close-knit circle, camaraderie has formed among a group of ladies. You know they had been strangers before, since they sat far away from each other, in the same car as you. Scraps of The Accident, as it’s becoming known, fall from their lips. They can’t stop talking, but you’re not sure if you want them to.

He must have been sick and didn’t stay home.

The heat on the train was too much.

And where are the damn EMTs?

You feel like you want to chime in, be a part of something for once, but their circle is too tightly closed.

You are disconcerted by some spectators joking at the unconscious man’s expense. They find something, unbelievably, funny about their current circumstances. You look away.

You then feel a tap on your shoulder—a newcomer. He takes out one of his earphones, and asks, Did someone die? in the same manner one would ask, Is this the A Train? You answer what you know and he turns, plugging his ear back up. He seems to be looking for death, and not finding it, walks away.

There they are. The EMTs have finally arrived after you-don’t-know-how-long, but they walk with a slow swagger, even as the MTA employees gesture for them to quicken their pace.

You wonder how affected can one be by a stranger’s plight and will that define one’s morality? There are some who cry at another’s misfortune. Take this woman, for example, who is led away from the crowd by someone who might be her daughter, and you strain to hear words of consolation. Why, exactly, when everyone else is captivated by near death, is this woman the only person crying?

Get this man off the damn train so we can move on, one woman behind you grumbles.

The G Train has come, and you know you must get to work. You know that this will not fly as a good excuse for your lateness. Rush hour is not the time to show compassion.

The crowd sweeps to the opening doors, and you move with them, but also dig your heels against the ground to rile the impatient.

Wow, you guys are animals. It’s the same woman complaining before. You think she’s just bitter that she must wait for the next train. No matter. You are led from one state of misery to the next. In the car is a vagrant and she has skipped the perfunctory introduction, and screams, I’m hungry, over and over again. You don’t look at her.

As the train pulls away from the platform, you wonder if that still man will die.