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 Our teacher is young and more modern, and I’m learning how some commonly used words may seem outdated to younger Vietnamese people.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. 

 

 

Learning to be a poet

We learned how to write tanka poetry a few weeks back. A tanka poem is a traditional Japanese form of poetry. It follows a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern and can go on for a long time. We only stop once we reach infinity – that is, until we feel like we can’t get anything else out of the poem. Each stanza must transition effortlessly from the previous stanza.

As an exercise, we participated in a round robin. One person had to write the 5-7-5 section, the next the 7-7 section, and so forth. The cool thing about this lesson was that the poem’s topic could change at any moment.

Here’s the final product (the title certainly gives you an idea of the poem’s tone):

DAMNED

The bus climbs uphill,

Doors exhaling a goodbye.

The child waves back.

Yellow halts a sudden stop.

It’s time for another day.

 

To wither away

On Grandpa’s dusty brown porch

My brain is emptied

I have become my grandpa

Old–losing touch with myself.

 

Same one must save me

I drown in memories of

The times we would laugh.

Your scent swirls all around me

Please just stop this misery.

 

There is no way out

This retched world you live in

Will soon out-live you

So therefore: damned if I do

And then: damned if I do not

 

I pace the world’s edge

Look down–a long way to go.

Do I leave now?

I am free-falling into sky

Never has death felt so free

 

And liberation

Is what we say to ourselves

When we have a voice

And I just don’t have a voice

And so there’s no salvation.

It’s such a happy poem, right? I intended to make the poem sound optimistic (I wrote the first three lines), because my friends usually say I’m a dark writer. It wasn’t my fault that this poem turned out differently than I expected!

Anyways, I feel like I’ve definitely grown as an amateur poet. It helps to read some fine poets from the past. I also enjoy reading my peers’ work in our workshops. My professor tells me that I need to use poetry to explore and to let go. I found that writing approach hard at first; as a fiction writer, I always sketch out the narrative arc of my stories. I want to feel like I’m in control of the plot, the characters, the setting, etc. Because my stories are fictional, I write to explore other people’s lives, and not my own. That’s not what you should do in poetry.

After taking this poetry course, I’m beginning to understand what it means to “let go.” If I write something and it doesn’t sound like it “fits” in a piece, I shouldn’t put it in the trash right away. Perhaps that word or phrase came out of my mind for a reason. Maybe it needs its own poem. Recently I’ve been writing a lot of poetry about memories of my childhood and my family. Though only a few people have seen my poetry – and I don’t intend to ever attempt publication – I still feel guilty about what I’m writing, but it’s therapeutic at the same time.

I’m revising my poems for the final portfolio, and I might post a few on this blog! So stay tuned.

Time to Wake

Poem #1

I wake at the edge of the bed, wrapped in downy-scented Mickey Mouse blankets,

Arms pinned to my side.

I know I started out at the center, squished between Mom and Sister,

Who gave me warmth that only they could provide.

Mom’s lavender perfume sticks to my pillow.

The ceiling fan wheezes as its blades turn.

Outside, cars whiz by, and light wastes away, sinking into a hill.

The lullaby of ice cream suddenly beckons me—and already I reach for my piggy bank in my

Dresser, surrounded by a mess of underwear, glittery rocks, and sea-beaten shells.

But my hope gets crushed when footsteps burden the old stairs,

And Mom’s hushed voice echoes in the hallway: Con, xuống ăn cơm.

I inhale an errant waft of fresh rice.

***

I am the youngest in my family.

Every day I waited for An and Dan to come home from elementary school. Living in a small apartment, the three of us shared a room. My mother would combine all of our beds and we’d take naps together. I remember feeling so safe during this time, surrounded by my family, and I never wanted to leave. I was always the last one to wake up, and I’d lay in my bed and listen to the whispers of activities going on around me, which soothed me like a mother’s lullaby. 

We had to write about a specific place in our first poetry assignment. I couldn’t find one that stuck out to me, so I thought of the times when I felt comforted and loved: in my bed in Apartment Four on Scott Road – back in the old days.