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Our students thrash about because we do; students are terribly confused because we are; we are all a danger to ourselves. And, as far as I am concerned – in one humble opinion – we dutifully adhere to the most medieval institution, the University, without realizing that, before our eyes, it has metamorphosed into an exotic multinational business like any other – and students are our last concern.
She places her chin on my desk. She leans over, arms on her thighs and rests her chin on my desk.
— Professor, I don’t know. I … I don’t feel anything. I … I’m indifferent. I don’t feel anything. I don’t. I just don’t feel anything.
She walks into my office with a big smile. She wares a white wool turtleneck and her silky black hair, parted off-center on her left, falls around her face and over her shoulders like a frame calling attention to her lively eyes – and her smile.
— I miss being here, she says when she walks in. It’s a free place, she says and sits in a chair opposite my desk.
Then nodding to the Green Mountains always in my office window, she says, There are the mountains that will be here when you’re not. And giggles because she’s referring to an email she sent earlier wondering what would happen if one day she came to my office and I’m no longer there – after all, I’m an “old professor,” as she likes to remind me.
–I’m like the mountains, I said to her once. I’m always here, I said trying to convince her that I’d be here for her when she needed me.
She knows better. I’m not like the mountains. One day I won’t be around anymore. So how far does one go knowing that a relationship is terminal?
For her, it takes time to go from the self-restrained person that first walks into my office to the person with her chin on my desk confessing that she’s indifferent. Layers have to be peeled before going there. It will take some time for me to learn of her sense of indifference; it will take time for her to let it out.
That’s why I keep a box of Kleenex on my desk.
–I’m never going to use those, she says looking askance at the box. No. Never, shaking her head – No – and grinning and two small creases, like commas, on either side of her lips appear and turn up.
We’d been through a lesson on Vietnamese. She told me that she never curses in Vietnamese – and doesn’t say I love you. It’s because, unlike English, Vietnamese is physical, I’m told. Words appear more significant to her in Vietnamese; she feels them. She curses in English because she’s not physically connected to the language; she can throw around love and my friend this and my friend that just as any American does. Not in Vietnamese. In Vietnamese she’s been taught how to speak properly, especially since she’s a young woman. Certain things are just not said in Vietnamese, she tells me.
I ask her to teach me a curse in Vietnamese. She can’t. Won’t. I plead. Insist. No way. Can’t. Impossible. Can’t go there.
Instead she reaches for her phone and scrolls and reads me a poem, Đây thôn Vĩ Dạ, by Hàn Mặc Tử’, a famous Vietnamese poet that tragically died much too young, stricken by leprosy.
–Here’s what Vietnamese is like, she says, and reads. When she ends, she leans back in her chair and smiles at me, darts her eyes. It’s beautiful, she says. And explains the poem in a sentence or two – as if she’s applying a fine scalpel.
Vietnamese is soft, gentle. I can see how it comes from the body; her physical presence changes. It fills and speaks.
–It will sound different, she tells me. It’s in the dialect of the poet. It’s different from mine.
I never knew this, the varieties of Vietnamese. Why would I? Vietnam has always been one dimensional for me.
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident (1964), My Lai (1968), Nixon and Cambodia (1969) – and my registration for the draft. The fall of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), the capital city of South Vietnam, April 1975. Apocalypse Now (1979) – and consequently, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Oliver North – Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Heaven and Earth (1993). And The Quiet American (2002), with the incredible Do Thi Hai Yen playing Phuong.
–Did you read the book? I ask. It’s by Graham Greene.
–No, she says. Then in a kind of excitement, as if discovering something, Everyone wants to possess Phuong, she says. She’s so beautiful. She’s everyone’s fantasy. Each man’s.
–A nation’s, I say.
Vietnam was an American fantasy – as it was a French one. And this young, sensitive student, for this “old professor,” is two Vietnams: the one she didn’t know but sensed as she was raised in a post-war Vietnam; the other is new, vibrant, slouching towards modernity.
Ruins become the unconscious of a city, its memory, unknown, darkness, lost lands, and in this truly bring it to life. With ruins a city springs free of its plans into something as intricate as life, something that can be explored but perhaps not mapped.
This one young woman sitting in my office is a Vietnam, I realize, that, as Rebecca Solnit says in her “Abandon” chapter, cannot not be mapped (A Field Guide to Getting Lost); her eyes, her smile, her wit – all invite exploration. She is tomorrow, not today. In her somehow are the ruins – what has given way since 1975 and re-surfaced in new formations in her sophisticated ways of examining my office, her world, the life she’s had, even though she’s so young, but 19. She seems older, traveled beyond her years. She dissolves into something more remote then now, past it; she points to something yet out of reach for us, something she’ll see and live. And I will not because I’m not like the Green Mountains outside my window.
“Beauty is often spoken of as though it only stirs lust or admiration,” says Solnit, “but the most beautiful people are so in a way that makes them look like destiny or fate or meaning, the heroes of a remarkable story.”
This is who she is, this young woman – beautiful like this. Fate and meaning. Something remarkable she yet quite doesn’t understand and is terribly frightening. We’re invested in the plight of humanity and “exceptional beauty and charm,” as is hers, “are among those gifts given by the sinister fairy at the christening,” says Solnit. Humor and irony – and darkness. The child, at christening, never knows and spends the rest of her life trying to know – sometimes in fear.
–I don’t want you to think, professor, that I’m like this person who writes constantly. I don’t. I don’t even like writing, she informs me. I don’t feel anything, professor. Nothing like that.
This is the same person that, early on, told me that she loves language; she loves looking up words in the OED (Oxford English Dictionary); she loves rich, figurative uses of language. The same person that keeps beautiful poems in her phone.
This is the same person that, in a piece titled The Necessity of a Heart, writes:
Now and then I saw my mother’s gleaming dark brown eyes fading. Her eye color is that of tamarind candies and papaya seeds. I soon learned that tears could wash away one’s eye color the way they did my mother’s. So I never cried for long. I loved my eye color – the color of tamarind candies and papaya seeds.
This is a story of the various ways my eyes change color.
This is the same girl that feels indifferent – yet feels deeply, in a way that is beyond her yet. This is the same girl that has a ruthless imagination that she unleashes routinely in phrases that reach for the heart, always.
Adventures enthralled every piece of me. At ten years old I read the story of Helen Keller whose saying I remember by heart ever since: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” At twelve years old I was determined that I would either grow up to be a reckless adventurer or I was already dead at birth.
I remind her of this other girl that visits my office and I suggest to her that her talents are way out ahead of her maturity – for now. I tell her that she’s not indifferent – the opposite: she feels deeply and emphatically and can then turn these complex feelings into images we can recognize as our own.
–I’m not used to this, professor, she says. No teacher has ever spoken to me like this, she says.
Her shoulders have relaxed. She’s played with her beautiful hair a few times and now she’s parted it from right to left, the opposite of how she had it so well put together when she entered my office.
–I love my parents, she says. But we never speak of love. We don’t say I love you. And you show me all this unconditional love. I don’ t know what to make of it, she says, welling up and looking over at the Kleenex.
–That’s why they’re there, I say.
I reach for the Kleenex but she beats me to it.