“Quê hương” – memories of my homeland

The other day I was listening to Patti Smith’s “Kimberly”, a single in her debut album Horses (1975). This tender song was inspired by Smith’s upbringing in poverty, particularly by the stormy day that her fourth sibling Kimberly was born. “What an odyssey to grow up in south Jersey, in a Mid-Atlantic state in America, engulfed in post-war housing developments, closed-down factories, swamps, burning barns, and God knew what else!” I was thinking.

Smith’s lyrics brought me back to my childhood in a far suburb to the west of Hanoi, where surrounding my home were lotus swamps and rice fields. The road to school was rocky, and if in the rainy season, muddy and flooded to the knees. The only difference from my parents’ hometown in Hung Yen and Hai Duong was that my home was nowhere near a river; there were fewer ponds and no massive irrigation systems. My cousins and I used to hang out in the rice fields, catching grasshoppers, flying the kites, playing hide-and-seek in the tall grasses. We would climb the trees, pick the choicest star fruits in my grandpa’s garden, and eat them under the shade.

All of this now seems a distant dream… though I am constantly reminded of these beautiful images by my mom’s singing “Quê hương”.

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“Quê Hương”, meaning either Homeland or Hometown in English, is the song that my mother sang to me when I was little. Sometimes mom still sings this song, especially when family welcome guests. Each time she sings it, the star fruit tree in my grandpa’s garden appears vividly in my mind.

At that time, the star fruits were closer to my stomach than to my heart. Little did I know that this ordinary fruit is among abundant symbols of the Vietnamese land and countryside. My discovery of its meaning began only after grandpa’s entire garden was bulldozed for the state’s new housing developments.

There are now, replacing rice fields, more condominiums than the number of cats and dogs in the neighborhood. Instead of frogs’ chirping and croaking, now it is the cacophony of power saws, electric drills and air compressors. Instead of chatting on power-cut nights, now people stay in their own homes, watching TV, or going to bars singing karaoke.

As an adult, I began to think about my childhood and other values that I had learned as I grew up in an environment much like that experienced by thousands of other Vietnamese. Amid the massive urbanization, devaluation of college education, feeling of disorientation, we still long to return to an idyllic childhood. There are certain aspects of the Vietnamese countryside lost, but they have been recorded and imbued in such beautiful songs as “Quê hương”. Now wherever I go, whenever I miss my homeland, I would play this song out loud. Should I see star fruits in a supermarket in New York or Paris, … Well, you know what I will think of!

Whoever you are, wherever you go, your homeland is inscribed in your heart. Whether it is swamp or desert, urban or rural, Texas dirt or Israel sand or Kenya mud, your homeland is still with you, in your songs, your creative works, your heart, your embrace.


 

My mom used to be a professional folk opera singer. In this video she sang “Que huong” as my friends visit my family in 2012.

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Homeland is the star fruit clusters,

For me to pick each day.

Homeland is the road to school,

Shaded with fluttering yellow butterflies.

 

Homeland is the azure kite

That I flew when I was a child.

Homeland is the little boat,

Rippling the waves on the riverside.

 

Homeland is the bamboo little bridge,

Conical hats shading you my mommy.

Homeland is a bright full-moon night,

Areca flower drooping on our veranda floor.

 

Everyone has only one homeland,

Like having only one Mother.

Homeland – If you don’t keep in your heart,

You’ll never be able to grow up.

(illustrated & translated by thangtranjuly20)

 

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on ““Quê hương” – memories of my homeland

  1. Sue Fleming

    A thoughtful and thought provoking piece of writing. I did enjoy your description of how you spent your childhood. The changes to grandfather’s garden are a reflection of the rapid evolution in Vietnam. I’m sure many grandparents in Vietnam must look in disbelief at how different their grandchildren’s lives are to their own youth.

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    1. Thang Tran

      Yes, sometimes I worry that this generation gap will widen. There are distracting things like playing video games too much, while too little parent-child interaction. I am thankful that I still have a somewhat normal childhood, knowing the animals, the nature, the community, which are things that many children nowadays don’t have, especially because they live in a rapidly urbanized area. This wears my heart out, but I do see hope in making videos about Vietnamese culture, especially the arts, which I will spread with this blog.

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  2. Hello, Tran –
    Delightful reminiscence! My memory is flooded with the fragrances and flavors of my own childhood. The sharp and pungent aroma of Romano and Pecorino cheeses hanging from the ceiling of an Italian grocery store. The sweet succulence of wild strawberries picked in a pasture on a warm June day!
    And thank you for the observations about your year of reading. With all of that reading and reflection, how did you have time eat and study?!?!?
    And thank you for the introduction to Vietnamese Folk Opera. I am looking forward to some fully-staged performances.
    My travel plan in March is to take a bus from BX Luong Yen to Bac Kan Town on 16 March. Then possibly go to Cao Bang for a couple of days and return to Hanoi about 21 March. Does that suit your schedule?
    Much thanks,
    Tom Kerner

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    1. Thang Tran

      You have got to tell me about your childhood memories when you come back, Tom!! That’s exciting! Please just call my first name Thang. I will be teaching English at the time, but sure can negotiate with the students about the schedule. I totally want to go to Bac Kan and Cao Bang this time. We sure will have a lot of discussion and sharing! Can’t wait to see Mr. Stingy Old Miser again!!

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