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 the lower middle class, particularly by the stormy day that her fourth sibling Kimberly was born. “What an odyssey growing 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 the 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 constantly childhood images still return, sometimes evoked by my mom’s singing “Quê hương”.
“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 people. In the massive urbanization, devaluation of college education, a feeling of disorientation, we still long to return to an idyllic childhood. Certain aspects of the Vietnamese countryside are lost, but they have been recorded and imbued in such beautiful songs as “Quê hương”. Wherever I go, whenever I miss my homeland, I would sing or play this song out loud. Should I see star fruits in a supermarket in New York or Paris, I might freeze for a moment. 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.
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)