Featured

“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”.

————–

“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.

——————
IMG_3092

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)

 

 

 

 

Education for women: a promising direction to reducing poverty in Vietnam

In college freshman and sophomore years, I wrote plenty of essays for (inter)national essay contests (which sadly never won, by the way. Competition is fierce!)

This following essay sprang from my many trips to my hometown, plus the review of literature and U.N.D.P documents. Its genesis was actually from my watching CNN Hero of the Year, December 2011, which featured Robin Lim, an extraordinary activist in Indonesia. Then I was completely dumbfounded to know of a girl who was “fighting” the Taliban for her education, later she was known to the world as the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize (2014). A year later, I decided to send this essay to an international contest held in Indonesia, September 2012. I had just turned twenty years old at that time.

The contest’s theme was “Dreaming of a World without Poverty.”  So, what are your dreams for the world without poverty?

essay


Women in developing countries have limited access to basic social services such as primary health care, education, nutrition, shelter, etc. In Indonesia, when giving birth, many women cannot afford sanitary deliveries, leading to a higher possibility of death in the following twelve months. In parts of Pakistan, it is culturally accepted or forced that women stay home; schools for girls are closed down because of the Taliban’s use of violence. These causes deprived women of essential life skills and social services, which brings them to the verge of human rights violation, such as women trafficking, forced labor, or sexual exploitation. According to the United Nations, “poverty” is defined as “not having a school or clinic to go”, “insecurity, powerlessness and exclusion of individuals, households and communities,” and “susceptibility to violence.” From this point of view, these women are not living in poverty; they are living in destitution. These are two cases in the fourth and sixth most populous countries in the world. Let’s have a closer look at the situation in Vietnam.

Unlike Pakistan with an extremely low rate of women employment, Vietnam has done a good job in recent years in improving women’s employment. The Vietnamese government has provided more opportunities for women to access social activities, from governmental jobs, foreign trade activities, to home-based businesses, etc. Many women now become the bread-winners of their families, even leaders in community services. After “Doi Moi” (Vietnamese economic reform in 1986,) Vietnam successfully reduced poverty rate from 60% in 1990 to 18.1% in 2004.1 Nevertheless, serious problems persist, which might prevent Vietnam from eradicating poverty.

Throughout Vietnam, especially in rural areas where 70% of the population lives, boys are favored over girls largely because of their future responsibilities: performing ancestor worship, continuing the family line, taking care of the whole family, etc. Many families that follow strict patrilineal tradition cross the two-child limit, continuing to produce babies until they have a son. This consequently leads to overpopulation, serious sex-ratio imbalance, and gender disparity. Moreover, while educational opportunities for boys are well-provided, girls are often overlooked. Nowadays, girls in vastly agricultural-based areas do not receive adequate education; consequently, they enter the labor force even before reaching the age of sixteen. Their parents are lured to the factories in industrial zones by the prospect of better-paying jobs, working from dawn till dusk, thereby hardly caring for their children’s education. Without standard education, girls and women are vulnerable to a variety of threats. They are at a higher risk of unwanted pregnancies, of having unsafe pregnancy terminations or sexually-transmitted diseases including HIV. In addition, many women are tricked into underground businesses such as forced labor, trafficking and prostitution. Even more dangerously, after being exploited and involved in those businesses, they can be ostracized or discouraged from integrating into the society.

In my dream, a Vietnam without poverty is where everyone receives a quality education. Vietnam is an ethnically diverse country with 54 different ethnic groups, among which the Kinh (Việt) make up nearly 90% of the population. Kinh people have more access to basic services such as public health, education, clean water and electricity; those available to other ethnic groups are extremely limited. It is challenging to bring public resources and facilities to rural areas, not to say remote, mountainous regions. In the meantime, the better way to protect women from the above-mentioned threats is through Education. Being more aware of the threats, they are more likely to be able to protect themselves and one another. Educating women should focus on two directions: one is vocational training; the other is through social empowerment. Both should be at the grass-root level, so that even underprivileged women can participate in.

Firstly, vocational education serves the need of educating women at the grass root level. Currently, Vietnam’s workforce is still largely unskilled with poor education. 22.2% of Vietnamese women are unpaid family workers, compared to 11.8% of men.2 This indicates that a large proportion of women are falling out of micro-businesses and falling back into family-based businesses where the paid income is precarious. Women from less-developed, ethnic communities cannot afford a well-rounded education; as a result, they need vocational skills to earn a living. Jobs like sewing tapestries, making pottery, jewelry, basket weaving, painting, cooking, etc. go a long way in increasing employment, creativity and cohesion in the society. Enhancing agricultural, farming, nursing techniques can actually enable them to support one another in their local communities. Vocational training is practical, easy to understand, and easy to spread out. It creates jobs so that people (including women) will not take part in dangerous, illegal activities such as growing narcotic plants, mineral over-exploitation, deforestation, illegal hunting, gambling, trafficking, etc.

Secondly, women need social empowerment. That women afraid to stand up for their rights is a worldwide phenomenon, particularly in Asian cultures. Girls and women need encouragement and motivation to come out of their comfort zone to stand up against violence, sexual abuse, and discrimination. They need both physical and emotional support from the society to raise their demand for essential health services. For example, Vietnam has the highest rate of abortion in the region and all over the world. The abortion rate among teenagers was 25% in 2010 and is increasing rapidly.3 Lots of young teenagers do not (fully) understand the importance of sexual and reproductive health. Once they have had unwanted pregnancy and been known by the public, many seek secret abortion despite its detrimental complications; some even commit suicide. Communities have been trying to create a welcoming environment for them; but the progress has been slow. Family planning, safe pregnancy and HIV prevention methods are among the programs being multiplied; girls and women should regain their confidence, social status, thus constraining the AIDS epidemic.

Women are one-half of the world, playing a crucial part in maintaining peace and stability. As a result, a women-sensitive society will ensure productive results. Poverty reduction requires international cooperation as well as interdisciplinary measures, among which education’s vital role is undeniable. Education for women will open up a door for prospective changes, helping Vietnam eradicate extreme poverty and hunger in 2015 as part of Millennium Development Goals.

 

References

1  United Nations, Vietnam, Vietnam at a glance.

2  United Nations Development Program, Social Services for Human Development: Vietnam Human Development Report 2011, box 2.2, p.31.

3  United Nations, Vietnam, Achieving the MDGs with Equity, MDG 5: Improve maternal health, 2010.

Revelations after dusk

This is my first short story composed in English. Initially, it was for a practice at a Creative Writing club. I wanted, at heart, to tell a Vietnamese narrative that is reader-friendly to all of my friends who have known and been close to me; a story that is at once quintessentially Vietnamese and universal (universal in that you leave out its historical context and characters’ ethnicity). Yet its genesis and progression have magnified thousands of questions in my head.

The story went to several Writing clubs and received such polarized reviews that I reconsidered posting it publicly.

Sharing my thoughts and ideas in public has opened me up to criticism, but I understand that our living experiences can affect how we understand and feel about a text. It does not hinder, but contribute greatly to the varieties of our reading experience.

I have revised the wording, added a few lines, but the structure and atmosphere created remain the same. I hope you will get more ideas from this story. Please do not hesitate to put forward your questions in our conversation.


As the sun sank beneath the horizon, everything was suddenly cloaked in a uniform robe of darkness. Hanoi in 1995, except in the city’s center, life in the outskirts after dusk was reduced to the households. There was repeated experience of power shortages. That September evening, in a neighborhood not far off the main streets, fell in the same pattern.

A ten-year-old boy was holding a burning candle, busying himself in the old attic. The candle-light within radiated forth upon the windowsill; seen from the rice field, it set his small house apart from its neighboring dwellings. The boy carefully placed his candle on the table, away from the breeze, but close enough so that he could read what was in front of him.

Lying on the bookshelf were the works of Balzac, Pushkin, and Sholokhov; the book spines broken, their flaps torn and moth-eaten, but these heavy tomes projected an imposing character. The boy surveyed the book spines, carefully placed them to one side, then from the vacuum behind he pulled out and laid his treasures on the table.

On the wooden table lay some color tubes, brushes, a palette, and a tin pen box, which contained some neatly sharpened pencils and an old fountain pen. The pen was a classic Cleo Skribent, a quintessential product of the former East Germany. Its cap and barrel were old and tarnished, but the nib was still shiny. Its sophisticated and classy look fascinated the little boy. He opened the cartridge and dribbled some drops of ocean-blue ink into a water jar. He reveled in the thought of painting the rain, or the ocean, the moonlit sky; his eyes fixed on the diluting of the ink into the water.

At the sound of someone ascending, the boy caught his breath, trying to thrust everything on the table into the drawer. He accidentally knocked over his pen box and color jars; the metallic things splashed with a clang upon the concrete floor, and before he could realize it, his mother was standing in the room, speechless.

“What are you doing in the dark?” she inquired.

“I – I couldn’t find my fountain pen…”, he murmured, almost petrified, glancing at his mother then quickly elsewhere.

“It’s right there, on the floor. And why are you messing with the color tubes? Have you done your homework?”, asked the mother suspiciously.

On the candle-lit floor, the streams of colored water fused in an abstract expression, almost like that of the little boy. He answered almost inaudibly, “I will be doing it in a minute…”

As the boy was gazing at his feet, the mother walked slowly to him and lifted the pen. She paused for a second, then reposed on the chair next to him, with a nostalgic expression, almost like talking to herself.

“This is a special pen” she began, unconsciously surveying the writing instrument, “It was my father’s gift for my one-year-old birthday, shortly before he enlisted in the army in 1968.”

“But you told me that it was a gift from a Wise Man, when I came to this world!” his eyebrows raised in wonder.

“Your grandfather was indeed a wise man.” The mother’s voice became resolute. “He was the only person in our hometown to enroll in college. He studied to be a mathematics teacher, but was also an artist, won a literary award, for which he got this fountain pen.”

“An American bomber took his life in one of the fiercest battles in Quang Tri, close to the Laotian borders. His squad was evacuating a village from the blitz.” Her voice was low upon reflection.

The boy turned his head away, not speaking at all. He scratched his head in bewilderment. His eyes went from the colors on the floor to his mother.

“But grandpa was a Christian. God told us to love everyone. How could he fight the American? Christians are good people, aren’t they?”

There was a long solemn pause, and the only sound was the chirping of crickets. The mother arose; her eyes looking out of the window. The crescent moon was hiding itself beneath a veil of cloud.

She continued, her voice a little uncertain, “I am sure he didn’t want to. It’s not as simple as a matter of good versus evil. It is about the ideologies that people die to defend.”

“What ideologies, mother?” asked the boy impatiently.

“You … you are too young to talk about this. But this is just an example, will you protect your friend if he is bullied at school? Will you defend yourself if you are threatened or attacked?”

“But I shall not fight. I don’t want anybody to get hurt. I will grow up without following any ideologies, can’t I?” the boy was gasping, almost trembling.

The mother looked at him empathetically, patting him on his back.

“You see, the war is over. Now people – everyone is trying to make a living. It doesn’t help to argue which side was right, which side was wrong, neither does the blaming”…  “In everything under the heavens, there is a time for war and a time for peace, a time to weep and a time to laugh. It is now a time for peace and healing. ”

The little boy buried his head in his mother’s bosom, “But what if the Americans come back again?”

“Then you will use this pen,” she lifted the fountain pen before her son’s eyes, “Use this pen to tell the world that we are not an inferior people. It has magical power; it has your grandfather’s soul in it. You’re going to be fearless.”

“I love writing. I can do something with it!” the boy’s eyes were glowing with excitement.

“Since last month, our country and America have become friendly again. Soon there will be an embassy…” The mother looked at her child, her face beamed with a radiant smile. “Good news! If you work hard, one day you might become a diplomat.”

“Or an engineer…” she arose, talking in jest. “We need someone to bring more electricity to our village!”

The mother left the attic, calling back at him that it was time to prepare for dinner. But the boy was lost in his thoughts, looking out of the window, at a flickering blip moving across the sky; an airplane was somewhere at the horizon; one that doesn’t leave smoke trails. He wasn’t aware that his mother was pausing at the door, observing him dearly. As if nothing in the world mattered, not even his attic sanctuary, his eyes fixed upon the moving spark, unaware that he was squeezing the fountain pen.

After a moment, she turned and descended the stairs. She quietly entered her room, opening her closet.

In this secret corner, she pulled from the folded clothing a Bible, with a small picture of Virgin Mary holding her child Jesus. It almost became her ritual, whenever she needed strength, she would sit in this quiet corner and pray.

She only knew her father through the words of her mother, and through his letters, his poems and sketches on stained paper. On one letter were written “… Up on the high mountain tonight. Love you tenderly and wait for our good tidings.” She folded the letter, tucked them into the Bible, and pressed it to her chest. Her head tilted to one side, resting against the wall.

Did she feel a deep void, for the lack of a father’s love? Did she feel helpless because she couldn’t let go of that feeling? Was she optimistic or apprehensive about revealing the truth to her son? For, eventually, he would surely face infinite incongruities and dilemmas in his life, when things are rarely black and white. Should he find hope in a mystical Wise Man, or in his own grandfather, a mortal, imperfect man?

From downstairs, a rhythm was generating. It was from the TV set. The power was restored to the village. The woman carefully put away her things; she wiped a teardrop on her cheek and descended the stairs. It was time for supper.