Sunday, January 07, 2007

Tản mạn ở Đài Bắc

Tản mạn ở Đài Bắc
v.1
Jan 05, 2007


Đã từ lâu lắm rồi tôi mới về thăm Việt Nam vào kỳ nghỉ đông.

Đã lâu lắm rồi tôi mới ghé Hà Nội vào mùa rét. Tại sao lại gọi là mùa rét mà không phải là mùa đông? Khi nghĩ về mùa đông, như một kết luật tất yếu, tôi liên tưởng đến những bông tuyết rơi trắng xóa, đến cái lạnh cắt da cắt thịt, đến một gia đình nhỏ quây quần bên bếp lửa hồng, mặc cho ngoài sân gió tháng hai cứ gầm cứ rú buốt thấu đến tận xương tủy, nhìn lên cao những nhánh cây gầy yếu cứ xào xạc, bị gió đánh cho tơi tác, từng chạc một lần lượt rơi xuống chìm vào trong lòng tuyết của vườn nhà mình, để rồi lại bị gió hất bổng lên, mang đi mãi đâu xa, qua bao nhiêu núi đồi, bao nhiêu trăng tròn trăng khuyết đến tận hang đá của Bà chúa tuyết. Đó là hình ảnh về mùa đông trong suy nghĩ của tôi: một hình ảnh mang nhiều ảnh hưởng của phim hoạt hình Mỹ.

Một hình ảnh “hâm hâm,” “tửng tửng,” mơ mộng hão huyền.

Hà Nội thì không có tuyết, nhưng không có nghĩa là không lạnh. Không có nghĩa là sẽ không có một vài bếp lửa hồng được thắp lên đâu đó trong lòng thủ đô đã ngàn năm tuổi.

Em đã cảnh báo trước: “Anh về Hà Nội phải mang theo áo lạnh đấy!” Hay nói đúng hơn, em lên giọng dạy đời tôi bằng tiếng Mỹ: “OK...is this the only sweatshirt you're bringing back?!” Em hỏi tôi bằng một giọng nửa trách móc, nửa âu yếm. Nó giống như là một lời kết tội, một lời đe dọa của tình yêu: “Anh mà ốm là em không lo được đâu!”

Em sẽ không bao giờ phải lo đâu, để anh lo cho em.
Trẻ con vậy đấy, cứ cười đi.

Đêm hôm đấy, hai đứa yêu nhau lần cuối. Tôi yêu em một cách giận dữ, thêm một ít ghen tuông và một ít hờn dỗi. Rồi tôi nhìn em nằm cuộn tròn trong cái túi ngủ xanh màu biển mà mẹ đã mua từ Nhật tự bao giờ. Tôi nhìn em mơ ngủ trong ánh sáng mờ ảo tỏa ra từ ngọn nến ở cuối phòng.

Nhìn em hoài như vậy, anh chợt thấy người mình nhẹ hẳn.


From the PA system, some lousy air stewardess announced in a heavily-accented and barely recognizable English: “Passengers with connecting flights to HCM City please redirect to gate A8.” A8...A8...from the depth of my sleep, this word, this...code name, whatever it is supposed to be called, merged itself subconsciously, almost mechanically, into the buzzing traffic going through the neurons of my brain. Oh great! I have about 30 minutes to make the transfer. As soon as the plane landed, I rushed out.

Kaisen Airport, Taipei. The place was almost deserted when I arrived. Many corridors and escalators later, I found myself walking into A8. Ten minutes until boarding time.

As I entered, a violent desire to throw up came over me. Within a split of a second, my knees gave way, and I tumbled desperately towards the handrail of the stair, struggling to keep myself upright. A nauseating feeling of disgust surged up my throat. What the hell is this? Why am I feeling so grossed out all of the sudden? It can't be the food I ate. Nor can it be the motion sickness. I haven't had motion sickness for years.

After a minute of self-reflection, I came to the disheartening conclusion that it must be the Vietnamese crowd which I find myself surrounded by. I realized how much I hated my country. Or rather, I hated the fucking people who inhabit that place. I hated those lousy housewives, cowardly fathers and annoying grannies that swarm every fucking airport within a 500-miles radius of the Vietnamese border. Why the fuck do the grannies care which university I attend or whether I double (or triple, aha! that's their favorite) major? Why the fuck do they freak out when I tell them that I have no fucking idea what I want to do after graduation? After all, I am not their grandchild to pet, to scold and to prize over. As for the men who engross most of their time exchanging unconfirmed rumors about the State or derogatory remarks about the world at large, their dilemma is never one between word and action. It is a no-contest between word and no-action-at-all. Instead of searching for the culprit within their own souls, these men look outwards, yearning to feast on the littlest fault—the slightest sign of a feeble mind—they could find in others in order to reconstruct for themselves, out of thin air, the Ego that has long since left their insecure hearts.

As for the housewives, why did they have to be so loud? “Thà phải nghe nhạc death-metal còn hơn là phải nghe mấy bà bán cá bán tôm này,” I mumbled in Vietnamese and pushed the headphone into my ears.

Then I realized that something was wrong.

In fact, it is this statement's negative interrogative form that is what I have been asking myself during the entire journey. “Why isn't something wrong...yet?” Knowing my history of forgotten air-tickets and am-pm confusion (let's also not leave out the infamous over-estimation of the time interval between each subway train in the city of Hamburg during the Spring of 06), I was amused by the fact that I have not encountered a single problem this time around...yet.

The realization came almost naturally and painlessly.

The housewives were speaking in a Southern accent. Normally, this wouldn't be a problem. Originating from the North, I have always been proud to be a Saigonese, and the ability to imitate the three accents were among my proudest childhood achievements (until I went to concentration camp in fucking India and never spoke a word of Vietnamese again...for a very long time). Normally, listening to these people would have instantaneously created an artificial lump in my throat that served as the harbinger of what I would soon have to accustom my ears to listen to at home. But heck no! This time I'm going to Ha Noi, no? And I don't have to deal with those “Hổng dzám đao” and “Thiệc là dzễ ghéc” until after the 6th.

Then why the fuck am I sitting here, surrounded by uncivilized clones of the South?

Ah merde...c'est foutu, ça ! I remembered that PA announcement on the plane. This one is going home. And I'm not ready to go home yet.

I ran. While my feet bounced in increasing frequency against the shiny floor of various corridors that seemed to stretch forever, my eyes screened the two walls parallel to the walkways in a frantic attempt to distinguish announcement boards from NIKE commercials. Normally I'd go on bragging about how good I am with multi-tasking and working under stress, but let's just say I got to the correct gate before the plane departed. As usual (and no less fortunately), the flight was late, and I dropped my caffeinated body onto a waiting chair in exhaustion (and no less relief), ready to go into the sweetest coma of my life.

And then I realized (this must be the sixth realization within a day now), that I was now surrounded by two swarms of Vietnamese.

As it turned out, the gate adjacent to mine also led to another flight to Vietnam, this time to Sai Gon. And it just so happened that from where I was sitting, I found myself sandwiched between two hordes of compatriots: Southern on the right, and Northern on the left. The irony of the situation was unprecedented: Dealing with “Thàng nhỏ....nàm yêng, tao guýnh chết cha mài bai dzờ!” was already borderline bearable, except in the case where it was topped with the following conversation (more or less accurately paraphrased) between two men of considerable age dressed up in funny attires that looked like they they were produced in motherland Russia in the 60s, their hands promptly glued onto their crossed legs. Their hair, originating mostly from the very top of their head, was neatly side-parted, and reflected as much light as Bà chúa tuyết's mirror.

Thế thằng cha Nam cuối cùng không qua được à...Qua làm thế nào được, tôi đã bảo ông giồi còn gì nữa, bọn nó cứ khư khư không chịu giả lại hộ chiếu thế thì lão ấy đành phải nằm chết gí ở đấy chứ còn xao nữa...Thế có gọi được cạ ra đón không...Giời! Nước đến chân giồi mới nhảy thì cạ nào mà cứu cho được, đã bảo là chi tiền ngay từ đầu thì có phải đã chơn chu giồi không...Thế à, tế tế tế cuối cùng thì làm thế nào...Còn thế nào nữa, lão đành xòe ra tờ nghìn giúp cho nó êm chuyện. Thằng công an, thằng oắt con, nhìn thấy ông Việt Nam chi tiền là mắt nó xáng lên, đóng giấu một phát giồi cho qua luôn!

I sank my head in despair. God...please save me from this boredom, lift me up and away from this mediocrity (and also, please spare me their pronunciation confusion of ‘d,’ ‘r’ and ‘gi,’ ‘s’ and ‘x,’ etc.)! How many times have I heard this sort of conversation before, and why is it that it all sounds the same to me? These people talk about corruption as if it is man's second nature, as if they can't live with it at the same time that they can't live without it. Corruption as the devil's advocate's argument in favor of the inevitable process of income redistribution from the class that owns the means of production to the class that regulates those means. Corruption as a dysfunctional child who happens to be born so purely out of romantic fortuities and genetic randomness, who saddens at the same time as it confuses its parents: the latter hold the former in their hands, trembling, sweating, screaming at fate's cruelty; they detest the child whom they bore, yet cannot possibly think of abandoning it. And so they learn to adapt to it, to satellite their lives around it, to melt decades of anger and pain into an indifferent shrug of resignation and nostalgia every time they overhear indistinct whispers peppered with tiny outbursts of giggles behind their backs. It is their curse at the same time as it is their Grand March. It is the kitsch of parenthood.

Excuse me for the heavy allusion to “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” 13 hours on a transpacific flight has given me more time than I wanted to undertake ambitious reading projects.

I have previously mentioned the reason why I am contemptuous towards Southern men. I guess It must be the same for their Northern counterparts. It is a blatant and perverse deliberation in mistaking a simple choice between word and no-action for a the noble dilemma between word and action. Oh, how these men are alike in their thought process!

Then my own thought process went berserk. As my soul wandered aimlessly in the realm of unspoken words, I came yet to another realization. It isn't so much the fact that these people are abnormal in their ways. After all, they feel perfectly at home: they are at home, and so does everyone else who interact with them. It must be I who am abnormal. It is I who have been out of touch with realities since that time I went to concentration camp in India. It is I who need counseling.

Such a thought saddened me. Oh how I longed to be like them! How I covet their Vietnamese identity, their complacency, their uniformity! A rat that runs the wheel of a gigantic machine, isn't it a perfectly normal existence, if not better than mine, if I am anything other than just another rat, at all? “...mistaking a simple choice between word and no-action for a the noble dilemma between word and action.” ~ look who's talking? I'm sitting here like a loser, trying to waste my time and and short-circuit a couple more neurons in my brain, knowing perfectly well that I can influence neither the events leading up to nor those originating from the present trend of Vietnamese masculine thought.

To prevent myself from going crazy, I tried to shut off these ideas from my brain, and started looking at the people around me. They looked Vietnamese enough, and the two groups were sitting in their respective camps, which greatly reassured me. There was a group of five on my right, where a middle-aged woman practically shouted out for everyone to hear: “Cháo gởi cho cô qua đường...đái đái...ngời ta gọi là U-pê-ét ái...địa chỉ là mục trong năm mươi Mít-đờ-bô-rô A-vê-niu, thành phố Xăng-hô-giê.” The listener, of a considerably-younger age, tuned in attentively, not forgetting to demonstrate her attention by nodding once in a while. Two rows down and five seats away on my left, the two Lomonosov graduates continued their heartbreaking story of Vietnamese people suffering from discrimination and authority abuse in Russia. Naturally enough, the term 'cạ' appeared every five words or so. Perhaps some of you do not know what this word means. Perhaps some of you do not know the term' 'vẹm' either. They are words that only certain groups of people, very peculiar ones, will have ever come across.

I remembered a scene from the movie デド’・オア・アライブ:犯罪者 (Dead or Alive: Criminal) directed by 隆三池 (Takashi Miike). The main protagonist, Yojima, a cop on the chase of a Chinese-origin criminal, Ryu, interrogates two thugs of the street about what they think of Ryu. They say he is their hero. In the end, the cop asks them: “Who the hell are you guys anyways,” to which they reply: “Who are we? We look Japanese, but we aint. We look Chinese, but we aint. What are we, eh? It's a tough question.”

They are what I will refer to as the rootless people. Like me, they struggle to define themselves. Like me, they will never fit in. Like me, they will look at those who are supposedly their people, and feel a mix of indifference and alienation, only because they have been uprooted from their homeland, by force or by free-will, and have adopted a second, or a third, identity, none of which will ever be complete.

The rootless people wander at the margin of society. The are the first to ask for directions. They are the last to get the joke. The first to fall asleep watching the local news, and the last to leave when world events are being discussed. The rootless people knows no Bob's Underground, and will nervously sit at a Starbucks when chance presents itself to them. Anywhere they go, they will act either like a tourist or an illegal immigrant. Anyone they meet, they will hesitate between different modes of greetings. They will never fully master a language the way they see the lines on their palm. They spend ages dreaming about a culturally-rich family built from their bare hands, about children who speak four or five different tongues since birth. They then spend even more time getting depressed about how to find a partner who will fit nicely in their scheme of things. They have trouble imagining such a partner. Will he/she be a rootless person like themselves, for who else understands their crisis better than one of their own kind?

It is the Vietnamese people who have been uprooted to Russia who will understand the word “cạ.” Similarly, those who arrived in the U.S. on a boat will never forget the word “vẹm.”

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THE DICHOTOMY OF CẠ AND VẸM
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CẠ: Cờ a ca nặng cạ
danh từ
từ lóng chỉ người môi giới lao động Việt Nam đi xuất ngoại ở Nga. Cạ lo từ A đến Z: từ giám sát việc ký kết hợp đồng lao động, xin VISA, mua vé máy bay, cho đến đút lót hải quan và đưa đón ở sân bay Nga. Còn được gọi là 'cò Xô' hay 'cò Nga.'

VẸM: E mờ em, vờ em vem nặng vẹm
danh từ
từ lóng dùng để chỉ bộ đội Việt Minh trước năm '54 nói riêng, và những ai ủng hộ Bắc Việt ('54-'75) và Đảng Cộng Sản Việt Nam ('75 đến nay) nói chung. Được dùng chủ yếu bởi người dân miền Nam trước năm '75 và cộng đồng người Việt tỵ nạn Cộng Sản ở hải ngoại sau năm '75. Xuất xứ từ tên tắt của Việt Minh là VM, đọc theo tiếng Pháp là Vê-em.

In this one eventful day, I witnessed the two terms coming to a violent collision: cạ on my left, and vẹm on my right. I was at the exact point of impact. I, a rootless Vietnamese, symbolically (and symmetrically) formalized the split of my own nation, a nation that I myself struggled everyday to understand. The thought of such a metaphor nearly made me sob. Did Vietnam's history have to be this way? Surely we weren't the first to descend into civil war, and from a certain angle, our story had a better conclusion than most others. I mean, the Irish and the Koreans are still fighting internally, and China never gave up its claim over Taiwan. Unlike them, we successfully reunited, albeit having to pay dearly with our own blood and tears.

And it all had to start with the French.


Ah oui les français, le peuple le plus cultivé, le plus sophistiqué, la civilisation exemplaire de l'Europe. Les français qui se croyaient chargé par Dieu de garder le continent en équilibre, pendant plusieurs siècles, contre le vieux Saint-Empire et la nouvelle puissance Britannique. Les français qui vantaient d'être la dernière monarchie absolue, entourée par des petites républiques dont ils se moquaient car ces dernières manquaient de la religion et d'une histoire de gloire. C'est les mêmes français qui, quelques décennies après, se sont révoltés contre cette monarchie lumineuse pour descendre à la Terreur, à l'obscurité totale. Ils parlaient de la solidarité humaine, criaient « Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité ! » à haute voix en même temps qu'ils réduisaient quasiment une moité de l'Afrique et de l'Asie en esclavage. Ce sont des français dont j'ai lu dans les textes d'histoire et de politique.

Et puis, il y a les français qui sont toujours « à la mode ». Les français qui sont obsédés avec leur vin, leur fromage et leur pot-au-feu, et qui se méfient constamment de la mal-bouffe. Les français qui mettent toujours le pain directement sur la table et qui ne peuvent pas habiter sans leur baguettes. Si par hasard vous fréquentez un trottoir quelque part en Europe, et que vous voyiez une vieille femme marcher dans la pluie, une baguette à la main gauche et la parapluie à la main droite, et qu'il y ait personne d'autres...vous devez être en France.

Et la vieille femme doit être française.

Seulement les français peuvent avoir une telle fidélité à leur culture et à leur mode de vie. Seulement les français peuvent promener leur chien tous les jours avec une ponctualité et une vitesse qui dépassent même la monotonie d'une semaine de travail à New York. N'oublions pas non plus la devise hilarante de la campagne contre l'excrétion publique des animaux domestiques : « J'aime ma ville, donc je ramasse. » Très français ce truc, non ?

Et puis il y a les filles françaises qui sont toujours radieuses, qui se donnent tous les temps des gros bisous et un grand sourire. Ah les bisous ! Comme cela me manque beaucoup ! Paris, ville de lumière, toujours radieuse, toujours majestueuse, je te fais le plus gros bisou du monde !

Ce sont les français que j'ai vus avec mes propres yeux. C'est difficile à croire que leur ancêtres ont commis des crimes d'une telle atrocité, celles qui va absolument à l'encontre de leur principe de la solidarité universelle. Ce sont des crimes dont les conséquences ne peuvent être ni mesurées ni compensées. Comment est-ce que cela s'est fait? On était plein dans la Révolution industrielle, à l'apogée du progrès scientifique. On trouvait l'optimisme partout. Pourquoi alors ? Pourquoi cette retour au barbarisme contre quoi les européens ont battu courageusement pendant des siècles avec toute leur énergie ?

Je me pose une question hypothétique : si la France n'a jamais colonisé le Vietnam, existerait-il encore cette dichotomie entre « cạ » et « vẹm » ? Serait-je encore le symbole de cet abîme entre les deux ?

Peut-être, car les Anglais se sont tenus prêts à prendre possession de l'Indochine. Mais regardez la Thaïlande ! Comment s'est fait-t-elle pour s'en sortir ? Ne serait-il possible que la même stratégie eut marché pour le Vietnam aussi ? On ne sait jamais. Car l'histoire n'existe pas à travers une récurrence éternelle. On n'a pas d'occasion de tester les hypothèses variés pour trouver une solution optimale aux problèmes du monde. L'histoire est une répétition dont il n'y pas de spectacle. On la voit telle quelle.

Mais lorsqu'on est dans le domaine des hypothèses, explorons un peu cette idée : si la France n'a jamais conquis le Vietnam, la culture vietnamienne serait vastement différente de ce qu'on voit aujourd'hui. C'est une pensée effrayante !

Hãy trở về với tiếng Việt một chút. Nếu đế quốc đã không xâm chiếm Việt Nam, cuộc sống của ta sẽ khác như thế nào? Không thể kể hết được, nhưng chỉ nói đến văn hóa ẩm thực thôi thì đã thấy tiếc như thế nào rồi. Đế quốc đã mang đến cho chúng ta:

1. Bánh mỳ kiểu Pháp
2. Sữa
3. Sữa chua (da-ua)
4. Bánh Flan
5. Bánh ga-tô
6. Pa-tê
7. Pa-tê-sô
8. Bánh su
9. Xúp lơ

フランスの料理はとても美味しいですよ!
でも、日本のフランは一番です。

và không thể không kể đến:
10. Bộ thìa, nĩa và dao ăn

Bạn sẽ nói, gớm, làm gì mà quan trọng thế? Không có Pháp thuộc thì rồi đến một lúc nào đó nhứng của ngon vật lạ này cũng sẽ di nhập vào Việt Nam. Bạn có chắc không? Bạn có đồng ý là món yaourt là một loại thức ăn rất ngon và bổ dưỡng không? Bạn đi hầu hết các nước trên thế giới sẽ thấy đều có bán yaourt. Thế nhưng bạn sẽ khó có thể tìm được môt siêu thị ở Hoa Kỳ nào mà có bán hơn 3 loại yaourt đóng trong những cái hộp nhỏ xinh xinh, có vị hoa quả mà bạn thường hay mua ở Việt Nam. Vậy mà nước Mỹ vẫn tự coi mình là cái “nồi văn hóa” của thế giới đấy. Tiếp đến, nếu bạn có đến Pháp thì hãy hỏi bất cứ một người Pháp nào xem món ăn truyền thống của người Pháp là món gì. Sẽ có chín trên mười người trả lời: “C'est la crêpe!” Xin tạm dịch đây là món bánh xèo Pháp. Nhưng tôi đoán chắc ở Việt Nam bạn chưa bao giờ được ăn món này. Ta tự hỏi người Pháp đã làm gì trong bao nhiêu năm thống trị Việt Nam mà lại không truyền lại cho chúng ta món ăn danh tiếng này.

Vậy cho nên tôi kết luận, văn hóa thế giới di nhập không theo một quy luật nào và rất khó đoán trước.

Encore une fois, l'idée de la récurrence éternelle est en jeu. On a beau faire des conjectures à propos des possibilités différentes résultant d'un changement de notre choix préexistant, on ne peut rien conclure car personne ne peut transformer ces possibilités en une réalité. Il faut finalement se contenter de ce qu'on a fait. Nos actions ne perdent pas leur signifiance parce qu'on ne sait pas si elles sont bien faites. Au contraire, nos actions gagnent plus de signifiance à cause de leur unique occurrence.

In the movie Monty Python and the Life of Brian, the main character joins an underground resistance group in the struggle against the Roman occupiers. At one point, the leader affirms that in order to truly fight the Romans, Jews need to recognize that they are very bad people. He thus asks his troops to state one good thing that the Romans ever did for the Holy Land. One guy said: “Schools?” The leader looks at him dumbfounded, then restates his question, adding “beside schools” in the end. Another soldier says “the aqueduct,” then another adds “paved roads.” Then the rest joins in with “public health care,” “welfare,” “the arenas,” “delicious Roman food” etc. Each subsequent time the leader has to ask again and again, excluding all of the aforementioned benefits at the end of his question.

Similar to the story of Israel, Vietnam has much suffered because of the French occupation. Today's animosity between Vietnamese at home and abroad is among the more visible problems remaining. Yet, we cannot negate the benefits that the collision with Europe in general, and Imperial France in particular, has brought us. Thanks to this encounter, we are among the culturally richest countries on earth. In the kitchen we are at the very top, that's for sure. The fact that we have no clue as to how such an impact could have played out differently, or not at all, is what makes its development all the more interesting.

This is why such a geographic division between North and South, this Vietnamese kitsch, is both our curse and our Grand March. I told myself, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”

Contenting myself with this conclusion, I boarded my flight.

Three hours later, I called my baby from the airport.

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