Desperately Seeking Subtext

It’s January in Hanoi and Santa and his reindeer are everywhere, not just in the hotel lobbies, where (I’d assumed) the artificial Christmas trees, wrapped boxes and prancing reindeer were set up for the pleasure of Westerners. Santas bundled up for frigid weather are in the windows of local establishments, and pop versions of Christmas tunes are in the air, even at this elegant restaurant, where the cheerful strains of “Feliz Navidad” are failing to allay my anxiety.

I can’t say if the man who has invited me to dinner here is, indeed, the most famous writer in Vietnam, as he has claimed. Certainly, “Hy” (not his real name) is a writer of great renown, whose poetry has been widely translated. He’s also published novels, short story collections, essays and, at the start of his career, TV and movie scripts. As he says, “Writing, writing, all the time writing.” Much of it is done in the evening, which makes this dinner invitation particularly generous.

It also confuses me. His invitation had included a visit to the village where he was raised and introductions to other writers, which I don’t think will follow. Maybe I’ll find out I’m wrong. I don’t know. The gut feelings I usually have about people and situations are gone; my instincts, like my language, are useless currency here.

I first heard of Hy through an American poet and translator who’d met him in 1994 when Hy and three other Vietnamese writers came to the United States. Since that time, Hy, who learned English in Cuba, had returned regularly to the U.S. His son and daughter were attending universities here. The American poet spoke fondly of Hy and described Vietnam as a gentle place with a “stunning and vivid literary life.”

I listened avidly, struck by how little I knew of this country of 87 million. For me, as for most Americans, particularly those of my generation, Vietnam was a place of war, a country we invaded. Say “Vietnam,” and the same dreadful images come to many minds. A child burned by napalm, running naked down a village road, agony across her face. A defector shot in the head. “Apocalypse Now,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “Platoon.” Our stories; our war. It was as if nothing else existed of this country apart from the bloody photos in the daily newspapers and the slang that arose from that tragic war—“grunt,” “Huey,” “Charlie.”

As a traveler, I’m interested in museums and cultural sites, in landscapes and cities and local food. Mostly, though, in people: I’m always wondering what life is like in a particular place and yearning to experience something of that life, even if it means bumbling around for a while. A perfect trip would include a contact in a city, a personal connection, an invitation, perhaps, to someone’s home. I like to stay long enough to buy my vegetables at a market and go running in the mornings, since feeling the pavement is the way I begin to have a sense of place. My dinner conversation with the poet made me feel as if I might be able to fulfill this wish in Vietnam, a place I’d long wanted to visit. I started to think about designing a project that had nothing to do with “the American War,” as it’s called in Vietnam. Perhaps I could team up with a Vietnamese writer to translate fiction into English; maybe I could also bring home stories about contemporary life in Vietnam, gleaned from these experiences. The American poet was encouraging and gave me some contact information. Hy’s response was prompt and warm. “It’s nice to have your email,” he wrote, urging me to visit. “We will meet, have some Vietnamese food, and talk. … What you need, I do for you. …”

What I recall of Hanoi from my first trip in May 2009 is traffic, denser and more chaotic than anything I had ever experienced: streets crammed with beeping motorbikes, the riders in stylish helmets; taxis; street venders pushing carts; women in conical hats carrying cut pineapples or litchis on shoulder poles. Motorbikes parked on sidewalks beside street kitchens, where child-sized plastic tables and chairs were set out and a single dish was cooked for the patrons. I felt hot, sweaty and huge compared to the Vietnamese, though for an American I’m small. I was traveling with my daughter on this initial visit. Hy met us for lunch, along with a younger poet. He spoke warmly of Boston, which had become a second home, and expressed his intense dislike of New York, where my daughter lives—the “loneliest place on earth,” he declared. It was a shame I wasn’t staying longer, he said when we parted. I should let him know ahead of time when I was planning my next visit. He would introduce me to many writers and take me to the village where he was raised.

Though I could not get funding for the ambitious project I’d initially planned with a Vietnamese translator, a small grant made it possible for me to return 20 months later. During that time, I continued to read Vietnamese poetry and fiction in translation. I co-taught, with an anthropologist, a course called “Cultural Understandings/Misunderstandings,” which focused on language, culture and history in Japanese, Vietnamese and U.S. relations. All semester, we read short stories as well as essays by anthropologists, watched films, and discussed translation in its broadest meanings, studying the issues from every angle. We talked about notions of guilt and loyalty, the way members of a particular culture often think about the future or the past. We asked our students whether a translation could capture the nuances, hidden meanings and cultural contexts that constituted the original. It seemed to me that far more important than what gets lost in translation is all that can be gained by an honest attempt.

I contacted Hy well before I booked my flight, unsure whether he’d be inclined to meet with me again after so much time.

His warm response arrived within hours: “I am surely in Hanoi at that time. We will have time to talk. I will invite you to come to see my hometown, where you can meet the other poets and artists to have dinner and nightcoffee.”

Thrilled, I made plane reservations. I let him know the dates I would be in the country, reiterating how pleased I’d be to do all he suggested. I would visit the South and Central Highlands this trip, and needed to know how many days I should set aside for our time in Hanoi. I asked, “Could you let me know when you’re available so I will leave that time free?”

People would be preparing for Tet, the Lunar New Year, so there would be much for me to enjoy when I arrived in Hanoi, he wrote back. Please keep in contact.

Eager to figure out how long to stay in Hanoi, I asked twice more how many days to set aside for our journeys. I got the same prompt, polite response each time. He looked forward to my visit. I should call when I arrived in Hanoi.

The night before my departure from the U.S., I wrote Hy a last time to tell him how much I looked forward to seeing his village and spending time together.

I’ve not been waiting long when I see Hy enter the restaurant, a small compact man with graying hair. We are escorted to a small table on the second floor, across from a long crowded table that spans the bustling room. Hy sets his cell phone face up beside him. Our wine arrives, followed by many small dishes: scallops, shrimp, salmon. Several soups are brought to us, along with plates of greens, tomatoes and black olives, and small bowls with condiments: chili peppers, lime and salt, soy sauce and wasabi.The server appears with a long spear of meat, which he shaves onto a plate beside slices of pineapple. As the dishes crowd the table, Hy speaks of his love of poetry and takes several calls on his phone. He has a kind of distracted energy that is familiar to me—checking his cell phone, telling me again about the pleasures of drinking coffee and writing poetry deep into the night, answering the phone again. Much of what he tells me, I recall him saying when we met last, so I begin to ask questions and to push tentatively. TheVietnamese Writers Association has just met; I ask who is excluded and what effect not getting in has on a writer. When he again disparages New York as the “loneliest city in the world,” I suggest his feelings might change if he knew it better and offer to introduce him to friends who live there.

He gets up from the table without a word, and my anxiety rushes forward. I am missing something, I think. I can’t tell how I am being received—as a social obligation, a bore, a mere woman, a woman of middle years, a fellow writer, a pest? Once, I had a social compass, but now, I have nothing. I cannot build on the histories and stories I’ve read; they do not help me understand the subtleties that underlie my interaction with Hy and prevent us from having what I think of as genuine conversation. I cannot even presume that he shares the same desire for connection, if my desire to know him meshes in the slightest with his interest in being known.

After Hy returns, we get clean plates; the dishes continue to arrive until I fear they’ll slide off our small table. I ask Hy about memoir and electronic media, and listen carefully to what he tells me about his beloved mentor, his disdain for young writers who post stories of love and romance on their blogs, and the downside of being recognized everywhere in Hanoi, until I hear the familiar strains of “Happy Birthday.” We pause to watch the waiters light candles on a round, frosted cake, then cross the room, flourishing the cake.The tune changes to a Vietnamese song and then, when the cake is set in front of the birthday boy, changes back to “Happy Birthday.”The boy blows out the candles all at once.

The family cheers; my dinner with Hy comes to an end.

Let me know the next time you come, he says when we part. I’ll introduce you to many writers and take you to the village where I was raised.

Early the next morning, I email Hy to thank him again for dinner and remind him I’m staying in Hanoi for another four days. I ask a few more questions about his mentor, the exact number of books he’s published, the names of the Midwestern universities his son and daughter attend—nothing that seems intrusive or time-consuming to answer.Then I decide to go for a run. According to my map, Bay Mau Lake is not far from my hotel. I put on running clothes and then, feeling self-conscious in my getup, throw on a rain jacket over my T-shirt and try to find the park.

The lake is small and quiet, with only a few elderly women walking and a group of young people dancing to recorded pop music. I know I won’t hear from Hy, and I’m upset with myself for being unable to ask him straight out: When are we going to your village? How is it possible that I’m comfortable staying alone in this city where I do not speak the language, that I would have gladly met Hy in the village where he was raised, but I cannot manage to ask this simple question?

The day ends, and I get no reply. While I’m not surprised, I’m left with the question of what, if anything, I’ve done wrong. I remember a blunder I made when I moved to London many years ago. An acquaintance had cheerfully said I should “pop over any time,” and I did. I was standing in her doorway when I realized my error. I had been fooled by our common language into thinking I understood the culture, too.

I walk for hours each day in Hanoi. Sometimes, I wonder whether Hy took me to dinner out of politeness, if the gesture was shaped by a culture that made it hard for him to turn me down. Maybe he had only so much to give, and his promises were as idle as our parting words— “Call me; let’s get together for a drink”—to an acquaintance we have no particular desire to see again. He could have been a man who habitually made idle promises, a smooth talker. Possibly my emailed questions, which had seemed relatively innocuous to me, had made him feel compromised. Vietnam is, after all, still a Communist country, where human rights violations are not unknown.

Mostly, though, I take in the city around me. I get better at crossing the street and no longer do the tourist waltz—that dangerous one step forward and one step back. Instead, I look for a slender gap in traffic and trust that the drivers will stop, in the same way I trust that gravity will keep me anchored to the earth.

It’s as if mastering this small skill—I can cross the street!—allows me to look up for the first time, and I see more than the “exotic” alleys and street kitchens. I glimpse the powerhouse parts of Vietnam, with its booming economy and a standard of living that’s radically improved in the last decade. Much of the evidence of this growth is in the South, in Ho Chi Minh City, but across from my Hanoi hotel, there is an upscale mall with the same designer shops as in Europe or the U.S. I see cranes and tall buildings, and sense the city will be different in five years. In 10, it will bear only a passing resemblance to the place I experience now. “Asia is where it’s happening,” everyone says. No wonder Vietnam ranks at the top of those studies of countries where the residents are the most optimistic about the economy.Their former oppressors, the French, are among the most pessimistic.

How much more would I learn if I stayed a month? What if I were here for six more months, with language skills good enough to make polite conversation? The novels, histories and guidebooks I have read have given me a context, but it is shallow indeed. I know never to touch a child’s head; that family names are first and given names are last; that the polite way to address someone is determined by the person’s age, gender and social standing relative to oneself. I know that Vietnamese is a tonal language, and the meaning of a word is determined by the pitch or tone: “Ba,” for instance, can mean “grandmother,” “three,” “aunt,” “waste” or “poisoned food,” depending on how it’s said. I’ve read and been told reasons why there is no bitterness toward Americans; why Christmas (albeit stripped of its Christian context) is celebrated, along with NewYear’s,Valentine’s Day and Halloween. I have learned these facts, can observe and surmise, and yet my sense of a situation, my ability to read an interaction, is as lacking as my ability to read the language. Why, for example, did the cyclo driver in Hue say, “Fuck you,” when he dropped me off at my hotel?

My cheeks flamed, and the old discomfort at being seen as a representative of a country whose government has shamed me rose. Did he hate me for being an American? Then, walking into the lobby, I realized he was announcing my destination: “Park View”—the name of the hotel.

Slipping my rain jacket over my running clothes on my last morning in Hanoi, I think how much discomfort there is in trying to experience an unfamiliar place, how many awkward encounters and misunderstandings. Some travelers quickly forget how limited their experiences are and tell stories that suggest they’re authorities. Others transform the awkwardness and discomfort into indictments. New York, to Hy, is the “loneliest city in the world.” France, to my elderly relative, is the “gendarme,” or police officer, in Paris who answered her question rudely. For her, this single experience is enough to describe an entire country.This is what they’re like, she is saying, each time she tells her anecdote.

I hadn’t wanted to do that, though I suppose I had, transforming my decades-old conception of Vietnam as nothing more than a war-torn place into a country of street kitchens, buzzing motorbikes and streets that were terrifying to cross. On my second trip, when I traveled the length of the country, I began to take in all the regional differences in this small, complex place. And still, it was only after I’d returned home and was struggling to write about my experience that I began to turn my sentences around, deleting the ones that started with “Hanoi was. …” I can’t say with any authority what Hanoi is, only what I learned about myself: I am a traveler with a singular desire to connect in a particular way, and in Vietnam, I failed.

I could circumvent my awkward encounter and still write a simple story about life for a writer in Hanoi in 2011—after all, during that trip, with ample time alone, I filled my notebooks with details and descriptions and, like Hy, was “writing, writing, all the time writing.” Instead, I’ll simply say I’ve been to Vietnam twice. I traveled through the countryside. I visited some cities, met a few people, ate great food, and began to grasp just how much I have yet to learn.

About the Author

Jane Bernstein

Jane Bernstein’s most recent books include the memoirs Bereft: A Sister’s Story and Rachel in the World. She is also an essayist, a lapsed screenwriter, and a member of the Creative Writing Program at Carnegie Mellon University.

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