[EXCLUSIVE] “A Son of Hanoi” and “Tấm and the Peasant Farmer” by Kenneth Tanemura

A Son of Hanoi

Kenneth on “A Son of Hanoi”:
It is worth considering the idea of the 1.5 generation and how a few years of schooling in an imperialist country can be so strongly internalised. What does it mean to be an American or a Vietnamese person today? Isn’t nationality largely a state of mind, even if that state contradicts the colour of your passport? These are some of the questions this story tries to think through.

Binh, the boy who was born here in Hanoi, said he couldn’t stand the indescribable smell on Dinh Tien Hong, as if such odours couldn’t be found in New York or Chicago. Binh, my ten-year-old stepson, lived with me and his mother back in the States. He’s spent half his life here, half his life there. I wondered if his feeling of place was divided in two, like an old, wrinkled map with a black streak from a marker going down the middle, divvying up properties. On our walk to the photocopy shop, Binh pointed out scraps of litter, spray paint on metal gates, the messages inscribed on any city anywhere. His Hanoi-born mother, Am, was beginning to lose her patience. “Stop complaining,” she said. 

“Jesus Christ, it smells like a tornado lifted about 900 dumpsters into a giant swirl in the sky and you’re telling me to stop complaining.” 

“Just stop,” Am said.

“Christ,” Binh said, demanding the final word. At the photocopy shop, Am was having an entire book copied into a reader format for 5 dollars. The book was important to her doctoral research in applied linguistics at a large midwestern university in the US. The place was not really a shop, properly speaking; more like an enclave you can enter through a short flight of cement stairs. Electric fans affixed to the walls spun lazily through the rust and subtropical heat. An elderly Vietnamese man told Binh to have a seat on a short stool, but Binh turned away, all but thumbing his nose at the old man. The old man persisted, still, as if he was convinced Binh had decided to remain upright out of an unnecessary politeness acquired, perhaps needlessly, in the States. “Why is there no AC in here?” Binh said. 

“Have a seat,” I said, pointing at the stool. 

As if my gesture of pointing stirred the old man to try again, he looked Binh right in the eye, with a fashioned intensity, and said, “Sit down.” I wondered what happened to Binh’s famous verbosity, his usual onslaught of sarcastic put-downs migrated away somewhere like birds going home. 

“Is she done yet?” Binh said, specifically to me. 

“It’ll be awhile,” I said. “What’s wrong with you—you were born here. This is your country.” 

“It’s not my country,” Binh said, staring into space, as if to avoid looking at the swarms of motorbikes whizzing by. 

“What is your country, then?” I said. 

“I don’t have one.” 

“I’m a foreigner here, and I don’t mind the odour of the street.”

“Good for you,” Binh said. “What do you like about this Godforsaken place anyway? You’re American—you should know better.” Godforsaken—I wondered where he got that word from. He loved to talk like an 85-year-old American midwestern man, for some reason.  

“I like the things you’ll like one day—egg coffee, squeezing lime into a bowl of noodles, the French Quarter.”

“I’ll never like any of that,” Binh said. “Not ever.” 

“What don’t you like?” I said.  

“For starters, I don’t like the Goddamn laundry hanging from balconies. I don’t like the Goddamn roosters on the street. I don’t like the Goddamn old ladies chopping pork on the sidewalk. And I don’t like the Goddamn shirtless old guys smoking in cafes.” 

“I bet you don’t like people speaking to you in your own language,” I said. 

English is my language. Sure, I speak a little Vietnamese, but that’s only because I was born here.” When Am was done photocopying, we waved down a taxi, then climbed into its cool, air-conditioned cocoon. We went to Hỏa Lò Prison, where Binh’s legendary, revolutionary great-grandfather had been jailed by the French colonialists in the 1940s. We walked by the cells. “They were forced to eat morning glories and rotten fish sauce,” Am said. 

“That’s kind of gross,” Binh said. 

“Your grandfather crawled through the sewer to escape this place, like Houdini,” I said. “We should honour his revolutionary spirit.” 

Something in Binh’s face softened when we walked up to the guillotine on display. “I’m so relieved he wasn’t executed,” he said. 

“How ironic. Your great-grandfather fought to make his own language the official language of his country. And here you are, refusing to speak it,” I said. 

“I’d rather learn French,” Binh said. A look of great pride welled up in Am’s eyes when she saw her grandfather’s name on a list of revolutionary heroes. Her communist grandfather who was beaten by colonialists brought social status to the family by being a general under Ho Chi Minh. Am’s grandfather might have been the CEO of a massive corporation, for the prestige he brought to his descendants. We posed for pictures next to plastic models of political prisoners, those emaciated figures with their feet shackled. Some dark impulse in me wanted to peer into the small cells, at the bowls prisoners made from coconuts. We gawked at the replica of the sewer Am’s grandfather and others crawled through. Then we bought Cokes from the machine outside and stood in front of a fan to escape the heat. 

“What do you guys want for lunch?” Am said. 

“Bún chả,” I said. 

“No, please no,” Binh said. 

“How about Phở?” Am said. 

“I want sushi,” Binh said. 

“Wait till we get back home, buddy,” I said. We ended up going to a Japanese pizza place where the chefs placed pieces of raw fish right onto the pizza slices. “They don’t have this back home,” I said. 

“You can say that again,” Binh said, his mouth full of cheese, crust and raw tuna. 


Tấm and the Peasant Farmer


Kenneth on “Tấm and the Peasant Farmer”: While visiting Vietnam, I became interested in the story of Tấm and bought an illustrated English translation of the fairy tale. The book was designed for children. I wanted to use the contrast of the characters as implied by the costumes to comment on intercultural relationships and relationships in general. I wanted to touch upon larger ideas of identity that extend beyond what the symbolism of the costumes suggest, but that begin there.

Despite the sweltering weather in Hanoi these days, many young people still flock to lotus ponds surrounding the capital city’s iconic Ho Tay (West Lake) to pose for Instagram-ready photos with a sea of blooming flowers.

—Tuoi Tre News
My wife and I went to visit the lotus ponds in Hanoi. The only costume they had in my size, XL, was a feudal peasant farmer’s outfit. “It’s okay, you look cool in that,” Am said. Am, who is from Hanoi, got to be outfitted as Tấm, the Vietnamese Cinderella.
Oh sure, you get to be a princess,” I said. We walked along the lotus pond as a photographer walked ahead of us taking pictures.
We belonged in different stories. Am posed for pictures in her pretty silk robe. An outside observer would have asked himself: Why is this Cinderella bothering to chat with a peasant farmer? Is he the king in disguise? Or an American bearing the heat in Hanoi? There was no story attached to me, just a rural man trapping fish with a wicker basket. I could have been anyone.
Am was a singular figure, stretching out before the pink blossoms. Her back story said something about luck and love. I came from a place where history is now and harvesting rice left no time for myth. If I didn’t know better, I’d have said we would never last, coming from such different backgrounds. But a peasant farmer doesn’t leave a woman like Tấm. He puts up with the one who is better than him until she sees he belongs to the fields and not the palace. They stay, maybe, because someone put them together. They’re from such different stories, a nation’s imagination has never let them cross paths on this dirt walkway through the lotus pond at Ho Tay. We were maybe the first representation of such a story.
When we changed out of our costumes, I became a Japanese American guy in a red Lacoste polo shirt and Am turned into the descendant of a famous Communist revolutionary general. I looked at Am in her tank-top and denim shorts, trying to detect a trace of that anti-aristocratic aristocracy. I didn’t see a thing. But what could I have seen? I was only a provincial American who spoke a single language like a horse with blinders on.
6f271-divider5Kenneth Tanemura

Kenneth Tanemura lives and writes in Mississauga, Canada. He is a Kundiman fellow, and his stories have appeared in or are forthcoming in The Iowa Review, the Atticus Review, Ricepaper Magazine, and elsewhere.

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