The valley of dew

Besides Tống Ngọc Hân, Nguyên Hương and Lê Minh Hà, Cao Nguyệt Nguyên is another woman writer who grabbles with the injustice confronting women in marriage, love, sex, and motherhood in patriarchal society. Coming from different generations and writing with heart and skill, these writers nevertheless are yet to tease out a vital space for woman identity, showing how difficult it is to exit the all-encompassing masculine matrix.    

Translator: Thùy Linh; Editor: Hari Chathrattil

Valley of Dew

Illustration: Đỗ Dũng

Vietnam News – The night thickened, and turmeric petals sprinkled in cups of wine. The wine tasted teary. Women stood in line waiting for the exact moment when they could scoop up fresh water from the village well to wash their husbands’ faces with to bring them luck throughout the New Year. Only Vận went out alone, and drank one whole bottle of wine without getting drunk, as if he were drinking water. His head felt clear, and the blood in his chest flared up like fire. The men winked at each other, clinking their cups.

“Hey Vận, why isn’t your wife here to get well water for you to wash your face with?” the men jeered. Vận threw his cup into a pillar of the communal house and stood up. The cup broke into pieces, putting an end to the New Year’s Eve party. Other people flitted around with their lovers, but Vận flitted around with a shadow.

Vận went home and found the house in darkness, only lit up by the scent of incense recently burned to welcome spring. He sneered. They’re all sleeping like a log, he thought. Ever since Bìu left, there hadn’t been any spring. Spring couldn’t come home to an ugly wife. Spring couldn’t lie in the hands of a breeding hen. The breeding hen only knew how to breed, not how to laugh. Whether she looked up or down there were only tears in her eyes. He was so sick of it.

Vận lay down and listened to the dew falling on the roof. The wine warmed his chest, made his hands shake, and stirred up his masculinity. He spread a hand on the wall which left wet traces and quickened his breath. Vận was lying alone with his back against another bed placed further inside. He sighed and disquieted the air behind. I should lie flat on my face to cool myself down, he thought. Did wine only fire one up, or make one sit up? A man like you is rotten, Vận chided himself.

Vận heard the laughter of the men in the village and their contemptuous jokes. Thumping under the moon, in the middle of the night. There’s a woman over there, I must have the right. I’ve already bought her. Vận laughed tearfully. Then coughed gently. Dược understood. She stood up and took off her clothes. Her hair tumbled down into dizzy tangles. She walked towards the wall, took down a towel to give to Vận and knelt down. Soft, indistinct words from a song came out from Dược’s mouth. She was lying down, seeing no more moonlight, no husband’s face, feeling no kisses, only darkness.

***

The day Bìu left the village, Vận got drunk, staggered and bellowed. The wine distorted his voice and made him throw up blood. Vận said he wanted to die. He didn’t want to live any longer. What was the use of living when he couldn’t be with the one he loved? The shame. Dược prostrated herself on the ground and held her husband’s leg.

“Don’t die. You still have me. I love you as much as Bìu.”

Vận howled, glowered and bared his teeth. He flung her away.

“You lumpy face, you breeding hen. You breeder for hire. You can’t compare yourself to Bìu. Only Bìu is my wife. You can’t be my wife for eternity.”

They slept in the same house separated by only a wall. On moonlit nights when he couldn’t sleep, Vận saw the person lying on the inner bed leap out of bed and run onto the veranda to pour water on her body. The freezing water seeped into her flesh. Scooping up the water with her hands, Dược cursed her face. Why had she been born that way? Her face wasn’t like a tree trunk whose bark could be removed. A greyness under a cheek pushed up from underneath making lumps. With such an unseemly face she couldn’t hold her head high and walk beside her husband. She could only hurt.

“I’m a woman too. I’m miserable too. Why do you only love Bìu? If you don’t accept me just kill me.”

Vận saw a knife glisten in the night, reflecting the moonlight on his wife’s face. He said in a daze:

“Bìu is very beautiful.”

Dược sobbed.

“I don’t want to live anymore. Look at my body and see if I’m still a human being? It’s both beauty and sex that you’ve chosen.”

Vận threw the knife to the ground and walked away. If he couldn’t find Bìu he couldn’t live in peace, couldn’t live as a human. He dropped his arms, the strength in him gone. Shame surged. Oh, why was life so miserable? The one he loved wasn’t by his side, but the one he hated, despised and feared was. Was he still a man? Always living by his mother’s rules. Ever since he was small Vận had never dared to argue with his mother.

His mother was lying in a corner on a bed close to the window. The moonlight lit up half her haggard and bony face.

“I’m about to die soon. If you love me you must love your wife. Only when you love your wife can she give birth. Are you going to kill the Trần family? Then I’ll die with my eyes open.”

Vận clasped his hands and bowed. Dược crouched in a corner of the kitchen weeping, smearing the tears all over her face with two hands tainted by soot.

“I only love Bìu. Mother please let me take Bìu home.”

“How can she come home now that our family has disowned her? Don’t you see the two male papaya trees planted at the gate? If she returns she’ll see them.”

The night felt disjointed, sounding like the endless crying that echoed in fits and starts from the end of the village. Dược sat in a corner of the house, waiting. He heard a cough from the other side. Footsteps shuffled. Dược shrank back, got on the bed and shrieked.  Dược wrung the towel in her hands. Why did she have to cover her face with a towel? Why couldn’t she look at the moon, her husband’s chest, her own hands? Vận snatched the towel from her hands. In the flash of an eye Dược found herself lifted up and thrown down on the bed then in darkness again. Dược howled, gnashed and bit straight into Vận’s shoulders. Her mouth sucked on his salty flesh.

“If you don’t want to look at my face then don’t get on top of me.”

“Apart from your face you’re still a woman.”

What kind of love was that. Yet Dược had stopped asking questions. Ugly women shouldn’t ask, since asking would only cause pain in the heart, the bowels and make tears flow. Dược served food to her mother-in-law twice a day. The old woman was weak, barely able to eat anything. Dược cried. I’m only staying here because of you, she would say. When you pass away I won’t care anymore. Don’t say so, her mother-in-law begged in her eyes. Dược turned away.

“So will we have a son eventually or what?”

The patriarch spoke as members of the family flocked into the house. Some stood and some sat closely around the mother’s sickbed.

“Without an heir we’ll have to appoint another head. Another man will do. This house will be handed over too, and you can move to wherever you want, Vận.”

Vận looked down and clenched his lips and fists. The dying mother once in a while sighed. Soon some family members went out to smoke. Vận sat down at the door. The sunlight dimmed. The two male papaya trees swayed lightly.

“What a curse.”

I’ll burn them all, Vận screamed. The fire flared up in his hand. I’ll burn them all, give them all back to the Trần family. Dược darted out and tried to snatch the torch in her husband’s hand. The fire singed her hair, scorched her upper arms and burned half of the kitchen. Dược found her face buried and her body cloaked in ashes. The ashes covered her face and she could smell nothing but the greyness that hid the ivory whiteness of her flesh. Which was now only slimy painful broken lines.

“Are you satisfied now?”

Vận stood up leaving Dược lying hurt and exposed on the ground.

Dược’s pregnancy protected Vận’s property. Everyday Vận went out at early dawn and came home at midnight. Dược did housework, took care of her mother-in-law and caressed her belly which was gradually growing. A storm was forecast so the two male papaya trees had to be felled or else they might collapse on the house. Dược went out with a knife but her mother-in-law dragged herself to the door. She shook her head, so Dược quietly returned to the house.

“They’re an amulet to ward off that woman. It’s the only way for you to keep your husband, Dược.”

In the morning and evening, the couple ate together without looking at each other. Vận always found the tray arranged into two sides. On one side was a vial of wine and delicious food, and on the other, roasted and crushed sesame and salt and water spinach. Feeling uneasy, Vận would switch the dishes. Dược switched them back, saying, I’m used to it. Vận sighed, trying in vain to swallow his food.

The breeding hen waited for Vận, and Vận waited for the one he loved from afar. Thrice a month he took the bus to town to make inquiries. Still there was no news of her.

***

Bìu came back one week after her mother-in-law died when nobody expected her. She returned from some unknown place and looked completely changed. Did city food make one that beautiful? Her hair was smooth and straight and hung down her back in all of its aching blackness. Her short and closefitting shirt attracted the stares of young men in the village. Bìu returned in the morning and in the afternoon several guys came to help re-thatch her roof. Bìu laughed warmly.

Vận put down his bowl of rice and ran uphill, calling out her name. Sharp stones and thorns were no obstacle, Vận trampled on them all. Blood rushed up through his chest making breathing difficult. This time he wouldn’t let her leave again. Though Vận thought so, his feet suddenly stopped at the top of the hill. Through the top of the turmeric trees he saw the figure of the woman moving lithely among the young men. Vận ran towards Bìu and pulled on her hand.

“Let’s go. Go home with me.”

Bìu burst into laughter and pulled her hand back.

“I’m no longer a member of the Trần family.”

Vận looked disconcerted. The young men laughed. It was all over. There wasn’t anything more to expect. Vận was empty-handed, losing the girl of his dreams. The woman who had become familiar with his breathing, his embraces, his rubbing his sweaty head against her bosom was now a stranger. He retraced his steps and found Dược standing desolately at the top of the hill holding her belly. How annoying. Vận walked in front, Dược followed like a shadow.

“Go away. You curse!”

Vận pushed Dược to the ground. She rolled around and fell on top of a flowering bush growing on the road.

“It’s all your fault, breeding hen.”

Bìu looked down at the scene and chuckled softly, her satisfaction mingled with tears. The two women looked up and caught each other’s eyes. Bìu turned away and put her arms around another man.

Rumors spread. Men from town showed up. Cars parked at the foot of the hill as early as midnight, delivering all sorts of men who were willing to traverse the hill to visit Bìu. Laughter echoed down from the valley of dew every night.

After her customers left, Bìu tottered and staggered in the wind, looking down at the village, which was screened by a thick blinding dew and blocked by a rocky thorny road. Bìu laughed, wildly in the night. Down there at the foot of the turmeric hill, there was a man drinking uncontrollably until his heart bled. She must have tortured him, to let him know what it meant to be abandoned.

Women in the village were agitated. Ever since Bìu returned to the top of the hill, their husbands sneaked out of the house every night. They couldn’t do anything about it. The women flocked to Dược’s house. She had just put her baby boy into the cradle. There were dark circles around her eyes because of sleeplessness and crying.

“You must come up with some solution. You can’t let her lord over us.”

Dược looked down.

“I’m at loss too.”

The women spat on the ground.

“You deserve this, Dược. But we won’t stand for this. You just wait and see.”

They left, leaving Dược hanging around in the dim afternoon sunlight. She sat by the window sill fondling the square towel. She only wanted Vận to return. She would be trampled on, as long as he wouldn’t visit that hill anymore.

Dược would tell him so. Dược would make Vận understand that she would accept everything and demand nothing, as long as he stayed home.

The women lit torches and went up to the hill in droves. They dragged Bìu out of her house, pulled out her hair, tore her clothes and tied her to a tree. Bìu’s eyes darkened reflecting the colour of the fire. The house was blazing. The fire even spread to the turmeric trees. Bìu cried without a sound, tears falling down. Her hands wavered in the air. The women looked at each other smugly.

“We’ll see where you go next, whore.”

Time passed slowly, the sun had set below the western mountain range and the night was falling. The cold dew fell upon the scratches which were oozing blood. Bìu’s soft hair was tangled and marked by rough cuts. Her head hung down on one side. She dreamily saw herself floating in a pomegranate-coloured puddle.

The moon rose. Pale. Vận kept walking around and around treading on his own shadow. He was guzzling wine while walking. To Vận now wine tasted blander than water. How strange though. Why didn’t he see Bìu’s house? Was he dreaming? Vận rubbed his eyes several times. Where had Bìu gone? Vận dashed through the forest. He called Bìu’s name but heard only his own voice echoing back in drawn-out sounds from a deep abyss. Had she left again? Why was she so cruel.

“Bìu, is that you? I’m wrong. Let’s stop torturing each other. I won’t let you go away again.”

Bìu said nothing, ignoring the arms that were lifting her up and hugging her to the chest. His chest was warm, but Bìu’s heart was cold. The shadows of the two people carrying each other moved about at the top of the mountain. Vận’s feet stepped on the smarting ground which was still covered with burning ashes. The turmeric trees had been scorched grey and were scattered around in disarray.

* * *

It was faraway.

The couple felt as if they were lost in the endless turmeric forest whose dazzling white had dissolved into the porcelain whiteness of the skin. The cold dewy flowers scented the flesh. Vận loved the scent of turmeric flowers, soothing and deep, and the feeling of closing his eyes and running his nose down his lover’s body and caressing and devouring it.

Vận tightened his grasp, the turmeric flowers sinking into Bìu’s hair. Yet it did not last forever, nothing lasted forever. Bìu hugged a bundle of turmeric flowers in her arms shrinking behind the door. They couldn’t be her tears since tears alone couldn’t wet a whole bunch of flowers. Bìu cried out.

“Why is the quest for lovers such a tangled skein, so perplexing, so indifferent!”

Bìu swirled around in ecstasy. Her voice soared up and up then suddenly dove into freezing steam. She felt bitten and numbed, and entangled in thousands of turmeric flowers. Bìu couldn’t extricate herself. Trapped. Crumbled and distorted faces. Why were there so many people other than Vận and Bìu on the turmeric hill? Were they coming to hear her sing, or to watch the turmeric trees dance? Her mother-in-law, aunts and uncles, why so many? She was so scared. Could Vận take her away? Could they run away?

Vận’s mother threw the white flowers up in the air. The flowers fell to the ground and crumbled at her feet. She cried. So did Bìu.

“At least bitches can breed, but feeding this type is a waste of food. Having such a daughter-in-law is a curse on this family.”

“Can you wait for me?” Bìu asked Vận. “This isn’t what I want. The turmeric season is coming, so I’ll bath myself, soak myself in turmeric-scented water all night, then I won’t be a child anymore. I’ll have a baby. Vận. Please speak for me, don’t just sit like that. I’m scared. We’ve just made love!”

Vận remained completely silent, hanging his head in shame and pouring wine with his hand. Vận had never drunk this much before. Did wine kill people’s soul? Bìu was lying down with her face turned towards him. She didn’t dare to wipe tears or clean the mucus running from her nose. She couldn’t breathe. Let me die, she said. Vận hugged her bosom with his arms and quietly unfastened each button on her shirt. Bìu couldn’t see his face. Vận senselessly lay flat on his wife’s body.

“Why don’t we pretend to break up? Then you can return in a while when mother calms down.”

“Are you planning to abandon me?”

Vận was silent. The space around Bìu felt like an accomplice. Woe to her parents, woe to God. Her heart was dying. That night Bìu didn’t wake up to crush turmeric flowers to wash herself with.

“You forever remain a child still, don’t you? So strangely smooth and soothing,” Vận said.

Bìu jumped up and ran away, her bare feet stumbling and bleeding on sharp stones. Her hair blew madly in the wind. Vận wasn’t sure whether he could wait for another day. The first year, he went into the forest alone. The second year, he went out with a woman tagging along. The grey-cheeked woman with sun-burnt skin. That pair of calves wasn’t meant for climbing the mountains, only for breeding.

As he passed by the turmeric hill Vận no longer looked at Bìu, but walked on with his head down in shame. He wanted to cross the hill quick. He walked with his back turned against Bìu, but not for long. He should have just kept on walking. He shouldn’t have blamed himself. If so, everything would have been different.

“I beg you Bìu, please understand me. I still love you very much but mother forbids me to take you home.”

Bìu stood motionless with her back leaned against the wall in her house. Her tears were dry and her heart was cold.

“Just one more time. I beg you.”

Bìu walked on as if under a spell. Vận’s hands were hot, so was his breath but Bìu’s heart was cold. The turmeric flowers made the bed, and Bìu’s flesh lay in the moonlight, uncovered and dim. The moon was the witness, the turmeric trees were the witness. Vận put his hand on her. Then ducked his head in her bosom and cried.

“Bìu say something please,” he said. “Scold me. Kill me.” Bìu stared up at the sky. She gave out a mournful howl, then darted away in the night, into the snowy-white withering forest.

That night, all the turmeric trees on the hill were felled to make way for a new season. The turmeric trees were dead, the moon was dead and Bìu too was dead. Put me down, your hands are no longer for me, neither are your embraces and also your chest. In those burnt wild sweats Bìu could smell the stink of another woman. The grey-cheeked woman. “I’m disgusted,” Bìu said.

“No,” Vận replied. “That’s not what I want. You aren’t a man so you don’t understand. Why do you keep grumbling after playing cold and indifferent to me?”

“Then leave,” she said. “Never come up here again. Man?” Bìu screamed with laughter and struggled out of Vận’s embrace, running, her hair dissolving in the dewfall.

* * *

Standing desolately in the middle of the night, eyes blinding with tears. Going home. Sitting  with his back against a pillar in the house for two nights and two days like a stone. Refusing to eat, beard growing, hair growing. Once in a while Dược looked at him through a door chink with her boy in her arms but didn’t dare to call him. She gently put a bowl of porridge down by his side then walked away. Family members asked, what’s wrong with him? Dược shook her head and bit her lips. You’re a bad wife, they said. Why don’t you know what ails your husband. Dược turned away. It was because of Bìu.

This wasn’t life, Dược couldn’t live like this. Even if she had to kneel down at Bìu’s feet to beg her to save Vận, Dược would do so. She scurried away, feet trampling upon each other, stumbling on stones and bleeding. Why are you running like hell? The patriarch called out after her. Dược pointed towards the mountains. I have to save my husband, I have to meet Bìu. The patriarch stamped his feet on the ground and pulled Dược back.

“Stupid women are miserable,” he said. “Go home now.” The patriarch slowly climbed the slope, his eyes riveting into the green space where the turmeric trees were beginning to bud. “Male papaya.” The patriarch emphasised each word with cold hatred. Bìu started and turned around.

“Go away, whore. How long are you going to torture my nephew?”

Bìu looked abashed for an instant then looked straight at the man before her with sharp cold eyes.

“If you need money I’ll give you money. Now move your business elsewhere.”

Bìu chuckled slowly and distinctly.

“You just wait and see.”

The day after, Bìu left the hill. The small alley leading to Vận’s house which she had been so familiar with now felt foreign. Bìu walked with a new mindset. Vận darted out and caught hold of Bìu’s hand and squeezed it.

“So you still love me?” he asked. Bìu didn’t answer but turned around to look at the Trần family and smiled provocatively.

“You won’t set your foot into the Trần family.”

Vận shrank back instinctively.

“Dược, say something. Do you allow let her to enter this house?”

Dược didn’t dare to look at her beautiful face. She lowered her eyes and spoke softly, “My husband can do as he pleases.”

Bìu entered the house of old. The scene hadn’t changed, except for the two male papaya trees which had shot up to a towering height and were now swaying lightly in the wind.

“Do you choose me or the Trần family?”

Bìu looked deep into Vận’s eyes. Perplexed, Vận squeezed her hand tighter. Bìu smiled contemptuously and turned around to walk away. Vận held her back. He didn’t have anything else in life but Bìu. He would give up everything, as long as Bìu stayed. Dược withered away like a turmeric flower in drought.

Every time she saw the woman in the big house Dược broke out crying. If only she had acted ferociously like a tigress protecting its den, things would have been different. Yet Dược was soft-hearted, and scared. What if Vận was angry with her she kept thinking endlessly. The boy ground his teeth against her nipple and made it bleed but she didn’t notice. Dược furtively eyed the woman whose hands looked as white as bamboo shoots who was sitting on the veranda. She suddenly found her own skin dirty and dry since she hadn’t washed for days. She told her husband softly:

“We need turmeric flowers. It’s already the dry season.”

Her husband told her to go slice them herself. She nodded. Carrying her boy on her back, Dược sat down to slice the flowers. The sharp knife struck deep into her hand, blood oozed out colouring the flowers then drying into yellow streaks. Dược carried water to the drinking water tank, her feet jangling on the ground.

Bìu looked out and saw the woman’s face hidden behind the boy. The boy was crying loudly and unceasingly. Bìu turned away and walked back inside.

Vận added a new bed and put up a new wall. Bìu laughed, saying, “I’m used to sleeping on our old wedding bed and can’t sleep on unfamiliar beds.”

The treasured embroidered pillow that Dược had brought with her on her wedding day now followed her out to the side house. At night, she hugged her pillow listening to the moaning coming from the main house. In the morning, the two women got up and walked back and forth in the yard without looking at each other, nor did they eat together. At night as Vận shut the door of the main house, the boy broke out crying in the side house. Whenever he wanted his son, Vận asked a nephew to go fetch the boy for him to hold for a while before returning him.

At night, Bìu was waken up by the boy’s cries. Accidentally putting her hand on her belly, Bìu thought about the countless times she had longed for and expected a day when she could hold her own baby, kiss its forehead, its lips, its body. The cries in the night tore Bìu’s heart. In the side house, a light bulb swung to and fro casting light outside. Dược was huddling against a male papaya tree, turning her face to the sky. It was heart-rending for both. The morning after, the two women’s eyes looked red and swollen.

Dược wanted to go fetch water to plant vegetables. She dilly dallied, hesitating to carry her son along since it was sunny. She handed the boy to her husband and stole a glance at the beautiful woman who was combing her hair. Vận told Bìu, my child is your child too,  Dược is only a mother for hire, so you must love him. Bìu held the baby embarrassedly. She saw him blink and smile at her and rub his head into her breasts to look for a nipple. It was the first time Bìu had felt such a sweet pain in her bowels. Only children didn’t know hatred. Bìu kissed the baby’s cheek and pressed him against her bosom.

“We can’t live like this anymore Vận.”

The couple sat next to each other looking down at the turmeric valley. Vận gently squeezed Bìu’s hand and spoke.

“Am I too cruel?”

Vận quietly lit a cigarette. A thin waft of smoke rose up and melted away weightlessly unlike the heavy block of stone overburdening his heart. Vận owed both women, not knowing how to pay back their due. One body, one mind were painfully torn. Seeing Bìu lying sleepless every night, and Dược holding her baby crying secretly in the backyard, he felt stung like a wound treated with salt. Was he evil?

That night, Bìu gently woke up and packed her clothes. She walked into the yard, but Dược was already blocking the gate. Dược shook her head. She struck a sharp knife deeply and repeatedly into the feet of the papaya trees. Tears gushed out from Dược’s eyes. She looked up. The two papaya trees fell down in halves. Vận leaped out from the main house and stood aghast. Dược looked at Vận then ran away with her son.

The road seemed to stretch away endlessly. Yet Dược’s feet didn’t feel tired. Her heart had been mangled into pieces so she didn’t care about anything anymore. Oh Vận, oh God. Somebody was calling after her. Dược heard the buzzing sound of Vận’s thick hoarse voice that was being blown backward by the wind from the foot of the hill.

***

Dược wanted to escape the dream. Her footsteps felt real, so did her tears, but why did he keep pulling her back to the past. Can you release me? She asked. Why are you thinking too much, he answered. You’re ugly but still have the right to love. Stop talking, she said. Just think that I’m already dead. I don’t hate anybody, just pity myself and that woman. Dược’s head buzzed with thoughts about the past, the day she was married. The day she didn’t have the right to choose.

“Dược, you’re lucky to find a man to marry you. You should show your gratitude to him all your life.”

The room was dark. Dược didn’t see anybody’s face, or her wedding gown. She only heard people talking. Her father, older sister, younger brother and sister-in-law. Did everybody want what was good for her? Dược’s older sister took her hand.

“So you don’t have to go up to the valley of dew now. A man is willing to take you home without even asking for any dowry.”

Dược walked back and forth before the mirror, looking intensely at herself for long without finding anything that looked like a bride’s face. The make-up couldn’t cover the grey birthmark but only made it look blackish. In this village, nobody picked up a bride at night. Dược was the only exception. It was because the dark could cover the birthmark on her cheek and her ugly face. People led her by hand and that was enough. The wedding was rapid.

“Don’t offend him or you’ll be kicked out.”

Dược laughed awkwardly.

“Then I’ll go live up in the valley of dew.”

Her father punched his chest and cried out.

“No. If you come home I won’t be able to face our neighbours again.”

No sooner did her father finish his sentence than the groom’s family arrived. Dược didn’t see the groom but only saw the mother-in-law and several relatives. Dược took her conical hat and followed them hurriedly along a hill path. Nobody said anything, the party walked on intently. Dược turned back to look towards the direction of the valley of dew.

***

“You must think of your son,” a female official said. Từ was old enough to be in the fifth grade now.

Dược hummed and hawed and turned her head to the door to look at her son who was making a hoe handle in the yard. The local women’s association had been encouraging Dược and her son to go back to the village, claiming that they would help them build a house. Her son Từ resisted. Up here in the valley of dew we plant pineapples which villagers have to come up here to buy. Up in the valley of dew his mother didn’t have to walk with her head down.

“I have so much fun here, I don’t want to go,” the boy insisted. The officials tried in vain, clicked their tongue and eventually conceded. They left the mother and son to their own life. Từ remained carefree but his mother tried not to sigh at night.

A few days after, a woman with a beautiful face carrying a bamboo hand-basket climbed up the steep hill to reach the valley of dew. The boy didn’t wait for her to ask but flew away instantly through the bush at the back of the house towards the pineapple trees. In an instant, out of the same bush the mother and son appeared.

“Hello!”

There was no response, but Dược’s hands fingered her shirt’s hem tremblingly. The hostess invited the guest to drink, not knowing how to start the conversation. Then Dược spurted out the one question out of thousands she could have asked.

“How is Từ’s father?”

Behind the wall the boy pricked up his ears. He leaned on the wall looking back and forth between his mother and the stranger. He saw the women take each other’s hands and his mother smile with tears in her eyes. His mother accepted all the gifts from the woman.

The morning after Dược got up early, packed her things up, and put on the newest clothes for her boy. The mother and son walked towards a flickering light at the top of the western mountains where the sun was about to rise, and where there was a road leading down to the village. Dược asked her son if he wanted to go to school. The boy nodded. Dược asked if he wanted to see his father. The boy stopped walking and looked up at his mother’s face. And the aunt who came to our house the other day too? He asked. Dược smiled and nodded. She walked on, finding the road under her feet widening and growing spacious and the trees brightening under the skipping steps of her boy.

 

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The last journey

The great philosopher of sexual difference Luce Irigaray once said she would be interested to know what men would become when women were really themselves (which arguably isn’t the case). In Lê Minh Hà’s sonorous requiem to marriage in postwar Vietnam, a wife is quite herself: strong, perfect. So much so that she overwhelms her husband. In such a situation, Lê Minh Hà’s conclusion about what he would become is only logical, though not necessarily inevitable.

Translator: Thùy Linh; Editor: Hari Chathrattil

 

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Illustration: Tào Linh/Văn Nghệ Quân Đội Magazine

Vietnam News – Saigon never sleeps. Yet our room is deadly quiet. The quietness feels quite similar to the silence that reigned in those Soviet-style communal apartment buildings in Hanoi where we once lived, when adults went to work and children went to school. But is life ever quiet…

I see the small leaves of the potted plans you’ve put on the windowsill wave. And a streak of light dance on the wall. It must be the wind. The wind is blowing in from the trees outside on the streets. The Saigon streets that are lovingly shaded by gigantic trees, just like our streets, in Hanoi, of old.

I hear the sound of buckets and basins echo through open space from a room downstairs, and a woman’s laughter from a room upstairs. What are our neighbour men doing in the yard at the foot of the common stairs? Aren’t they lifting the hoses to wash their motorbikes? Aren’t they raking the coal stoves to help their women boil water to make coffee to sell at the alley entrance? Isn’t life here any different from life in Hanoi before we left?

Our house is too quiet. The kids have gone to school far away. You’re also on a work trip. These days the housekeeper doesn’t have to come. There’s just me left. And the mice scratching on the grating fence that separates the open space between apartments. It won’t be long, I won’t feel anything any longer, and will remain only a photo, hanging on this wall and looking at the shadows gradually jerk out of the opposite wall to guess the time. Just guessing it, no longer being imprisoned by it. No longer living like a zombie.

Sorry.

The man walked into the kitchen. There was no dirty bowl in the sink. Glasses were neatly placed on the table. The bathroom’s floor was dry and clean. He reached out. The refrigerator opened. The fridge was filled with each and every dish. Though nobody was home. “Still like the old days?” A sigh heaved from the chest, dissolved into the air and the darkness of the kitchen, rose, then melted away. Nobody heard the sigh that sounded like a groan. But it wasn’t because nobody was there. The man knew well that from that moment, when he dropped his arms, and closed his eyes, even if he screamed, nobody could hear him. Yet he also knew well that even while he was living, he had been unable to scream. If only he could have screamed. He had felt like an old trunk dumping off its last foliage. He didn’t know which leaf to save for his children. Nor did he know whether his children needed such a thing, to sustain the memory of a father who hadn’t given them any warmth while living. He knew that too, even when his children were sleeping by his side every night. They didn’t know it was their warmth, from the very beginning when they reeked of urine and smelt of their mother’s milk and childhood sweat to the time their bodies exuded the scent of adolescent men that had fired up the father’s heart that was cooling off day by day. And even the admonishing murmurs of their mother, day in, day out… “Dear, you don’t know it’s you that ties me to this world.”

The man glided into their bedroom, which his wife had given up for him and their youngest boy. Countless nights he found himself trying to catch a sound from his wife’s new bedroom. He found himself tossing and turning his worn-out body next to the growing-up boy, waiting. The footsteps of the woman approached the door, walked downstairs, the water started to run, and the glasses touched each other dryly, wearily. He found himself searching for a passionate scent that was getting fainter, day by day, in the cupboard, between the sheets. Those white nights lying in the middle of this effervescent city were even more terrible than the nights when the soldiers lay next to each other, longing. One would long for the city. Another would long for the mountains. He would long for a small town and a house with a roof darkened, laden with dust, rain and shine. Or would he? Didn’t those roofs and yards and skylines of his naive childhood also seem small and mean at the same time? Was that why when he went to college in Hanoi he felt like a stunted young plant shooting up and exploding ebulliently?

Life’s experiences demanded to be pondered upon, squeezed thoroughly, and written about. Cravings to travel and explore. Desires to love and believe. Self-confidence. He was indeed self-confident.  Life was overflowing in him, bursting out in him, making him want to scream. That was when we first met. You were sixteen. The dark and grave street along which I went to work everyday suddenly turned sixteen too. I noticed I no longer wanted to contemplate those old trees with rough stocky roots protruding from under the ground on to the sidewalk but just wanted to turn my face upwards and look at the sky. So blue. So high. The wind blew so vigorously among the leaves that I thought I could be blown away. I, a provincial man, boasted such an outstanding academic record that without any powerful family background, I could still secure employment in Hanoi. I, a budding writer who was recognized immediately, as soon as I appeared on the scene. Wasn’t that enough to make any man of my age confident and proud? And so, when I saw you for the first time standing by the old tree in front of my office, I contemplated you calmly and found myself happy. A happiness based on the feeling that I deserved the very best though it might be impossible. Those days were strange indeed. I didn’t have anything but a single bed, an old suitcase, and a rickety vehicle, but I was bursting with desire and happiness. Yes, even happiness.

Might that have been why she fell for him? It was extraordinary love, not between a mature Hanoian woman and a successful provincial man. It was the love that a young Hanoian girl felt for an artist who knew he was talented and famous, and confident that he would still conquer new summits in life. It was him in those days. Those days, he didn’t have any sense of inferiority just because he was a provincial man who was lucky to make a girl like her love and marry him. We deserved each other. I deserved your passion, your subtlety. Did you see how big my self-confidence was? It helped him remain completely serene before her bunch of smart and mischievous Hanoian adolescent pals. He fretted but also managed to keep his poise perfect before her parents, who were his senior colleagues. He believed he would make their daughter happy. How naive then and bitter now.

The man stared at his own photo on the opposite wall, surprised. The man in the photo didn’t have the slender figure which was often attributed to artists. He had thick shoulders, a short neck, and the build of a physically active man. His forehead and eyes exuded something like contempt. His lips looked passionate and vulnerable. Even his thick moustache couldn’t hide its sensitivity. It was the first time the man had paid attention to his image. He wished the eyes’ contemptuous gaze could cover the sensitivity of the lips! Or, if only the lips’ sensitivity could soften the contempt of the eyes. That way one would become an arrogant one who believed in oneself, only cared about oneself and went out to battle with life without hesitation. Or else, one would quickly succumb, and thus, yes, thus, one wouldn’t have to strain oneself trying to slow down the collapse that was happening inside.

This city didn’t destroy him. This city had only witnessed him degenerate day by day in a process that changed something to nothing, a process that had actually started in another city, in another period. It was a period which, in his mind when he was sober, took the form of disorderly streets, fading walls, extremely gaunt figures, distraught faces, and a gray sky. It was the time of peace. A peace that he wanted to capture in his writings. Chopped into scenes. Arranged into frames. Engraved into words. A peace that was even more frightening to face than danger and more difficult to live in than war. A challenging peace. Yet only young souls were bewildered by it. As for him, at his age, with his talents, any feeling of bewilderment had already been exhausted, leaving only impotence. Impotence.

If they had been simply powerless before money, they would have weathered it. The whole country was stricken and subsisted on government subsidies, not just their one family. When the country could struggle to its feet so would everybody. Or suppose they had only focused on making a living, they could have been well off by and by, once the government permitted private enterprise. But they belonged to that group of people who were often jokingly called the minority, who wouldn’t survive without such worthless impractical things as words and art. He wanted to support his family with the profession he had chosen, studied, practised, and with all the professional plans he had in mind. Oh no. He moved his family far away, thinking they had found a place to live, thinking they could rule the roost. Yet every profession had its own peculiar freedom and limit, and in his line of trade writers needed colleagues like soldiers needed comrades, no one could exist alone. And when he realized his professional loneliness, it was too late. He couldn’t write anymore. Words didn’t just play hide-and-seek. They disappeared before his eyes. Vanished. All sense and substance.

Neighbours who now walked in the hallway and happened to look through the window which was always left open couldn’t see the shadow of a man sitting with his hands covering his face. A face that had lost its sense and soul even when he was alive. Only he knew when it all started.

It was after he was startled out of a short nap, or more accurately, a long coma. His body sweated. A kind of sweat that felt foreign to him, drowning even the smell of alcohol that had dissolved into his gastric juice, stinking of fear. The arm that he leaned on a side rail of the bed shook violently, as if he had gulped down too much coffee. There was no scary dream. He didn’t dream at all. There was only a very thick and off-white screen that looked like a stiff impenetrable rubber-like bulk of dewfall, buried in which were his tomorrows, the days he was yet to live through. He saw himself living as a lackluster official who received a ridiculously meager salary every month. He saw himself watching a movie he couldn’t make. He saw the shadows of his wife and children being pressed further away, smaller and smaller into that rubber-like bulk of dewfall. He saw his character receive his retirement confirmation letter and hobble away to shake hands with colleagues and neighbors to go back to his hometown with his wife and children after years of being a government cadre. He saw his character after days of sitting and drawing the faces of his old dead comrades in war now hanging himself on a tree during the season of ripening fruits. He saw his character walk away from his family. Yet he didn’t see himself.  Not in the ancient gait of a retired old man. Not in the relaxed dangling body on the tree. Every way of leaving excluded him.

The man didn’t see himself in the old city with those cold, rainy heart-warming days where they first met. Nor did he see himself in the new one where what was called a cold wind was merely a mild tickling that he took his wife and children to. Did you expect this southward trip to herald a new journey? You didn’t know that the man you loved, took pride in, and trusted everyday stared at every part of himself in consternation. Crumbled. Exhausted. Torn. Away from desires, struggles, human intercourse, and willy-nilly scrambles that he couldn’t join even though he tried very hard. But for his wife and children. But for them. Even though his presence at home at some point became naught.

The woman didn’t know that at that moment there was only one thing that frightened the man: His wife would leave him. Yet many times in that biting, deadening fear he also wished his wife would leave him. He was an artist. He wasn’t romantic in an ordinary way. He knew very well that he was no longer the man his wife had fallen in love with. He was bitter. To see such beautiful love that used to light up those wet gentle dark eyes of a sixteen-year-old Hanoian girl now fade away. The bitterness was so intense that he could not proudly face that girl turned mother of his children who chose to stay by his side, for his sake. If only she were a simple hard-working complying rustic woman who had to use her children’s happiness as an excuse to cling to the fantastic façade of being married. But she was not. He knew why she stayed by his side. She knew he needed her. Yet, when staying by my side, do you still believe even just a little bit in my talents, my integrity, and hope they haven’t all vanished?

The husband never dared to ask his wife that question. Nor did he dare to tell her how much he loved her. But for that love, he would have left. Just like a character of his. Simply leave, everything, put on a backpack and walk away, knowing that even without him, his wife could still bring up the children well. She didn’t know, more than once he had stood under the iron fence separating the open space shared with the upper apartment, looked at those iron bars to measure their hardness and imagined himself dangling on them. How easy it was to die. How difficult too. Not because he was scared, or might be saved. He wasn’t scared of hanging himself after having subjected his character to all sorts of masks and suicide. When he merged with his character he didn’t realize that he would need another dozen years to separate fiction from reality, to know that though he wasn’t afraid of death he couldn’t die. People could only commit suicide when they were no longer attached to anything and saw themselves in a different space, foreign to any living being. But I still have you. And the children. The children are reaching my age when I entered my prime.

Drinking couldn’t lull him to sleep, or free anybody, ever. Yet drinking could help forget. Drinking helped dilute the man’s blood and make his heart beat vigorously like in youthful times. Drinking increased friends. And it turned out that the most pleasant drinking buddy must be somebody who didn’t talk. Where to find such a one? For many afternoons he had sat down among a bunch of younger colleagues and listened to all sorts of petty rivalries and vain hopes. At other times he drank with a few young guards and motorbike-taxi drivers at the alley entrance. They were open and simple, so simple as to be simplistic, with all of their lively tricks to survive that couldn’t help him in any way because he couldn’t apply them. If only words hadn’t sulked away, their stories would have provided throbbing fresh material for him to write. Short stories. Screenplays. Maybe novels. He had never written a novel. But now… As for drinking with like-minded writers and artists, it only made him want to get inebriated right away. Sadly he remained sober, only to see how half-baked and disgusting those who had succeeded really were. How worthy and pitiful those who hadn’t succeeded were, on the contrary. At a time when everybody had to live, to accelerate and compete, their type stubbornly held on tight to their bulky dream about art, letting it drag them straight down the abyss. Battered. Broken. Crushed. Until it wasn’t just their own selves and families that were crushed. That bulky dream also crushed itself to powder along with pride. Drinking then tasted like living. Sordid. Insipid.

The scariest bout of drinking happened on a trip back to Hà Nội, during which he met an old friend by chance when he jumped on a taxi-motorbike. When he studied for a new  degree in Poland, he’d befriended an archeology student. Now, the man who had a doctorate degree in archeology waited at street corners and read the faces of human passers-by to offer them a ride. The two guys sat down by a smuggled bottle of wine hugging their knees and laughing like firecrackers.

He remembered this archeologist from Hà Tĩnh Province. Growing up on that impoverished sandy soil the guy nevertheless enjoyed his undergraduate years in a country known within their circle for being the most well-off in the whole Soviet bloc. He went on to pursue his doctorate right away. He was very handsome, very pure, very trusting. Different from himself who first went to college then to war then back to college.

The doctor of archeology fondled the two broken halves of a roasted peanut whose skin had peeled off for a long time, and said in a raucous voice and with a heavy central accent which he’d striven to preserve for many years away from home:

– You do art. I do science. Though I only dig up dirt and turn over grass my profession is no difference from yours. Whatever we want to dig up and turn over and extract we need money. Money… Fuck… Money. And even if there is money for research we must know how to elbow each other on the face to take our turn. With such moribund government subsidies, how the fuck do you say scholars like us can devise this or that plan to beg for money. My father is too old and weak and yet still has to take the plough to the field. My mother is sick all year round. I have an outstanding younger brother. He studied much better than me and is now teaching right here in Hanoi. Everyday he goes to his lecture with a belly half fed on cafeteria food. His wife is outstanding too. They planned to have only two kids but have produced twins in one go. Their salaries are a joke. So if they didn’t bend over to work for hire for now how the fuck could they feed a bunch of people!

It was a pleasure to hear the meek doctor spout obscenity. Was it one of the new tools of trade that his buddy must acquire to rival his motorbike-taxi driver colleagues and lie in wait for customers everyday at street corners? What exquisite character development, both for the stage, the screen, and the literary text. Great wine. Great stories. And he was anxious to go home, sit down and write. His character was beginning to speak.

Yet his friend couldn’t become his character. Because he was getting drunk. In his drunkenness, he ranted:

– I wasn’t drafted to the war during college like you. In college I munched bread too but wasn’t as hungry as you. But life in secondary school in our bomb-ravaged central region was infinitely hard. So we’re even. Every one of our generation can be said to have braved through two wars and government subsidies and a postwar time after all. You’re even better than me though. I can’t abandon my wife and kids just for the sake of some stupid doctorate reputation. My wife’s family lives on Hàng Bông Street, has a street-front house but after the wars, rents it for fucking peace’s sake. No one can help anyone because everyone is worried about being laid off. So honestly only such a doctor like me who doesn’t crawl to the office to intellectually masturbate everyday but dares to go out into the streets to drive a motorbike-taxi can be said to be great. My wife isn’t as educated as yours, a bit slow too. It’s quite fortunate.

– ?

– Fortunate. Only I don’t know whether it’s her fortune or mine.

The friend wheezed with laughter, poured the whole persimmon-sized cup of wine into his mouth, choked, coughed, and teared up profusely. Was this guy really crying? He shuddered. And thought about those countless times when he drank with countless colleagues and comrades. Eventually he would get bored and waveringly stand up and walk home, grumble and snap at his wife and children, and vomit alcohol which he fancied to be some kind of art that he vomited from above down to this vapid life. He shouted at her to go away, partly unconsciously partly not, only to wake up in the middle of the night shivering to find life resembling a river that once flowed out impetuously but was now narrowing in and drying up, day by day. And she: dark, enduring. Gentle, cheerful. Impeccable, at work, at home. He was stunned by that bottomless strength. Women. Without their hands molding life into ordinaries, would artists like him be able to lecture rapturously about lofty things or fumblingly contemplate all that lonelinesses and sadnesses and sickening things and believe that they were noble? No! Women! Without them, even that tragedy of trying to get by that held us tight to this  earth, whose arms opened into an endless sky, couldn’t have become some tasty food for countless generations of intellectuals and artists in this country to gnaw at. Those ordinaries were greater than the extolled heights. Or do people extol heights only because through them they want to reach ordinary life? In a sleep that had just returned, he dreamed about a pair of silky-white female hands spreading out, growing in size, roughing up and a pair of brilliantly bright, eager, extraordinary eyes of a sixteen-year-old.

Over there, separated by a short hallway, behind the door, the passionate forty-year-old woman was desperate to find her soul dry up. She no longer found the past flowing in during the long night. Nor were there anymore inexplicable tumults or vague hopes. There was only a tiring wish, that she was still strong enough to maintain her parents’ tranquility, her children’s innocence, and to walk through every tomorrow to see the future of her children brighter, better than the future of their father that in the past she had believed in… believed in… A heavy sleep came with the noises of mice scuffling on the fence separating the open space shared with the upper apartment. Right at the moment the man was dreaming about his wife, his wife was dreaming too, a dream perforated by mice and sprayed with tiny mouse feces the size of moldy beans that everyday after getting up she had to sweep into a corner of the door and remove, so that her men wouldn’t step on them. Men often didn’t take heed of such trivial things. Her husband however had never been heedless. Was that why he had to soak his days and months in drinking, so that its black power could lead him to a different world? Differing. Not delivering.

If he wanted deliverance, there was only one way out.  Death.

The window was still wide open. In the hallway two women were chatting about daily life. Meat. Vegetables. Exactly like what happened at those communal apartment buildings in Hanoi where he once lived. As if time had stopped. Or the earth had stopped spinning. He stood up, leaving the couch that was placed right next to the window. The two women were still chatting with excitement while indifferently looking through the window into his house, as if he wasn’t there. He couldn’t make anybody see himself anymore. Now he only remained a hazy stream of light which was difficult to separate from the sunlight overflowing in the room. And when he walked towards the kitchen where the sunlight stopped, he became darkness. Only the mice, which were sleeping on the fence separating the common open space, felt anxious. They knew somebody was in the house.

The man glided through the stairs, stopped in front of the bedroom where a few months before he had slept in, and opened the door. His wife had returned to this room. There were many changes. It looked neater than when he and his boy used it. The new ivory-yellow furniture felt soft and shiny.

The man looked at a new bed that had been made to replace the old one that had been burned after he died. There was nothing else on the bed but a thin blanket, a pillow, and a book. The book was the only thing that wasn’t neatly placed, as if it had been read and put down casually.

He leaned over and sat down on one side of the bed, lay down and turned towards the blanket and pillow, inhaling lightly. His body had turned weightless since the day he passed away. He spread out his hand and stroked gently. The curvy hips, which were slender at sixteen, rounded out in shape after every pregnancy, and were just beginning to become voluptuous. For many indifferent nights he had caressed in his mind, the reclining body, the strong shoulders, the sloping hips.

On his last days he had again felt that warmth, and seen that pair of eager dark eyes. Closer, and closer, everyday she leaned over on his sick bed. The woman didn’t know how bitter the man felt then. Not because of his last journey. He felt sorry, impotent, mad. All his life he had been bred up to know how to compromise, strive forward, obey, and suffocate his desire to be himself. But he had never been instructed on how to express his love and affection, directly, face to face, in the most ordinary way, first of all to the people closest to him. Yet it was they who were his biggest success and by whose side the shining halo of art that he had achieved dimmed. You are the moon in the freezing rain… Back to whom I come to soothe my manhood fire…(1). Manhood fire. Fire. I pray that you will meet a woman who loves you like your mother has loved me…(2). His dying moments were filled with flickering, gnawing patchworks. Afterwards came an immense sweet space of silence that only he walked towards. No one was in sight.  Nor was he.

The man lay down for a long time in the sweet light and quietness of the bedroom. Right as he was turning around to get up, his eyes caught an empty space which made him spring to his feet. The new bed was unevenly divided. It was a twin-size bed, yet only one side was complemented with a bedside table. On the other side there was only a simple side rail, a straight line,  clear, resolute. The space where he had reclined wasn’t reserved for him, or anybody else. The man held his chest. It was hollow.

The mice woke up en masse and scuffled away when he glided downstairs, looked deep into the darkness at the end of the house, then stretched out of the window, grabbed a late afternoon wind, and flew away.

The man in the photo hanging on the opposite wall above the altar followed the ghost with his eyes, the contempt in which slowly faded away.

That was the last farewell to a ghost on the last day the ghost was allowed to wander the world.

Berlin, 15/5/2016

(1),(2): Untitled lines written by poet Đỗ Quang Nghĩa

 

 

 

Avocadoes

Writer Nguyên Hương offers an artless, social media-savvy account of a typical confused Vietnamese woman today. On the one hand, the woman unthinkingly strains herself to shoulder her seemingly natural identity as a mother. On the other hand, she idly watches the forces of capitalization, industrialization and urbanization wipe out her sacred human roots.   

Translator: Thùy Linh; Editor: Hari Chathrattil

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Illustration: Đỗ Dũng

Vietnam News – She didn’t know why she decided to tell the truth that day. Was it because she wanted their relationship to be real? No, no one believed the social media could breed anything real; she herself was proof of that. She didn’t willfully plan to deceive anyone but still lied to have fun and blow off steam.

Perhaps it was because she was getting tired of having to re-read whatever she had typed earlier, since she couldn’t remember all the lies she’d told, and if she accidentally said something inconsistent, she would have to come up with explanations. And perhaps because it rained. On sunny days she felt like evaporating inside the ten sq.m room that she rented, and on rainy days, the spattering sound directly pierced her ears.

She couldn’t sleep so she stared at the chink under the door to see if the rainwater had overflowed into the room.

“I apologize,” she typed. “I’m not a college student. I’m a tailor but not a good one either. I work in a factory, just assembling parts.”

She paused, then continued, thinking that since she had started confessing, she should make a clean breast of it:

“Actually I did study in college for one year. Then, stupidly, got knocked up. My son is already four years old. Luckily my landlady is kind. On days that I work night shifts, she picks the boy up from kindergarten and gives him dinner too. I do housework for her in return. So, goodbye.”

After typing “goodbye,” she intended to quit social media for good, but just as her fingers reach the sign-out icon, the words “I apologize too” popped up on the screen.

She felt a stab of pain. There we go, the other has been lying for fun too, she thought. All right, let’s hear what he has to lie about, one more time.

“I’m not an agricultural engineer,” he typed. “I tend cattle to earn a living. To be accurate, I take care of dairy cows.”

He continued: “I used to be very lazy. My parents got angry and threatened to kick me out, so I went away for years. Now I know right from wrong though. Am saving money to visit my parents and say sorry. I also plan to borrow money from them to buy a couple of dairy cows and then one day… but no, I shouldn’t say too much lest I am not able to reach my goal.”

She held her breath and read every word he said one more time. It sounded like he was telling the truth this time, just like her.

“Am just afraid you’ll look down on this cowherd,” he said.

***

No longer lying, she read his sentences again and again, and felt that life was much more interesting. She imagined dairy farming. Get up at 3.30 in the morning to remove the manure, wash the cows, then milk them. Each step must be done impeccably in order to deliver the milk to the factory before 6 am. Afterwards, there is grass-cutting and other work.

“Little Tý could freely drink fresh milk here,” he typed.

She read and re-read this sentence. What could he possibly mean…?

She let her imagination soar. In the morning she would get up and stand in the kitchen, boiling fresh milk. Since little Tý liked sweets, she would add a lot of sugar. Then she would wait for the milk to cool down and pour it into a bottle and put the bottle into the refrigerator. Here, at her place, she went to a store at the street corner everyday just to buy a milk carton for little Tý rather than a whole pack, because little Tý would just drink the whole thing up without saving a drop for the day after. She imagined little Tý raising the bottle and gulping it down with full satisfaction.

She asked whether they used milk to make butter and cheese as she’d seen in foreign movies. He sent a tight-lipped smile emoticon and typed: “Not yet. Or why don’t you learn to do it? Are you willing to live in the countryside?”

This question seemed to convey his intention clearly.

***

She told him her family had an avocado garden. The fruits were delicious.  Right at the beginning of the season, when the fruits were just fist-sized, some friends would already have ordered ten kilograms to be used as gifts. Every season her family could harvest the fruits several times. Throughout the season, people called everyday. When they were told that a batch was already reserved for earlier orders, they insisted on depositing money for the following batch, to ensure they would get some of the fruits. Her mother said their avocado garden was a godsend because somebody had tried to plant the seeds of their fruits elsewhere, but the fruit didn’t taste as good.

He asked, why are you only talking about your mom but not your dad?

Oh, she said, because my dad died prematurely, and my mom brought me and my older brother up by herself. Single mothers in the countryside are vulnerable in many ways, and with her illegitimate pregnancy adding to it, she’d almost collapsed. After listening to her confession that the baby was already six months old, her mother broke down and cried. But the person who threw her out was her brother. When one’s father is gone, the older brother fills his place, that is the custom.

So she left her dorm and never returned. In retrospect, she knew she had been too reckless, but at that time, she had nothing else to fear. She just wanted to run out and crash into life, not bothering about consequences.

“Suppose there is a man to walk beside you now, will your brother take you in again?”

This question was also asked on a rainy, sleepless night. Little Tý tossed in bed and flung off the blanket. He threw his eyes wide open and asked “Is this mommy?” then closed his eyes again and clasped his arms around her neck, just like every time he dozed off at the landlady’s house while waiting for her to return and pick him up after her night shift.

She wanted to say yes, very badly, but she doubted if the other would really love her child.

Yes, he had already mentioned several times that little Tý could freely drink fresh milk at his place, but…

“I don’t know,” she typed.

***

9 pm, and it was time to go home. Typically she would just go home right away, but that night she’d been told she would receive a bonus, so she decided to drop by the night market. Though she was yet to touch the cash, she already wanted to go shopping. When she was happy, she loved to go to the market. After buying a pair of shoes for little Tý, she hesitantly looked at a light blue-and-gray striped shirt and felt a sudden surge of passion for it. As she walked away, she kept turning around to look at it. She called him and asked, “What is your shirt size?”

Mingled with his reply, she thought she heard little Tý’s voice: “Is this you mommy?” She laughed at herself for having such a wild imagination. She wrapped the shirt and worried if the shirt’s color suited him. She had never met him. His shirt size she could ask, but it would be too embarrassing to inquire about his skin tone.

He’d said that the dairy cows he took care of lived inside, not on pasture, so perhaps his skin wasn’t exposed to sunlight and thus wasn’t dark, so it might look good against light blue and gray.

She reached her room and stopped abruptly at the door.  A swarthy young man and little Tý were assembling a toy robot. Scattered on the floor were the toy’s box, a rumpled piece of metallic wrapping paper and a bow-shaped ribbon.

Little Tý seemed impatient with the man for not knowing how to work the robot. He scratched his hair and said:

– Don’t have any clue. Aren’t children’s toys way more complicated than they look?! It’s easier to take them apart than put them together…

The landlady glanced at him tactfully and said:

– I wouldn’t have given a stranger the key to the room, ordinarily. But he brought a can of milk. I was afraid if he had to wait too long, the milk would turn bad and you would blame me.

She blushed and eyed the ten-liter can at the corner of the room and turned towards a huge pot that was steaming with milk. The landlady said, teasingly:

– It’s my pot. Don’t forget to compensate me with a glass of milk. I’ve never drunk fresh milk this way in my whole life.

All the tenants in the house were invited to a glass of fresh milk. Smiling neighbours walked back and forth past her room to look at the plain yet wise young man who judiciously introduced himself with a round of sweet, redolent fresh milk.

She flushed becomingly, asking:

– Why didn’t you tell me earlier so I could change my shift?

– A surprise is more fun. But it was strange that when you called, little Tý knew it was you and even shouted “is this you, mommy?”  So I had to turn off the phone quickly in case you found out. There would be no surprise then. Aren’t you pleasantly suprised?

What a stupid question. Of course I am, she replied in her heart.

Yet the shirt’s colour clearly didn’t match his skin tone. Tomorrow she would return it to get another one. Right, since he was here, she would ask him to tag along. He could try the shirts on and they would know right away which one looked good on him.

***

Throughout the journey home she fluttered in an entangled mess of gladness and anxiety. But awaiting her was another surprise.

Her mother’s joy on seeing her boyfriend holding little Tý’s hand was just her mother’s being herself. Her older brother seemed to have forgotten that it was he who had thrown her out. Her sister-in-law was busily happy too, but for a different reason.

A wealthy man from the city had come to buy land to build a farm. Neighbors all around had already signed contracts to sell their property, leaving only her family’s house and avocado garden behind, sandwiched between several gardens that the rich man had amassed.

Though her family’s land was small, a high price was being offered because it lay in the middle, cutting the wealthy man’s potential farm into two halves, while he wanted to command an uninterrupted swathe.

Her sister-in-law glanced at her boyfriend and little Tý, and said:

– The man has returned many times, offering higher and higher prices but mom keeps rejecting him. She says she wants to keep her parents’ house and the avocado garden. What a way to think in this age… But now that you two and the boy return, mom may think again because she misses you very much and must want to sell the land, to have some money to give you so you can invest in cows.

Her brother flicked his hand and retorted:

– Why do you want to trade a city job for the hard work of raising cows in the countryside! You should save the money in a bank and live off the interest.

Her mother sighed:

– That’s why I don’t want to sell. With only cash and no useful employment, we would squander the money and even cultivate bad habits. Just look at our neighbour. They only sold their house and garden last year, but now, they have to borrow money from here and there just to get by.

Her brother got cross, brushed off his butt and walked away, not returning until the next day. He returned, lost his temper, then left again.

She didn’t know what to say. On the trip she had tremblingly prayed that her family would accept her boyfriend as their son-in-law, then prepare a few trays of food to treat neighbors for the occasion. Yet, in front of him, who after all was still a stranger, they kept arguing tensely without any decorum on whether or not to sell, embarrassing her. She wished they’d scolded her like she had told him instead, so that she could show him her family had a sense of propriety. Other issues could be discussed later.

***

This time her brother stayed away for three days and three nights straight. Her sister-in-law asked her to take care of their 16-month-old baby in order to go look him.

After one whole day of searching, the sister-in-law returned dejected. She cried out loud to her mother:

– Everything is lost! The man dared your son to gamble not on money but on avocadoes and land. They bet one avocado tree a game. If the man won, he would get that avocado tree as well as the area on which the tree grows, and if your brother won, he would retain his bet plus an extra meter square of land. Your son was a fool. He was no match at all. He has already lost 90 avocado trees. Mom, if you have any strength, you could go to the casino to fetch him, because your son would just slap me if I protested. The man is asking for a final game. If he loses, he will return all 90 trees, but if he wins, he will get this house too.

Her sister cried even louder, adding, “It’s your fault mom. If you had agreed to sell, we would have got the money at least.”

***

In the morning, her mother woke up and looked bewildered.

Her boyfriend had become a son-in-law without an initial culinary ceremony.  He discussed with her the possibility of taking her mother to his place. He had been lodging at his employer’s house, but now they would rent a room together. And then… and then…

As she packed up her mother’s clothes, she thought she still hadn’t seen the wealthy man’s face. Only a guy who introduced himself as the wealthy man’s representative showed up and informed them that since the man knew avocadoes could sell well, he had generously decided to let them harvest the fruits this one last season as a gesture from the heart.

Then the representative turned to look at her sister-in-law who was tearfully packing up her own clothes before taking her child with her back to her parents’ house. The representative added: By the way, a complex zone will be built here. Construction will take several years to complete and men will be needed as guards and women as cooks.

 

 

 

Blood and Snow

In this short story published by the English-language daily Vietnam News, writer Tống Ngọc Hân deals with the eternal theme of purity versus sinfulness, with the onus of maintaining it and blame for failure invariably falling on women’s shoulders. Here, as elsewhere, man’s yearning for “purity” and “perfection” doesn’t relent, revealing an insecurity so deep that it runs for generations, making one wonder if it can ever be confronted and dealt with within a lifetime.  

The Vietnam News has been translating and introducing fiction written by past and contemporary Vietnamese writers to English readers for two decades. It remains the only media outlet in Vietnam to do so.  

Translator: Thùy Linh; Editor: Hari Chathrattil

Blood and Snow Illustration

Illustration: Đào Quốc Huy

Don’t you feel jealous leaving your newly wed bride at home by herself? Old Lìn’s words were a breeze blowing past his face, and Pú didn’t pay attention. But when the breeze blew three times, he shuddered.

Getting wind of the news that Pú was taking his wife down to the gold field, the porters, almost 30 in all, flocked to behold the rare sight. Pú swelled up with pride. Old Lìn shook his head. This isn’t good. This isn’t good, he intoned. Why not? Your wife is too beautiful. Pú swung from pride to anxiety. But he had never felt at peace leaving his wife at home. He asked for a day off. The couple then went to gather some wood and build their own private tent.

Said Old Lìn: In the past the Nậm Pung stream was very beautiful. How long ago that was, Pú didn’t know, but when he first arrived, the streamed looked dry, jagged and muddy. Each of the gold diggers employed here came from a different hometown, each had a different last name, and each reeked of a different personality. No one yielded to anyone. No one trusted anyone.

Everybody obeyed Kha. Kha was a young boss, just over 30. In contrast to the tattered bunch around him, Kha always looked well groomed, boasting fragrant cigarettes, polished shoes and an expensive car. The food and beverages Kha consumed everyday were provided by a restaurant out in town.

Kha never sat down for meals with his workers. During police raids, while other gangs had to disband and flee with their machines, Kha’s men nonchalantly worked on. Said old Lìn: Under the earth, in the stream, there’s plenty of gold and silver and other precious things, but not any one can dig them up and sell for money.

Pú had been working at Nậm Pung for over a year, and hadn’t drunk with boss Kha even once. One day, out of the blue, Old Lìn whispered: “Today the boss ate with the workers!” Pú was surprised. Earlier, because Mẩy had nothing to do all day but tedious washing and needlework, Pú had asked Kha to give her some job. Kha said women are too fragile to stress themselves out.

Noticing Pú’s disappointment, Kha said Mẩy could cook for Pú’s team. Pú was overjoyed. There were twelve guys in his team, but the food was simple. Just a bowl of vegetable soup and a pot of some meat cooked with brine. Pú saw that his wife was obviously happier since. Now though, what did the boss mean by wanting to eat what Mẩy cooks?

Kha didn’t sit on the bamboo plank bed that the workers used for sleeping, eating, and idling around on rainy days. Kha sat on a plastic chair brought from his commander’s hut. The chair was placed near the rice cooker. In the past, Old Lìn was allowed to get off from work an hour earlier to go home to cook. Whether the food was undercooked, overcooked, salty, or bland, no one dared complain. The old man already had to work his ass off at the water trough all day from dawn till his limbs went limp.

Since Mẩy took over the cooking duties, the rice was glutinous and the soup was delicious. Mẩy sat on this side of the cooker. Kha sat on the other side. Separated by a rice cooker giving off steam. Mẩy’s cheeks were flushed. Kha cheerfully, excitedly poured wine for the men. It wasn’t the throat-scorching corn wine that Old Lìn brought down from Bắc Hà. Nor was it the very green paddy wine that Hẩu fetched out from Mường Khương. It was the boss’s wine, with a lengthy Western name. Oh why do those faraway villages have such difficult names!

Pú couldn’t remember the name of the wine, but he remembered its taste. It was very heavy, very strong, yet soft at the same time. Heady on the extraordinary refined wine, Pú glanced at the boss and saw Kha look at his wife in a very different way. It wasn’t the naked lustful look of the porter bunch having to live away from their wives. It wasn’t the inquisitive, measuring look of Old Lìn who was past his prime. Surely it wasn’t the ravenous look of the metal engineer uphill at the ore factory who was Kha’s buddy. Pú didn’t know how to describe that look. He only felt it was very soft and sweet, so easy to intoxicate one, exactly like the kind of wine in that beautiful glass bottle that Pú had unwittingly tasted.

Only now did Pú understand what Old Lìn meant when he said, “This isn’t good.” By nature, Kha was a straightforward and fair dealer. Ever since Mẩy had arrived, the boss had rewarded his workers more and rarely fined anyone. He was more accommodating and cordial, and his men were less pugnacious and foul-mouthed. The men even said, “Let your wife stay here until the end of the year for heaven’s sake.” Pú choked, and retorted, “Why don’t you scums bring your wives up here?” One guy, a Kinh (dominant ethnic group in Vietnam) said, “My wife is the grand-daughter of Madame Thị Nở*. If I bring her here, the Nậm Pung waters may reverse course and make it impossible to pan for gold.” One guy guffawed so violently that the plank bed shook. Some didn’t understand the joke and looked confused. Pú looked confused too.

After that meal, Pú began pestering Mẩy. Stop washing your hair incessantly! What shits on your head that you have to wash your hair every few days? Why do you take showers so often? What are you embroidering handkerchiefs for? Or, there’s still plenty of firewood, why are you bringing so much more? Do you like to go into the forest? Do you like secluded places? It went to absurd lengths. Once, Pú said: Why don’t you stop making your rice so viscous?

At night, as Mẩy twisted and turned, Pú asked, “Is somebody lighting a fire in your belly?” Mẩy never argued with Pú. She worked hard but mother nature had blessed her with a rosy white and soft skin that the rich girls who lived in clover would envy. Mẩy also had dazzling bright teeth.  When she was happy, her smile sparkled like sunshine. She had brown, warm and gentle eyes. Often, when Pú looked into his wife’s eyes, all excuses for grudges and anger disappeared.

Before Mẩy married Pú, her friends had warned that Pú was frighteningly jealous. Mẩy’s father had brushed it off. Jealousy means love, he said. Yet, ever since she became Pú’s wife, Mẩy felt like a stranded fish. Following Pú’s old sister, Mẩy carried goods uptown to sell. Many times Pú met Mẩy halfway to beat her. If customers took sides with her, Pú beat them too. Many times Mẩy wanted to go back to her mother. But mom’s house wasn’t a place Mẩy could return to at will. Nobody welcomed married girls returning home.

Mắn, Mẩy’s friend, was beaten and cast out by her husband. When she returned home, her brothers’ wives mistreated her. Mắn ate heartbreak grass to kill herself.  Her family gave her a perfunctory burial. The shaman brandished a knife, lit a torch, and tried to drive her ghost away as far as possible, so that it would never return to plague and kill off cattle and poultry. Mắn’s younger brother and his wife carried her corpse up to the ugliest, most remote patch of the field, and dumped it in a hole about three spans deep.

Mắn’s corpse wasn’t even buried in a cheap wooden coffin, but tied up in thatched bamboo sheets that instantly shriveled in the sunlight. Mắn’s death terrified Mẩy. If she returned home she would die the same way. She preferred being beaten by Pú. When his bout of jealousy subsided, Pú would stop. When Mẩy went out to sell goods, Pú was jealous of customers. When she went into the forest, he was jealous of other forest travelers. The bouts of jealousy were accompanied with violence. Does jealousy mean love, Mẩy wondered. Many girls of the Dao ethnicity enjoyed this kind of love, not just Mẩy.

Old Lìn was very keen. He said: Mẩy seems to be pregnant. Pú nodded. No pregnant Dao woman needs to be coddled, Pú said. The Dao are different from the H’Mong, he said.  No, they are the same, Old Lìn insisted. The worst thing is to make a pregnant woman cry, he said. Within two months of Mẩy becoming pregnant, Pú had made her cry as many as twenty times. Alright, I won’t nag her anymore, Pú promised. He stopped talking, but resorted to glaring. Pú’s eyes were long, small, and one-lidded, hiding under two dark, bushy eyebrows. Every time those eyes scowled, Mẩy trembled.

At one point, Pú kicked a basket for fun. He kicked it from one place to another and then back. Once, he pulled a burning stick from the stove and flashed it before Mẩy. She closed her eyes. Tears poured out. Your tears can fall down into your sleeves or some quiet place, but if they show themselves for others to see, I’ll beat you, Pú said. He forbade Mẩy to do or say anything that would make other people feel sorry for her. Lý Ôn Pú’s family was one of the wealthiest in the village, but he was restive horse, and his father Old Tẩn, had said, “A man who only eats rice from his own family’s field, drinks wine from his own family’s stove, can’t grow up.”  That’s why Pu left and went far away.

At the gold field, Pú was the most self-indulgent among the porters. He often requested his wages in advance and went to town to have fun, eat and drink to his heart’s content, and shop. He also squandered money on tasting the flesh of women from different regions, to see whether it was any different from that of Dao women.

But ever since he brought his wife down here, Pú spent a lot of time watching her. He was prone to fantastic imagination. Like Mẩy would give birth to a boy who looked exactly like the boss. From the square face to the side-whiskers to the gigantic mole right under the chin that Old Lìn said was a sign of eminence, prosperity and honour. Pú even thought up appropriate punishments for Mẩy if she gave birth to such a boy.

The year soon drew to a close. The gold digging troops returned peace to the Nậm Pung stream as they left for home to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Mẩy entered her sixth month of pregnancy. At the farewell party, Pú again drank a few cups of wine with Kha. And it was also the last time that Pú let Kha look at his wife with such sweetness and warmth, mixed with a little sympathy. Pú pulled Mẩy’s arm and walked fast, as if to flee from the Nậm Pung valley. Mẩy knew that they would never return to this stream, this gold field. Pú was the type who always acted out his thoughts, plain and simple.

***

Pú sat on a huge slab of stone shaped like a man’s body that lay at the entrance of Thạch Hầu village. A goat herder said Chư’s family was still a long way off. Pú asked the guy, “Why is this H’Mong village called Thạch Hầu?” The guy smiled: Thạch Hầu means stone monkey. It’s this monkey’s thighs that you’re sitting on. Nearly a hundred years ago, a man whose last name was Hầu brought precious mushrooms and medicinal herbs uptown with his wife once every week to sell them to the colonial French government official. One time, the man fell ill and couldn’t go, so he let his wife go uptown by herself. Later, when the wife gave birth to a child with blue eyes, blonde hair, and snow-white skin, the man went crazy.People said so many beautiful girls in this area have been devoured by the colonial French official.

In his dmadness, the man threw the child into the stream. Heartbroken, the young mother went into the forest and never returned. The husband went into the forest to look for his wife for a whole year but couldn’t find her and didn’t return either. Because he had to climb and swing up on the trees to pluck fruits to eat, he lost his human bearing and figure. During a forest fire, he ran back to the village. The villagers called him monkey.

So many blue-eyed, blonde-haired babies were born, but no one ever treated those sinless ones so cruelly. The man was ostracized by the villagers and felt so lonely that he went to the slab of stone at the village’s entrance and sat there looking into the forest. That night snow fell and whitened a whole area. It fell for three days and three nights. The man froze to death and turned into a stone monkey. Since then the village has been called Thạch Hầu, which also means Hầu turning into stone.

After listening to the goat herder’s story, Pú gave up the idea of visiting Chư to ask for his son back. So that how it’s always been, since the old days until now. Beautiful women are easily tempted. Their husbands are alive and kicking, but they can still sleep with other men. After she was taken to the gold field, she gave birth to a child with a mole. But, allowed to go uptown to sell goods, she would still give birth to another.

Pú remembered clearly the day Mẩy delivered. Unlike other women who lay down to give birth. Mẩy stood. The midwife had to bend down and reach underneath. Other young fathers usually waited for a full month before daring to pick up their fragile babies. But after just three days, Pú rushed violently into the bedroom demanding to see the boy’s face. God. Pú was thunderstruck. That face, that mole on the chin belonged to Kha. Pú didn’t remember what he did when drunk. When he came to himself, his wife’s face had been beaten black and blue, her nose and mouth were swollen red and red, bleeding. The boy was crying.

One day, Pú woke up from another drunken sleep and saw Mẩy all bruised and dazed, crouching lonely in one corner of the bed. Pú asked: Where is he? Mẩy replied faintly: I gave him away. To whom? She didn’t answer. If she told him right then, Pú might go after the boy and throw him into the stream like that man Hầu.

Pú returned home empty-handed. Mẩy didn’t dare to ask. She felt glad inside. Mẩy was like a tree planted in Pú’s garden. He could cut it down, carve on it, break its branches, or pluck off its leaves. The tree wouldn’t die, nor could it walk away. Only when the planter tired of it and uprooted it, would it die. Pú hadn’t gotten tired of Mẩy. She was with child again. She would give birth to another baby for the Lý family.

When the time came, Mẩy gave birth to a pretty, chubby boy. Like the first time, after three days, Pú demanded to see the child’s face. Strangely, he still saw Kha’s shining black mole on the boy’s chin. Old Tẩn listened to what Pú said then went out to the stream with his casting-net. But this was the dry season, so there was no fish to catch. Pú’s mother went out to the stable, and took the buffalo away for grazing, although the animal had been fully fed. Pú’s younger brother was even more reluctant to calm him down. For all he knew, he might be charged with fooling around with his older brother’s wife. His own wife too hurriedly piggybacked her child away. Nobody dared to stand by Mẩy. Pú was the little tyrant in the family. What Pú wanted, Pú would get. Mẩy held her blood-red baby, tremblingly waiting for her husband’s jealous frenzy.

Pú left the imprint of his shoe visibly on Mẩy’s face. Mẩy groaned, “Oh my God, I haven’t done anything wrong.” Pú smiled wryly, “I’m asking you, why do both your sons have that damned Kha’s mole? This family won’t stand the shame of being cuckolded. I won’t either. You haven’t forgotten him, have you? I’ll teach you how to forget him.” Pú struck out with his leg again.

Footsteps approached the hut in haste. Mẩy looked out for help. It was Mẩy’s mother-in-law returning. She herself and Mẩy, and her younger daughter-in-law weren’t any different in this house.

The weak mother walked towards Pú, her wayward and selfish boy. He had been selfish ever since he was three. His toys, no kid dared to touch. His favorite songs, no kid, even his younger brother, dared to sing in front of him. When he was a bit older, all the knives and hoes and tools that belonged to him, no one dared to use, not even his parents. When he herded buffaloes, he also claimed possession of the best pasture. Now, every time she watched him abuse her daughter-in-law wrongly, she felt hurt. She slapped him with all her might. It was the first time she had hit her son. Then she said, tearfully:

– You listen. Your belly is too mean. If it doesn’t have enough room for a mole, then how can you become a husband, a father? In the past, if Lý Pú Tẩn had been mean like you, how would you have been born? How would you have assumed his last name? I’m ashamed of you.

***

Old Tẩn said it’s been decades since snow last fell this hard. Villagers went looking for buffaloes buried under the snow. The Lý family went looking for their son. One seemingly interminable day passed. Snowflakes were still falling fast, one upon another, without end. All family members came home and snuggled by the fire. Mẩy, however, was still standing at the door. Daughter-in-law, come in here, or you’ll catch a cold.  If I don’t find Pú, I can’t come in. Mẩy  threw on another scarf and ran out. This time she went farther. She walked to the old stream where Pú had proposed to her.

The stream was dazzlingly whitened by ice and snow. At the top of the biggest rock, somebody had adroitly built a snowman that sat morosely. Mẩy called out. Nobody answered. Mẩy’s whole body was also covered in snow. Mẩy slowly climbed onto the rock, raking the snow with two hands. Her finger tips swelled badly and bled. If Pú didn’t go home tonight, she would be guilty, and her son would also be guilty. The mother who had given birth just a few days earlier knelt down and frantically clawed at the snow.

At the same time, at a small liquor store in town: Hey what’s-your-name, wake up. I have to close for the day. It’s too cold. After much calling, the thoroughly drunk customer staggered to his feet. He pounded on his chest and said, drawlingly, “I am Lý Ôn Pú, you hear me, not what’s-your-name. But…. oh no. I’m not even Lý Ôn Pú anymore.”

*Thị Nở: An ugly woman in Nam Cao’s classic short story “Chí Phèo”. Thị Nở is the lover of a downtrodden anti-hero, Chí Phèo, and their love offers a brief glimmer of hope in an otherwise rotten society.     

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Study finds sexual harassment hamper women at media company

sexual harassment

Sexual harassment happens in every office in Vietnam and is linked to job promotion. Victims are mostly women and staffs of the harassers. Illustration: Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs.

In a study conducted in 2015-16, Tran Thi Thuy Binh, a journalist currently working for the Hanoi Television, finds sexual harassment to be a big barrier preventing women from advancing to top positions at a major media company in Vietnam.

In the study titled “Sexual Harassment – A Hurdle of Female Promotion,” Thuy Binh analyzes in-depth interviews with 13 executives of the state-owned Voice of Vietnam (VOV), one of the two largest national broadcasting organizations, and concludes that sexual harassment also happens at VOV as it rampantly happens at every other office in Vietnam, according to the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs and the International Labor Organization.

Though women account for nearly half of all VOV staffs, they only make up 22.7% of VOV directors, which is a “quite small” number, indicating women’s subordination at the management level, Thuy Binh writes in her study. The journalist argues that sexual harassment poses a major challenge to women’s career advancement. At VOV, sensitive jokes related to female body parts and sex are perceived as normal and funny, and unwanted touching is acceptable.

Sensitive jokes often happen at unofficial meetings which are considered vital to building social networks and supporting career development. At these meetings, female staffs are expected to drink with men and accept men’s flirtation. A female vice director is quoted as saying, “I’m fine with official meetings because I understand my work and I can answer my colleagues’ questions. I dislike unofficial meetings. These meetings are crucial for career development in Vietnam…They affect promotions. When a woman refuses to join these meetings, her working capacity is underestimated.”

As part of the wider context in which the Vietnamese legal system doesn’t provide an official definition of sexual harassment or mandate clear punishment for aggressors, VOV doesn’t have a code to regulate sexual harassment. Victims thus normally keep silence and harassers aren’t punished. The managers interviewed by Thuy Binh were also reluctant to talk about sexual harassment and call it for what it is. According the journalist, this attitude reflects the interviewees’ family and education backgrounds as well as the patriarchal Vietnamese culture which subordinate women and tolerate sexual harassment against them.

The International Labor Organization defines sexual harassment as any unwanted behavior of sexual nature that affects people’s dignity. It includes three forms: physical action ranging from touching to rape; verbal action such as comments with sexual overtones; and non-verbal action such as unwelcome gestures and suggestive body language.

Before conducting this study, Tran Thi Thuy Binh had also carried out two other relevant researches that bring to light the pernicious impact of hegemonic masculinity on female leadership at media companies in Vietnam, and stereotypical gender representation on state-owned Vietnam Television (VTV).

 

 

 

 

Hình ảnh lãnh đạo nữ trên truyền thông “rất ảm đạm”

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Một bài báo viết về các bộ áo dài của Chủ tịch Quốc hội Nguyễn Thị Kim Ngân. Theo báo cáo của Oxform, báo chí Việt Nam đưa nhiều thông tin “bên lề” về lãnh đạo nữ hơn hẳn lãnh đạo nam, thể hiện định kiến giới. 

Theo một nghiên cứu được thực hiện gần đây, lãnh đạo nữ hiếm khi xuất hiện trên truyền thông Việt Nam, và khi xuất hiện phải gánh trên vai nhiều định kiến giới.  

Theo báo cáo được thực hiện vào năm 2016 của Tổ chức phi chính phủ Oxfarm, trong tổng số 3,429 lượt nhân vật là lãnh đạo được truyền thông trích dẫn, đưa tin hoặc phỏng vấn (trong 3 tuần của nghiên cứu), chỉ có 14.3% là người nữ.

Báo cáo có tựa đề “Báo chí và định kiến giới đối với lãnh đạo nữ” kết luận: Dù phản ánh đúng hiện thực hay không thì bức tranh về lãnh đạo nữ được gửi đến công chúng là hết sức ảm đạm.

Không chỉ ít xuất hiện mà khi xuất hiện, lãnh đạo nữ cũng chỉ chủ yếu hiện diện bên cạnh các chủ đề vốn được coi là dành cho phái nữ như y tế, giáo dục, môi trường, người cao tuổi, dân tộc thiểu số… Thậm chí trong hai vấn đề có tỉ lệ lãnh đạo nữ xuất hiện nhiều nhất là trẻ em/gia đìnhquyền nữ giới thì tỉ lệ này cũng chưa tới 50%.

Trong các vấn đề được coi là của nam giới như kinh doanh, ngoại giao, an ninh xã hội, quân đội hay khoa học kỹ thuật, số lượng lãnh đạo nữ được truyền thông đề cập đến càng ít hơn, nhiều nhất chỉ là 16.4% trong nội dung kinh doanh và 15.7% đối với chủ đề thuế.

Xét theo lĩnh vực công tác, lãnh đạo từ các cơ quan hành chính nhà nước xuất hiện nhiều nhất. 62.7% lượt lãnh đạo đến từ thành phần nhà nước. Tuy nhiên đây cũng chính là thành phần có tỉ lệ lãnh đạo nữ xuất hiện trên báo chí ít nhất: 9.8%. Đại đa số lãnh đạo nhà nước được trích dẫn, đưa tin, hay phỏng vấn đều là nam giới.

Định kiến giới còn thể hiện trong việc báo chí đưa nhiều thông tin “bên lề” về lãnh đạo nữ hơn hẳn lãnh đạo nam. Những thông tin này liên quan đến hình thức bên ngoài và việc nuôi dạy con cái, chăm sóc gia đình của lãnh đạo nữ. Thông điệp được truyền tải thường là các lãnh đạo nữ “giỏi việc nước, đảm việc nhà” và được chồng hậu thuẫn nên mới thành công như vậy.

Theo báo cáo của Oxfarm, định kiến giới trong nội dung báo chí phản ánh chính xác hoàn cảnh gia đình và nhận thức của các nhà báo. Đa số các nhà báo cho rằng người nữ nên ưu tiên xây dựng gia đình, còn nam giới nên ưu tiên phát triển sự nghiệp. Chỉ 27% cho rằng sự nghiệp nên là ưu tiên hàng đầu của nữ giới.

Các nhà báo cũng đánh giá nam giới có “bản lĩnh” và thích hợp với vai trò lãnh đạo hơn nữ giới. Mặt khác, nữ giới “ôn hòa” – thân thiện, khéo léo, cư xử nhẹ nhàng, chu đáo và dễ thông cảm – hơn nam giới. Tuy nhiên, những phẩm chất “ôn hòa” này lại được cho là có ảnh hưởng tiêu cực đến công việc lãnh đạo cần sự tự tin, quyết đoán (thường thấy ở nam giới).

Báo cáo cũng chỉ ra những yếu tố ảnh hưởng đến quá trình sản xuất tin bài. Ngoài ảnh hưởng nhiều khi là vô thức của nền tảng văn hóa của cá nhân các nhà báo, các nhà báo còn chịu một sức ép rất lớn từ phía độc/khán/thính giả. Đa số các nhà báo đưa tin chứa nhiều định kiến giới với mục đích thu hút độc giả.

Quan niệm truyền thống cứng nhắc cản trở nữ giới Việt Nam

Theo một nghiên cứu quy mô được thực hiện từ năm 2012 đến 2015 của Viện Nghiên cứu Phát triển Xã hội, những quan niệm truyền thống cứng nhắc về giá trị và vai trò của nam và nữ là nguyên nhân cơ bản gây ra bất bình đẳng giới ở Việt Nam. Mặc dù quan hệ giới trong xã hội đã được cải thiện nhiều, trong những năm gần đây, tiến bộ bình đẳng giới ở Việt Nam trở nên chậm chạp, trì trệ, và thậm chí thụt lùi.

Theo nghiên cứu có tựa đề “Các yếu tố xã hội quyết định bất bình đẳng giới ở Việt Nam”, mọi tầng lớp trong xã hội vẫn cho rằng nữ giới sinh ra để chăm sóc gia đình, còn nam giới được tự do làm tất cả những việc khác. Người nữ phải chịu nhiều gánh nặng và thiệt thòi trong tất cả các lĩnh vực được khảo sát như giáo dục, nghề nghiệp và việc làm, phân công lao động và ra quyết định trong gia đình, sở hữu tài sản…

Ví dụ, trong lĩnh vực nghề nghiệp và việc làm, hơn 20% số nữ giới được khảo sát không làm việc ngoài xã hội vì phải chăm sóc gia đình so với tỷ lệ 2% ở nam giới. Trong phân công lao động và ra quyết định trong gia đình, nữ giới thực hiện 12 trong số 14 việc nhà, từ nấu ăn cho đến chăm sóc người già, người ốm. Về sở hữu tài sản, chỉ 1/5 nữ giới sở hữu nhà hoặc đất thổ cư trong khi hơn một nửa nam giới là chủ sở hữu duy nhất đất thổ cư hoặc nhà.

Những người nữ khác sống giữa truyền thống và truyền thông

emma-watson-tim-walker-march-2017-ss09

Emma Watson lộ ngực trong một bức ảnh gây tranh cãi trên trang bìa số tháng 3 của tạp chí Vanity Fair. Ảnh: Tim Walker/Vanity Fair.

Nhìn cuộc sống theo quan điểm của nam giới, nữ giới ngày nay hay lên gân về các giá trị như tự do khoáng đạt, đấu tranh thoát khỏi kìm kẹp để được là chính mình. Tuy nhiên kết quả thường thấy là họ nhảy từ thái cực truyền thống sang truyền thông và trở thành những khuôn mặt na ná nhau, thiếu sự đa dạng.

Trước khi phê bình, ta cũng phải thừa nhận rằng nữ giới đang bị đặt vào thế khó. Nói một cách nôm na, sống trong thời đại này, họ là cô gái Hồi giáo vừa đấu tranh giành được quyền bỏ mạng che mặt ra cho dễ thở một chút, chưa kịp định thần, định nghĩa mình là ai thì khuôn mặt của cô đã bị lọt ngay vào ống kính camera lan tràn và thô thiển của phương Tây.

Tránh vỏ dưa gặp vỏ dừa

Chúng ta đang sống trong thời đại của truyền hình thực tế, của mạng xã hội, của truyền thông và ống kính máy quay có mặt ở khắp mọi nơi. Truyền thông quảng bá cho những cái nhỏ bé. Một sáng chủ nhật, tôi đi bộ quanh Hồ Gươm và tình cờ nhìn thấy một đôi bạn đang chụm đầu vào nhau cùng dán mắt vào máy ảnh. Họ nhìn gì mà chăm chú thế? Tôi nhìn theo và thấy họ đang cố gắng chụp ảnh bàn chân mình.

Bàn chân tưởng chừng rất bình thường, nhưng khi được chụp lại bằng máy ảnh, những kỹ thuật về màu sắc, khuôn hình… sẽ làm cho hình ảnh đẹp hơn, quan trọng hơn. Và nếu đôi bạn về nhà đưa hình lên Facebook và được nhiều bạn bè “like”, thì đó có lẽ là mục đích cuối cùng của họ: chụp lại hiện thực không hẳn vì bản thân hiện thực, mà vì cảm giác mình có tài và có người hâm mộ.

Trong thời kỳ có nhiều cấm đoán, việc soi rọi vào những con người, sự vật sự việc bình dị là một tâm thức nhân văn. Nó giúp đưa ra ánh sáng bất công, giúp nâng vị thế của người thấp cổ bé họng, giúp con người khám phá ra những bí mật quan trọng của tự nhiên…

Tuy nhiên, dường như chúng ta đang sống trong một thời kỳ quá độ, như đứa trẻ mới lớn vừa nếm mùi tự do, chưa đủ khả năng sử dụng tự do của mình nên có xu hướng nhảy từ thái cực này sang thái cực ngược lại. Nói một cách khác, nguy cơ của thời đại này là quan trọng hóa những cái thực sự…quá…nhỏ bé.

Nữ giới, tầng lớp thấp cổ bé họng bị áp bức bấy lâu, càng khó tránh khỏi cạm bẫy của truyền thông. Cô gái nào cũng có những bức ảnh avatar đẹp lung linh để tự khẳng định mình. Đẹp để lên hình, rồi xem hình của mình để cảm thấy hưng phấn và cố gắng đẹp hơn. Nhu cầu lên hình phổ biến đến mức khuôn mặt của các cô đều đẹp, nhưng là đẹp theo một kiểu giống nhau.

Giống nhau ở chỗ đấy là vẻ đẹp có thể lên hình. Cuộc sống mất đi sự kỳ bí khi con người sống quá duy lý và tin rằng mọi cái đều có thể đưa ra ánh sáng. Có những cái không dễ dàng, thậm chí không bao giờ có thể nắm bắt hay “chụp” lại được thì sao? Càng cố gắng theo đuổi thì chúng ta chỉ càng tìm thấy phiên bản của chính mình mà không phải một hiện thực lớn hơn nào đó? Huống hồ trình độ công nghệ và hình ảnh của phương Tây có giới hạn và rất dễ được dùng để phục vụ cho sự kỳ thị chủng tộc như đề cao một kiểu đẹp nhất định: da trắng, mắt to, mũi cao…

Một ví dụ về kiểu đẹp của người nữ phương Tây được tung hô trên truyền thông mà nhiều người nữ trên thế giới đang cố gắng theo đuổi là bức ảnh khoe ngực gây tranh cãi gần đây của diễn viên từng là nhí nhưng nay đã 26 tuổi của loạt phim Harry Potter nổi tiếng, Emma Watson.

Bức ảnh đẹp và chuyên nghiệp trên trang bìa số tháng 3 của tạp chí Vanity Fair chụp “cô phù thủy” Anh Quốc mặc trang phục màu trắng nửa kín nửa hở để tôn vinh bộ ngực và cơ thể gợi cảm của cô.

Bức ảnh này sẽ chỉ như bao bức ảnh gợi cảm câu khách khác của các tạp chí thời trang và giới “showbiz” nếu Emma Watson không phải là một “nhà nữ quyền” (“feminist”).

Cựu nữ sinh ngành Văn học Anh của Trường Đại học Brown danh tiếng là Đại sứ thiện chí của Liên hợp quốc vận động cho vấn đề bình đẳng giới và quyền của người nữ. Năm 2014, Emma Watson có một bài phát biểu khá nổi tiếng cho Chiến dịch HeForShe kêu gọi nam giới đứng lên đấu tranh chống bất bình đẳng giới. Trước khi được bổ nhiệm, cô cũng đã tham gia vận động cho các em gái được đến trường ở Bangladesh và Zambia.

Về danh nghĩa của Emma thì là như vậy, nhưng nữ quyền là gì mà lại phản đối bức ảnh khoe ngực được chụp khá nghệ thuật của cô? Những ai quen thuộc với phản biện của nữ quyền đều biết rằng có một vấn đề quan trọng ở đây là hiện tượng đồ vật hóa cơ thể người nữ.

Trong xã hội gia trưởng, người nữ dễ trở thành công cụ hay biểu tượng phục vụ nhu cầu tình dục của đàn ông. Tổng thể danh tính phức tạp, đa chiều của một con người bị tối giản thành một món đồ dẹt lét, một chiều, tùy tay người thao túng.

Trong văn hóa đại chúng hiện nay, những sản phẩm khiêu dâm, hoặc những hình ảnh quảng cáo phơi bày cơ thể nữ lý tưởng/không tưởng là ví dụ về hiện tượng này. Kể cả khi những sản phẩm này có giá trị kỹ thuật hoặc nghệ thuật, thì các giá trị này thường thể hiện nhân sinh quan được đúc kết qua nhiều năm của nam giới.

Cái khó và cũng là giới hạn của nữ quyền do các minh tinh đại diện – đặc biệt là những nữ ca sĩ, diễn viên da trắng, xinh đẹp, có điều kiện ở các nước phương Tây – là đặc thù công việc của họ. Họ có thể thực lòng đồng cảm và đấu tranh cho những người nữ đói khổ bị bạo hành ở đâu đó trên thế giới nhưng khi cần phải quay phim chụp ảnh, họ vẫn sẽ phải đáp ứng yêu cầu của công việc.

Về phần mình, Emma Watson có câu trả lời cho những người chỉ trích cô. Trong một cuộc phỏng vấn với Reuters, cô phản biện: “Nữ quyền là trao cho nữ giới quyền lựa chọn. Nữ quyền không phải là một cái gậy dùng để đánh những người nữ khác. Nữ quyền là tự do, là giải phóng, là bình đẳng. Tôi thực sự không hiểu vú của tôi thì liên quan gì ở đây. Vấn đề này hết sức khó hiểu.”

Nữ quyền là khác biệt

Nhiều người nữ Việt Nam, trong quá trình thể hiện sự tự tin và hưng phấn của mình, nếu gặp phải chỉ trích, đặc biệt từ những người nữ khác, cũng thường đưa ra luận điểm này: rằng họ có quyền, rằng những người nữ khác chỉ đang ghen tị với họ… Hiểu như Emma Watson quả thật không sai. Đúng, nữ quyền là tự do, là giải phóng, là bình đẳng. Và nữ giới đặc biệt không nên vì đố kỵ mà “ném đá” nhau.

Tuy nhiên, hiểu như vậy là chưa sâu sắc. Có một giá trị khác mà nữ giới nên nhấn mạnh khi nói về nữ quyền bên cạnh tự do bình đẳng. Đó là sự khác biệt. Emma Watson có thể tự do là bất cứ ai mà cô muốn, cô có thể thể hiện sự bình đẳng trong tình dục với đàn ông bằng việc chủ động chụp ảnh khỏa thân của mình, nhưng nếu làm như vậy, cô chưa đặc sắc và khác biệt. Cô sẽ giống đàn ông, và giống nhiều người nữ phương Tây da trắng xinh đẹp thành công khác – những người mà khi nói đến tự do là thường chỉ hình dung ra tự do tình dục.

Còn những loại tự do khác thì sao? Ví dụ như tự do không thích bị chụp ảnh, tự do không thích tình dục? Tự do của một người nữ khi nghĩ đến hình ảnh khiêu dâm là nghĩ đến tổn thương của việc bị lạm dụng trong quá khứ? Hay thậm chí những người nữ bị ung thư vú, đã phải cắt bỏ hai bên vú nên không cần ai phải nhắc cho họ nhớ là cơ thể họ không còn nguyên vẹn nữa?

Những giá trị nữ mà Emma Watson quảng bá thông qua bức ảnh gây tranh cãi kia là những giá trị của văn hóa phương Tây. Trong thời đại mà phương Tây thống trị, thì những cái nhỏ, khác biệt, đại diện cho các nền văn hóa ở các phương trời khác nên được chú trọng.

Xét trên cả phương diện lý thuyết lẫn thực hành, ta khó có thể tìm thấy những khuôn mặt nữ thực sự khác biệt nhờ truyền thông. Thứ nhất là vì số lượng quá nhiều. Có hàng tỉ người nữ, hàng tỉ con người hàng ngày sống cuộc sống thú vị của riêng họ chứ không phải chỉ các ngôi sao mới có cuộc sống thú vị. Thứ hai, về mặt bản chất, như tôi nói ở trên, có những cái đẹp không thích lên hình, không thể lên hình, không bao giờ lên hình, chỉ đơn giản vì chúng là những cái đẹp “khác” hình. Tuy nhiên không lên hình không có nghĩa là không tồn tại. Rất nhiều người nữ mạnh mẽ khác biệt tồn tại ở đâu đó giữa truyền thống và truyền thông. Họ đấu tranh chống lại mạng che mặt nhưng họ không phải là diễn viên.