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Saigon city beat-on its Culture, Viewpoints and Gourmet Copyright © 2012 by Saigon Citylife Cover and Photographs copyright © 2012 by Phuong Nam Book All Rights Reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means-electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, scanning, or other-except for brief quotations in critical review or articles, without the prior written permission of the Publisher. Published Viet Nam by Phuong Nam Book Co., Ltd (PNB), a member of Phuong Nam Culture Corp. (PNC) 940 Ba thang Hai Street, Ward 15, Dist.11, Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam. Culture The Backyard Banana Grove • Tran Tien Dung Talking about the banana family in the south, even a little kid can name a bunch. There are porcelain bananas, aged bananas, seeded bananas, tall bananas, pepper bananas, flour bananas. And little girls chant a shanty so strange and gnawing, of a kind of torment that couldn’t and shouldn’t be for their young, innocent age. Hoo... the wind sways the banana grove in the backyard. Obsessed with your concubine, you’ve abandoned our young children My maternal cousin, at eight years old, was once slapped by her father, because whenever she put her younger sibling to sleep, she’d chant those Culture, Viewpoints and Gourmet • 5 lines over and over. But her paternal grandmother kept telling her: “Whenever your dad is home, you just chant the banana grove shanty for me, and remember to chant the entire verse.” She obeyed her grandmother, but was also very afraid of her father. Holding her younger brother on the hammock facing the wall, she’d suppress her fear to chant so her father could hear. Ho o.... the wind sways the banana grove in the backyard Obsessed with your concubine, you’ve abandoned our young children Our young children, I hold in my arms My hand guides mother-in-law, on my head a flower basket. When I was young, I did not know why the wife, abandoned by her husband for a concubine, would carry a basket of flowers on her head. Those days, in my region, no one sold flowers. On full moons or Tet, when they needed to offer to the altar, people would just pick some from the garden, or go ask the neighbors for any kind of flower, usually the Trang 6 • Saigon city beat flower. I thought, why carry a basket of flowers and not a basket of bananas? Banana bunches, banana flowers, banana leaves, or the young banana trunk that could be sliced to make a chicken salad, even the matured trunk could be chopped up to feed the pigs. Later, my cousin went up to Sai Gon. I do not know who talked her into selling flowers at the market. She made a living selling flowers to city folks. But she didn’t have a husband. Before passing away, her paternal grandmother said her dying last words. Huong is on the shelf because she sells flowers. Tell her to find another business so I can rest in peace. To her paternal grandmother, to sell flowers is to sell a girl’s charm, but when you’re too poor, what matters but to live have something to eat? I didn’t like banana trees, especially those banana groves in the backyard. My family was among war refugees, who moved from the countryside to the suburbs. In that entire neighborhood every house had a banana grove in the backyard, usually growing against the wall next to a big stone jar of water or some distance from a roofed verandah. Culture, Viewpoints and Gourmet • 7 And for sure that banana grove would extend over to the neighboring house showing off its shiny trunk full of sap and its smooth banana leaf green. With or without a fence, each neighbor in the suburbs was always there for each other. The women interacted for gossip, a lime, or a red pepper. The men, on days of endless rain or gloom, especially once alcohol had been consumed, would tease and flirt with the neighbor’s wife over the grove, who would be doing dishes or laundry. To me, the banana grove in the backyard had something seductive, and the older I got, the more I hated it. I hated the banana grove in the backyard more when I discovered that it had something attractive, a dark seduction that protected sneaky loves. Sneaky loves are those that should be condemned without mercy. Sometimes sneaky loves are only fleeting feelings, but they are the excitement against so many mundane things in life. But why pull the banana grove into it? I couldn’t understand. I hated the banana grove in the backyard. I’d punch and kick at it without restraint, to satisfy my 8 • Saigon city beat anger or whenever I had a need for violence. As I hit the sheath of the banana leaf, the image of the shiny green beaten to shreds made me content as well as anguished. When I held a sharp object to strike into the soft trunk, the feeling of having punished evil came together with the feeling of guilt for the emotional weakness that led to error. I remember asking my paternal grandmother: “Grandma, how come sometimes in the middle of the night, I hear someone swinging the hammock out back. Is it a ghost? I’m so scared grandma.” My grandmother said: “It’s the sound of the banana tree turning, it’s no ghost. Go to sleep!” Women are also troubled of the sound of the banana tree turning. I now better understand my mother, my grandmother, and all the women who have stepped into old age who often feel troubled when hearing the banana grove turn. The sensitive women in my village pitied the banana tree flowering in the middle of the night. They are reminded of their condition. They pity themselves Culture, Viewpoints and Gourmet • 9 and sometimes too, those women who’ve wronged them with their husbands. Maybe the sound of the banana tree turning and moaning when it flowers is the same as a woman’s pain during childbirth. If people believe plants have their own language then why does only the banana tree know how to call out in a chain of sounds? That is the sound of protection and separation. Clearly the sound of the banana tree turning shows the tree is in pain. Using the words flowering or giving birth would not read through that cry. One only understands that cry when one understands that to become, is to separate. We come from our mother’s womb, that is the first milestone, where begins a movement in space marking our separation from her. To women who have children out of wedlock, that separation is the cry foretelling an unfortunate future. I don’t know why, ever since I was little, I’ve always imagined the banana grove in the backyard to carry the image of a beautiful woman who is very kind and native. 10 • Saigon city beat Mom’s Kitchen • Nguyen Quang Tan Two young sisters have just gotten married. Shortly after the weddings, their husbands have to head to the front. A year later, news arrives that the two men have been lost in a big battle. The young widows move back in together, in the same house, sharing the same fate, struggling in the same poverty. But each year as Tet approaches it would be the same. They both try to secure some sticky rice, fatty pork and mung beans to make square rice cakes, just in case someone comes back. Then on new year’s eve, in the kitchen next to the square rice cake cauldron, the two women sit watching the flames dance in each other’s tearful eyes. Years pass, and the two young girls become two elderly women. But every Culture, Viewpoints and Gourmet • 11 new year’s eve, the two sit next each other, by the cauldron of square rice cakes, just in case someone comes back, and the flame glows like amber in their eyes. A lifetime of pain doesn’t need to travel the seven seas; a little corner of a decrepit kitchen suffices. This is a good story line1, and the writer’s idea for the script is commendable. We have opened about every single door, traveled about every imagined corner of this Earth, assimilated with about every ethnic group. But as year end approaches, we feel our hearts sink, and we want to come home. Westerners too, are no exception. On important holidays, like Thanksgiving and Christmas, they too, head back home to gather around the dishes that mom makes. Coming home, back to Mom, to her kitchen. Take a look at the crowds pushing and shoving at bus stops, train stations, airports, and we understand. No matter how difficult, peace of mind is impossible 1 Extracted from a short story by Nguyen Quang Thieu. 12 • Saigon city beat if a ticket has yet to be procured. And if we couldn’t afford a ticket or for some other unforeseen reason that prevents us from coming home, we’d have to settle with someone facing the same predicament – in the twilight of the last day of the year, the 30th of Tet, we would head to one of a very few provisional roadhouses that still opens and order a pint, while gazing at the sunlight fading on the tree spires, then recite a couple of longing verses: From meager town we departed. In nostalgic wine we long to return. We lonesome birds chasing our Fate. Success or failure, don’t we miss home?1 Success or failure, don’t we miss home? Missing our town we have to miss our home; missing our home we have to miss our mother; missing our mother we have to miss her kitchen, and sometimes even missing that hornet building its hive on the veranda, that diligent gecko catching insects, or that lizard forever clucking its tongue. Dinh Tram Ca’s poetry. 1 Culture, Viewpoints and Gourmet • 13 As Vietnamese the minute we set foot into a Western kitchen we would right away recognize its convenience and civilized immaculateness. But a Westerner stepping foot into a Vietnamese kitchen, perhaps it’s hard for them to know it’s the warmest gathering place of a family. The living room is a place for fancy talks, but the kitchen is where our intimate conversations shared. It is the place where the sisters whisper to each other of their first love, where mom gives advice to her daughter for the last time before the girl heads to her husband’s house, where the Childhood sharing of a grilled corn on the cob, of a baked cassava. The kitchen is yet another place that expresses the ups and downs of a family. If a family is experiencing riches, in the days near Tet, the kitchen would ricochet with laughter, clatter with utensils, echo with knives felling on the cutting board, and emanate with food aromas and seasonings overwhelming our senses. And if the family is in the bad, the kitchen is cold and deserted, and its owners, too, are woeful at heart. 14 • Saigon city beat “tell him to come back and light up the ambers in a frigid kitchen”1 In a cold night at the front, a soldier suddenly misses his wife’s kitchen, where the flame flickers rouging the woman’s cheeks and simmering the sweet scent of the gluttonous rice pot. As a young maiden in Mai Chau province approaches her coming of age, she emanates the sweet scent of simmering gluttonous rice2. Today people cook with gas stoves, electric stoves, microwaves ovens. Once in a while I would miss the color of soot, missing that question mark–? – that my older brother smeared on my forehead after I had lost a hand in a game of soot-smearing cards. Firewood, bronze caldrons, earthen pots... gradually retreat to the back of our memory. But if I had a house, I would not hang the portraits of my deceased loved ones in a solemn place in the living room. I would hang them in the Kitchen. Le Thanh Thu’s poetry. Quang Dung’s poetry. 1 2 Culture, Viewpoints and Gourmet • 15 Westerner on a Bicycle • Christine Buckley “The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.” -Iris Murdoch, The Red and the Green. Close your eyes and conjure up a single image or sensory impression that captures the essence of your Vietnam. The kind of picture you invoke for yourself when you are far away and aching for home. What comes to mind? Is it a steaming bowl of pho, the brilliant green of a rice paddy after a rainstorm, a field of Dalat wildflowers, the familiar street vendor’s call? Is there anyone who imagines a schoolgirl slowly pedaling a bicycle, loose hair 16 • Saigon city beat flowing down the back of her white ao dai without a care in the world? Whatever happened to that girl and the unhurried world she inhabited? I’ve lived in Vietnam for almost two years. I can speak the language and have integrated into the society as well as a white girl can. But my favorite pastime has gotten in the way of that assimilation. Its very existence is endangered by rapidly changing attitudes and values in a Saigon that is modernizing for better and for worse. I grew up in a metropolis, have never had a car, and have always chosen a bike as my main mode of transport in every city I’ve called home so far: New York, Sydney, Paris. So I thought Saigon would be no different when I moved here a year ago from the Mekong Delta. Yet since then I have been mocked, harassed, heckled and scolded merely for engaging in my non-threatening, non-polluting activity. In case you were wondering: I know the rules of the road, and I obey them. I stay out of the way of trucks and have yet to stop in the middle of Le Culture, Viewpoints and Gourmet • 17 Loi at a green light to answer my mobile phone. I avoid cutting across oncoming traffic and driving on the wrong side of the road just to get to my destination three seconds faster. I stop at red lights, look both ways before entering the road, and signal when I am about to turn. And for this, I am scorned, hated-barely tolerated-by the very people who receive me with warmth in their offices, at their dinner tables and in their pagodas. The way that Saigonese behave on the road is nearly impossible to reconcile with their exemplary conduct in nearly every other aspect of life. “Melancholy is incompatible with bicycling.” James E. Starrs, The Literary Cyclist Last week I tried to park my bicycle in the outside lot at Diamond Plaza, where I planned to visit a friend at her office. I pulled in, smiled, and asked in Vietnamese where I should put the bike. The female parking lot manager, busy counting her wad of bills, barely looked up but managed a smirk when she saw the xe dap. She gestured with a wave of her hand, which 18 • Saigon city beat was either to indicate the back of the lot or to brush me off. I made my way sheepishly to the “loser section,” the furthest corner of the lot where all the inexpensive vehicles are parked. Every flashy restaurant, café, and in this case, parking lot, has one. If you’re sporting a $1000 cell phone and a $10,000 motorcycle, an attendant will take your bike with a smile and offer it pride of place in the front; that way you get to show off and don’t have to walk so far. Untouchables like me have to find their own way. As I was leaving, I asked for my parking ticket, and was told with annoyance that there was no such thing for bicycles, to the uproarious laughter of surrounding personnel, who had now gathered around to stare at the chatty foreigner. “We don’t charge you to park a bicycle,” said the money counter, “So why should we give you a ticket?” I smiled and said that I expected to pay for my parking, but that it would be nice to have some kind of receipt-anything-even just a scrap of paper. I indicated the sign that said ‘Bicycle Culture, Viewpoints and Gourmet • 19 parking: VND1000’. “That’s old,” she replied curtly. Running late and without another option, I slunk away, ticketless and embarrassed. “Why don’t you just get a motorbike?” asked the male attendant derisively as I passed him, echoing the question I hear about ten times a day. The same process has been repeated around the city over the past months, mostly at District 1 hotspots where clientele turn up almost exclusively on high-end motorbikes and, increasingly, cars. If I have the energy to explain my difficulty and ally myself with the parking attendants, I can usually convince them to take my bike, but each time the arrangement is an ambiguous affair requiring a good dose of mutual trust. They’re breaking the rules by letting me park in their lot, and I have to believe they will “remember” me when I get back. The process involves much witty repartee and twenty or so questions from the well-intentioned young employees. So far, so good. Except the routine is getting tedious. 20 • Saigon city beat
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