New Vietnam

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Wild Mustard: New Voices from Vietnam is an anthology of short stories edited by Charles Waugh, Nguyen Lien, and Van Gia. As of 2017, when Wild Mustard was published, 80% of the Vietnamese population was under the age of 40. The editors felt it was time to hear from a new generation untouched by the war with America or the colonial French. Writers whose primary life experience is Đổi Mới.

That term refers to an economic policy launched in 1986 to end collectivization and open Vietnam to the world markets. Prior to that watershed moment, the government determined crop output and prices, controlled all trade, and dictated all cultural input.

As late as 1996, the most ubiquitous medium for community news in Hanoi and elsewhere in the country was the system of loudspeakers mounted at the top of poles scattered across the city. Each morning at six, the price of hogs and rice and other agricultural products along with weather reports and other bits of information would echo down every narrow alleyway.

Charles Waugh, “Blown by the Wind,” An Introduction to Wild Mustard, Wild Mustard (Northwestern University Press 2017)

All the authors featured in Wild Mustard came of age after Đổi Mới. Their Vietnam is the one you see today: high rises, scooters and hipster coffee bars. Education, health care and infrastructure are all improving. New Vietnam is a country with a future.

But there are costs involved and that is what Wild Mustard is all about.

Into the Cities

Many of the stories in Wild Mustard center on the journey young Vietnamese continue to take. They leave the countryside for the big cities. They’re looking for jobs or a way to become themselves. They anguish over the decision whether or not to leave. To abandon the old folks tied to the land and their ancestral graves.

It’s a universal theme that could apply to the Chinese countryside, the Midwest of the United States or rural France. In Vietnam, however, the disruption goes deeper.

Vietnam is an ancestor-worshipping nation, and ancestors have places to which they are attached. Each Vietnamese has a nha que — a homeland or native village — that they can point to as the place where their ancestors came from. […] Ancestor worship is more like a sense of self, a way to remember who you are and how to behave in a way that honors the obligations you owe your family.

Charles Waugh

My favorite story in the Wild Mustard anthology involves three transients: a truck driver, his assistant and a young female hitchhiker. Each one has left their ancestral home. Being on the road is their way to avoid pain. But even as they drift from one truck stop to the next, their past follows along.

The sounds of closing doors are never the same. Because they aren’t simply the sounds of wood meeting wood or the creaking of rusty metal. Each door closing is a ghost.

Nguyen Ngoc Tu, “Lonely Winds”

Village Life

Wild Mustard contains some brilliant depictions of village life in all its manifold forms. There are the fishing villages that dot the long seahorse-shaped coastline of Vietnam.

By the age of three, children in my village already knew how to swim, at five, they could sit in any boat, and by seven, they knew how to row. We memorized the faces of the fish before we memorized the letters of the alphabet.

Nguyen Van Toan, “A Thousand Years Sing the Waves”

Other stories take place in the ubiquitous rice paddies. In Wild Mustard, those villages aren’t photogenic. They’re poor.

I was born in a rice paddy. But the rice paddy could not sustain me. Some days I had meals, others I did not. Some days I went to school, others I did not. The university gate was too high and too big, but the sweet potato and rice seeds were too small.

Do Tien Thuy, “Wounds of the City”

There is extreme poverty in New Vietnam but it still exists. The future for many involves backbreaking jobs with no future, whether in the countryside or the city. Rape, substance abuse, and mental illness are frequent topics in the stories of Wild Mustard.

Đổi Mới has not yet delivered progress to all Vietnamese. As one character mockingly observes:

My only fear is the time when we will have so much money we won’t know what to buy.

Pham Duy Nghia, “Rain of White Plum Blossoms”

A Sentimental Journey

Wild Mustard offers many insightful glimpses into New Vietnam. But the quality of the stories is uneven. Sentimental tales of unrequited love. Melancholic memories of a blissful childhood. A little too sweet for my taste.

I prefer a love story like that of Toai and Thoan. Toai is a war veteran. The war robbed him of his right arm and both his legs. He now lives in Army Nursing Camp 27/7.

Then his childhood sweetheart Thoan learns that Toai is still alive. She files a request.

Socialist Republic of Vietnam
Independence—Freedom—Happiness

Dear Board of Directors of Army Nursing Camp 27/7:

I am Chu Thi Thoan and currently live alone in Hamlet 3, Dau Danh Commune. According to the need and my abilities, I hereby submit this petition to the Camp Board of Directors to ask permission to welcome back and care for Mr. Nguyen Van Toai in his home village.

Looking forward to receiving consideration and agreement from the Board,

Thoan

Nguyen Anh Vu, “Sleeping in the Lotus Flowers”

Now that’s a love letter, New Vietnam style.

3 October 2019 | Karen Kao