Author’s Notes for “Immersion”

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“Immersion”, like many stories, grew out of conversations–specifically with Rochita Loenen-Ruiz and several other Asian bloggers/writers such as @requireshate, JY Yang, J Damask/Joyce Chng, @automathic and Zen Cho.
I wanted to write a story about cultural domination; about how the cultural norms from the dominant culture also infect the non-dominant ones; about how globalisation and its products don’t necessarily make the world smaller and communications between cultures easier, but tend to foster a harmful atmosphere in which one culture or subset of cultures (US/Europe, to be specific) takes over the existing ones and remakes everything in its image. That the takeover is subtle, not done by guns but rather through commerce and the diffusion of media, doesn’t make it less visible or excusable: not all wars are waged with weapons and violence; and the more subtle and insidious version of cultural colonisation that’s currently going on in the world is a phenomenon with obvious and damaging impact (and also includes Western tourism in developing countries, which is often intensely problematic and fraught with coloniser attitudes).

The story is also very obviously based on our trip in Vietnam and my rants at the guidebooks which distill a culture in an outsider, monolithic (and many times wildly inaccurate) version: the immersers from Galactic to Rong are guidebooks V2.0. I also imagined their counterpart from Rong to Galactic, something that would make it clear that unbalanced cultural exchanges could lead to severe cultural distortion, as well as rejection of one’s home culture–a phenomenon that’s not always harmful, but is taken to its extreme in Agnes. I also tried to tackle how damaging the imposition of languages and standards of beauty could become, though through lack of space I had to go for a fairly caricatural version of it.

(mild spoilers, plus somewhat long rambles)

And, hum, of course you can see some of my struggles to learn Vietnamese. In particular, those %% pronouns, which are so much simpler when you don’t actually have to deal with family. The idea you might be learning a language as a sort-of-insider mostly never occurs to the language courses I checked out–the only exception being the one Mom got for me, which is fairly good at family interactions. (and yes, “older sister” and “younger sister” are two different words in Vietnamese, so you’re out of luck if you only remember one of them…).

I don’t do this very often, but I deliberately picked the names for the story: Galen is the physician, the man who thinks he can fix everything. Tam is Tấm, from the fairytale Tấm and Cám–the resourceful girl who always gets her way in spite of everything thrown at her. Quy is Quỳ, the heliotrope–traditionally, sunflowers symbolised the female submission to their husbands, in accordance with Confucian ideology, but I used it in a slightly different fashion: Quỳ is the one who turned towards the brightest and most attractive star in the sky, and got badly burnt for it. And Agnes–Agnes means “pure”, and I’m sure you can see the implications of that particular appelation!
The word “Rồng” literally means “dragon” (filched 100% from the proverb, “Child of dragons, grandchild of immortals”, which expresses Vietnamese identity); they started out as “Hoa”, until I remembered that “Hoa” was the real-life name of the Chinese communities in Vietnam…

This is set in the same continuity (of sorts) as “Scattered Along the River of Heaven”, which was set on Felicity Station: Longevity is another station in the network of ex-colonies, though with different masters. You’ll also notice the reference to Prosper Station–the trio Longevity, Prosper(ity) and Felicity together make up the three traditional Chinese/Vietnamese blessings. Of course, Longevity also has ironic resonances considering its position in the Galactic trade network, and the gradual destruction of its culture by outsiders…

This is a story that took me three weeks to brainstorm and a single sitting of four hours to write: I had the immersers technology, and the idea of setting it in a restaurant–while making the preparation of a wedding anniversary the centre of the plot–but I couldn’t work it out. It was a very frustrating process: I remember going on my weekly runs and hammering at the plot, trying to work out who was doing what; but never reaching a point where the story congealed in a form I could relate to. Until the deadline for submitting something to Villa Diodati loomed, and I sat down and wrote a snippet in second person–and something just clicked. The muse can be really weird sometimes… (especially considering I threw away the snippet, which was from Quy’s POV).

Oh, and you’ll be wondering about the food! I translated pretty much every Vietnamese term into English in order to make them easier to parse (I was really torn about this, because the translation just doesn’t get across the specificity of the dish, and just doesn’t speak to me). You’ll recognise the soup Tam is slurping as phở, a traditional breakfast dish in Vietnam (though to be honest, I’ve kept it so vague it could also be hủ tiếu, a typical breakfast dish in the South; or any numbers of soups traditionally eaten in the morning!). The lemongrass chicken was a childhood mainstay. And the rolled rice cakes Quy refers to repeatedly are bánh cuốn (also a good breakfast dish, especially with the doughnut-y things that I don’t know the name of). The litany of odd foods that the immerser gives to Agnes as they enter the restaurant also exist, though durian is the only one I’ve tasted on this list: pickled pig’s ear is a traditional delicacy, and the fermented meat is nem chua (the linguistic confusion I mention is sort of genuine, too: “nem” in the South of Vietnam refers to “nem chua” which is the fermented meat in question–but in the North, “nem” is fried rolls, the Southern chả giò that you wrap in salad and dip into fish sauce. “Nem” has become the standard appelation for the fried rolls in France, but if I were you, I’d be very careful if ordering “nems” in the South of Vietnam, unless you’re prepared for something different :) ) BTW, since I couldn’t figure out which Vietnamese dishes Westerners would find repulsive, I outsourced the question on twitter–many thanks to everyone who joined in the suggestions fun!

Also, you’ll be wondering about lemongrass chicken–I’ve got good news. You can try this recipe and this one if you want an idea of how the thing tastes. I particularly recommend the second one.

5 comments

  1. I liked your story very much, though personally I can’t think of any Vietnamese dishes I’d find repulsive! Of course, I’ve only eaten the restaurant cuisine they have here in the US — I haven’t eaten any durian, or pickled pig’s ear. I don’t care for the version of phở that has tripe in it, but that’s because I don’t care for tripe. (My friend likes it though, but he is a serious carnivore.)

    And now I want more of the story. [removed because of spoilers]

  2. Oh heck I just realized I may have posted a spoiler. Excuse me while I punch myself in the face.

  3. Andrea, thank you! (I’ve taken the liberty of editing your spoiler out of the comments) Ha, I don’t think there’s more of the story for me, at least not the interesting part, but it’s true I left things kind of hanging…

    I have eaten durian: don’t care much for the fruit itself, but as part of cakes it’s actually kind of nice (durian coconut candy is awesome). I don’t like tripe, but that’s as much in French cuisine as in Vietnamese cuisine :)

  4. Thank you!

    Oh yes, tripe is in American (via Europe) food too, but it’s generally one of those things no one eats anymore because of modern food squeamishness. Though I’ll tell you it was the one thing my grandmother said she did not like. (She grew up on a farm and her philosophy was “eat what you are served whether you like it or not.”)

  5. It’s still eaten regularly in France–my old workplace served it about once or twice a month, and a colleague of mine invariably took the dish (I invariably spent the lunchtime trying not to vomit. It’s really one of those few dishes that makes me sick, and I have a pretty high tolerance). Come to think of it, I’m not sure I ever ate tripe in Vietnamese cuisine; not sure my family actually likes it… (ate plenty of other meaty parts in phở and hủ tiếu, but not that).

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