Tag: asia

Your hemi-semi-weekly Vietnamese proverb

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“Chở củi về rừng”: “carrying wood into the forest/jungle”. Doing useless things (like “carrying coal to Newcastle”, an English proverb I learnt at the same time as the Vietnamese one). Hahaha, that one is hilarious.

In other news, I have 3k words on the novel. One of my fave characters just showed up (great cook, good sense of humour, major temper. What’s not to love). Just one more scene, and I’ll be done with chapter 1!

More linky linky

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-International Science Fiction reprints my Xuya novelette “Butterfly, Falling at Dawn”. Check out the rest of their fiction, too: they focus on non-Western-Anglophone authors, and they’ve got pretty cool stuff up already, including nice non-fiction articles.

@requireshate, Joyce Chng, Rachel Swirsky, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Ekaterina Sedia and I engage in a discussion on non-Western SF. We tackle writing other cultures, exoticism, non-Western narratives: part 1, and part 2. Many thanks to Fabio Fernandes, Lavie Tidhar and Charles Tan for making this possible.

requireshate: I want to respond to a few things Joyce brought up–the expectations for people like us to be exotic. I’m often questioned as to the authenticity of my identity, because to westerners I appear to be writing “just like them,” steeped in “North American culture” (when in truth I know almost nothing about North America!). This assumption comes about because the hegemony is so huge and pervasive that it becomes, itself, an invisible mass and the default assumption. Mostly, if you write in English and aren’t breaking into malapropisms or broken syntax constantly, you’re immediately assumed to be “one of them,” part of the western paradigm.

(also, because I know this is going to come up at some point, and it’d be hypocritical of me not to mention it: I’m well aware that I’m committing outsider narrative in Obsidian and Blood. I’m doing it for what I believe are good motives–out of interest for the Mexica, to rehabilitate a culture that got the really short end of the stick, and show a mindset that is radically different without descending into Barbaric cliché; I’m doing it in reasonably good conscience of the issues involved in cultural appropriation [1] [2]; but it doesn’t change the fact that my books are not insider depictions of 15th-Century Tenochtitlan. It doesn’t make them worthless or bad; but yes, you can totally argue that, as an outsider writing about that culture, in both time and space, I’m to some extent perpetuating an exoticism problem, and I won’t disagree! I did try my best, but I most probably stumbled in places.
Also, I most certainly do not advocate people should stop writing about other cultures. Just pointing out it’s a fraught subject)


[1] Complicated by the fact that this is a historical culture and not a present-day one–makes some issues simpler, makes other issues harder…
[2] To be fair, my conscience of those issues kind of improved over the trilogy, so I can see the cringy bits in Servant of the Underworld that I tried to smooth out by Master of the House of Darts

Your hemi-semi-weekly Vietnamese proverb

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“Tiền nào của nấy”: “you get what you pay for” (lit. “such money, such merchandise”). With thanks to Grandma for that one 🙂

Two plus sides: I’m slowly starting to make myself understood by other people; and as a related issue, I’m also reading much faster (obviously, since Mom doesn’t scream every two words that I got the pronunciation wrong). Not really perfect yet, but he, I’ll take what I can get.

Funny stuff: I used to have an awful lot of trouble with the descending accent (the one in “nào”) because I confused it with the neutral; now I *still* have a lot of trouble with it, but I confuse it with the *other* descending accent (the one in “mẹ”, which has a longer duration and goes to a lower pitch). Can we take that as a sign that I know how to descend tones on a word? (rather than a sign of regression 😉 ).

Was trying to tranlate Tấm and Cam as a language learning exercise, but I think I’ll turn to Trương Chi and Mỵ Nương–they’re both fairytales I know very well, but Trương Chi is like, ten times shorter? I think I need an easy one before tackling the longest fairytale in the book…

The writer in strange kitchens

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So… I never thought I’d ever say this, but it’s the second time in less than a month that I find myself cooking in a kitchen that’s not my own, and I have to say you don’t realise how well-stocked your kitchen is until you run into one that’s… less well-stocked? I was cooking for VD [1], and the things I missed the most were, by order of decreasing importance:

-chopsticks. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m absolutely useless as a cook without a pair of chopsticks.
-kitchen knife. The difference between a good quality, balanced knife and a random ikea knife really is striking. Not in a good way. (also, still a fan of santoku over more Western-shaped knife; the thing just feels better in my hand. The household is sharply divided between my husband, who uses the paring knife and the traditional kitchen knife; and I, who just reach for the santoku for everything from dicing carrots to cubing meat).
-pots and pans. More minor, but gah, the absence of a wok with a lid is a major drawback for so many dishes. Especially broccoli.

So I guess I’ve learnt my lesson: take chopsticks with me next time I have to cook in a stranger’s kitchen 😀


[1] In case you’re wondering, the actual Villa Diodati workshop was great; I got tons of work done, edited “The Two Sisters in Exile” into submittable form, and made a head start on revising “Immersion”, aka the globalisation piece in space (with social networks! And Vietnamese! And lemongrass chicken!).

A few observations on VN, in no particular order (part 3)

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(last part. Apologies, this is the one where I complain a lot)

6. Guidebooks: I will not repeat the numerous curses I aimed at guidebooks over the course of the stay. We had two, the Lonely Planet and the Guide du Routard, and we mostly used them as bare indications of what to see (Grandma, in the fashion of long-time dwellers of cities, mostly directed us towards shops and restaurants rather than museums; plus Vietnamese can have very different ideas of tourism than Westerners). For all the rest, they sucked. I have never yet opened up a guidebook while knowing something about the country they described, and having now done it, I think I will never ever trust those %%%%ers again. The Lonely Planet thought it was smart to transcribe everything in the English UTF-8 alphabet (ie, no tonal marks, no accents, no additional letters such as “đ”). OK, here’s a hint: with that system, “dao” can mean anything from peach (đào) to religion (đạo) to knife (dao). And when you’re in a taxi trying to convince the guy that you want to go to the Museum of Vietnamese History (a destination, alas, not often used by tourists, which meant the taxi didn’t recognise it), that you don’t know how to say museum or history from memory and you’re pointing to a name and an address, neither of them properly written down, and the driver looks blank… %%%% is all I’m going to say. Also: next time, I will write down the name of the place in proper Vietnamese.
Le Guide du Routard, meanwhile, was a monument of colonialist fail. And I don’t use the word lightly. It repeatedly insisted on using the “old” names of bridges and streets over their new names (all the bridges and streets were named after French luminaries, a naming system which, as you can imagine, didn’t last long past independence) [1]. It warned people away from places like the Museum of War Remnants on the pretext that the coverage was spurious and fake, and that it would “make you hate the war”. Well, duh. The war isn’t fun, isn’t nice, isn’t something you can be thrilled around and buy souvenir T-shirts of, for God’s sake. People died. People starved. People did horrible things on both sides. And yes, the coverage of the Museum is a bit one-sided, focusing on the war crimes of the US and the French rather than on the other side. But if you think it’s not an important thing to see in the context of the war [2], then there is something seriously wrong with you.
(and I won’t even get into all the odd stuff they both said about Vietnamese culture–I’m not an expert, but even I could see that some things were completely off, and other things were hopeless generalisations of something specific to a particular region)

7. Dubious standards of beauty: the H and I remain deeply horrified by the ads we saw, which all featured varieties of Western models, or Vietnamese models touched up to have clearer skin. It was like some kind of freak show: it’s obvious that no one there is ever going to have that complexion, but it’s still the norm of beauty. I don’t know to what extent it’s White domination playing out, and to what extent it’s something that was already there and accentuated by the West (Mom and Grandma have always told me that clearer skin has been valued in Vietnam since ancient times, because having white skin showed that you weren’t a sun-tanned peasant), but the way it plays out today is… scary. Equally scary is leafing through beauty magazines, which advertise whitening cream with the same fervour we advertise anti-wrinkle cream in France. It reminds me of a picture on Requires_hate‘s blog. You’re shown a mall in Thailand, but it’s so generic it could be anywhere in the West: the brands and the models are all European and/or White (and/or blonde or brunette), and everything is labelled in English. And, in the midst of this, a crowd of Thai shoppers. They’re petite and swarthy, and nothing like those pallid, vapid stretched-out stick insects, and they will never ever be beautiful on those terms. Yup. Scary scary.
That’s all I had. Next: pictures, and I’ll stop complaining, promise.


[1] I’ll grant them one charitable intent, which is that they might be aiming this at French people who were in Indochina while it was still a colony. However, you have to realise that Vietnam became nominally independent from France in 1954, and that I don’t know when the renaming of stuff took place (offhand, juding from my bare-bones knowledge of history, I’d say post-1954 in the North, post-1975 in the South). Either way, we’re talking about names that have been unused for more than 30 years, if not more–and it’s the least of courtesies to call things by the name the country has given them.
[2] I am personally deeply uninterested in visiting places like these, but that’s another problem.

A few observations on VN, in no particular order (part 1)

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(broken down in several posts as this grew too long)

1. Food: oh my God, the food. I might be a tourist and more than a little lost in Vietnam, but the food is always like coming home (and it’s no coincidence that the one place I’m never lost in is restaurants). Plus, you always eat well at Grandma’s house (thanks to the combined efforts of Grandma, my maternal aunt, and my cousin). We also tested and patented the food crawl as we were travelling: this is a technique by which you get up at 6:00, have a cup of tea, eat a breakfast soup at 9:00, have lunch at 11:00, then have a boat ride on the Mekong and have a copious snack at 15:00, and proceed to dinner at 17:00 (all the while being pointed to food in various peremptory ways, and being told to eat in either French or Vietnamese). That’s discounting special events where you are well and properly stuffed, banquet-style (our stay intersected my great-grandmother’s death anniversary, and a two-year death anniversary for my great-uncle, which is basically when the period of mourning ends for the descendants); and it explains why we came back from Vietnam sated, but determined to undergo a diet of salads. [1]

2. Orientation: Grandma very sensibly wrote the address of the house on a bit of paper (well, OK. First she told me to repeat it out loud, then she grimaced and said she was going to give me a bit of paper… Remember what I said about my pronunciation sucking?), and that was what we gave taxis as we zoomed around Saigon. It puzzled them no end that two very obvious tourists (one White guy, and one vaguely Vietnamese-looking gal who obviously couldn’t speak very well) would ask to be dropped in what seemed to them the back end of nowhere. Mostly it was fine, but we did have one taxi driver who kept circling the house, looking for a hotel where we could be staying… (when this was explained to Grandma, she laughed very hard and said she was the cheap variety of hotel). In the end, I gave up the pronunciation game–it’s just too frustrating to argue with a cab while the meter is running–and copied down street names on a bit of paper. (I think the only two places that I said out loud that didn’t suffer from a pronunciation problem were the Bến Thành market, which is a touristy destination, and the word “crossroads”, but it was accompanied by a list of two street names, and a rather graphic gesture of a cross made with my hands).

3. Tourists vs. locals: the H and I spent a most profitable afternoon in Hội An [2] observing an ever-increasing flow of local tourists vs Westerners, and we’ve come to the conclusion that the one difference between the “locals” and the Westerners is–guess who’s wearing the T-shirts and shorts and getting sunburnt? (getting dark skin is considered a bad thing in Vietnam, so a lot of people dress with long-sleeved shirts, trousers, and sometimes even gloves and facemasks. And I shudder for the poor kids decked out in thick winter clothes, because it’s colder in the Centre, but most certainly not *that* cold).


[1] I didn’t escape the ritual bout of food poisoning in Hội An–two days out, and I basically couldn’t keep anything down. Thankfully it didn’t last long, because it was a bit stressful to be rushing about in a temple complex trying to explain with gestures that I was going to be sick and needed to get away from the sanctuaries before it got messy. Also, explaining in a restaurant that I was sick and needed cháo (rice porridge) was worth a laugh or two (I mangled the pronunciation completely, but enough of it got across that I basically got a custom dish made up for me).
[2] Incidentally, if anyone knows of a festival that happens to fall on Feb 8th/the 17th day of the First Lunar Month, we’d be interested. We were mildly curious at the queue of pilgrims outside the Quan Vũ/Guan Yu temple in Hội An, and we couldn’t figure out why they’d be there (I know Guan Yu’s death anniversary is on the 13th day of the First Lunar month or something, but the date doesn’t coincide).

Progress, and travel plans

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Hue Imperial City

So… My understanding of written Vietnamese is definitely improving (in the new lesson, I understood what they were saying to each other with just a few well-placed explanations from Mom); my pronunciation still kind of sucks. Let’s not speak of my spelling, which has got Mom going into fits semi-regularly. She’ll say a word, and I’ll write it down, and know that I got it wrong. The “this pronunciation translates to this accent” isn’t happening so well right now, whereas the “this accent translates into this pronunciation” is a little bit better ingrained. I can repeat fairly accurately; I can’t really manage unprompted unless it’s very simple things (“hello”, “thank you”, “please give me a bowl of phở” *g*). Not surprising: I’ve always been more visual than auditive (yup, writer. Why do you ask?) As I was saying to Mom, the main thing where I’ve improved is that I’m reasonably sure that I can read and understand a Vietnamese menu with close to no help (barring the odd unknown vegetable, though Vietnamese is very kind by providing classifiers: “rau” for herbs, “cây” for leafy things, “trái” for fruit, “củ” for tubers…). I *might* possibly be able to order, if I steel myself not to follow the path of least resistance and speak English.

Why does this matter, you ask? Weeelll… The first two weeks of February, the H and I will be traipsing through Vietnam. Specifically, through Huể (high time I visited the imperial capital, or what’s left of it), Hội An, Sài Gòn, and the South around Sài Gòn (yes, I know it’s HCMV now. Never quite got used to it). I’m down to two people warning me the accents of the Centre are horrible–that I should be more than adequately equipped to handle Southerners, might possibly manage to understand Northerners, but that the Centre is a law onto itself. Given that I can barely make myself understood by Southerners, I can’t help but think that the Huể/Hội An section of the trip is going to be so much fun… (Sài Gòn will be better, both because, hey, Southerners, and also because Grandma/the uncles will be around)

Three more lessons to go before we leave. Ouch.

Author’s Notes: Scattered Along the River of Heaven

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This one started with poets: to be more specific, Aimé Césaire and Qiu Jin. You might have heard about both or either, but if you haven’t: Aimé Césaire was a Martiniquais, and is famous for a lot of things–but the one that got my attention was his poetry. He wrote in French, having received a classical French education; but his poems concern themselves with cultural identity, and in particular the cultural identity of Black people in French territories (at the time he, Senghor and Damas founded the négritude movement, Africa was still crisscrossed with French colonies).
He was both an activist and a poet; the same can be said of Qiu Jin, aka the Woman Knight of Mirror Lake, a Qing dynasty revolutionary, who fought against the misogynist authorities, and sought to free women from the tyranny of their husbands and fathers (and from the custom of bound feet in particular). Qiu Jin had received a classical education, and wrote impassioned and beautiful poetry about her role in a revolution–and was ultimately executed after a failed uprising.

The whole Qiu Jin angle tied in with some thinking I’ve been having about revolutions and wars of liberation; and about messy transfers of power. Mainly, that revolutions always have a losing side, and that they create exiles–the Russian émigrés to France and Britain in the beginning of the 20th Century, the Iranian diaspora from 1979, who got hounded out of the country for being loyal to the Shah; the loyalists to Chiang Kai-shek, who had to forcibly relocate to Taiwan… And that revolutions might indeed be liberating for a country as a whole, but that beneath you’ll find power struggles, and that one social strata or one region will often come to dominate everyone else. Finally, the fact that social dominance often translates into language power-plays: for instance, the “standard” dialect of Vietnam is now Northern Vietnamese (because the Communist Party rules from the North); the “standard” language of France was imposed over all local dialects aka patois in the 19th Century (see here for an account of how non-French dialects gradually lost the struggle). I’m not saying it’s necessarily and completely a bad thing to have one dialect become dominant: if we had kept all the patois in French, we still wouldn’t be able to understand one another and wouldn’t have a sense of national identity; but there is still a tremendous loss in languages that can happen when a country unifies itself and becomes a whole.

Somehow, all of this merged together into a story of colonial empires and uprisings and poetry. Yup. Go figure.

I wanted one of the strands of the story to be poems: the idea was that Anshi’s life would be seen through her writings; and what better writings for a scholar than poems? Most scholars in Vietnam or China composed poetry; and the ability to do so was widely praised; in a quasi-Asian future, it made sense that poetry would still be very important. Qiu Jin’s poems provided much of the verse that I put in the story: see the first three poems of this post, and you’ll notice many familiarities… Another poem I used for inspiration was Bei Dao’s “The Answer”, which you can read here, probably his most famous one, as it was written during the 1976 Tiananmen demonstrations, and was taken up as an unofficial anthem in the 1989 ones.

For the very last poem, though, I wanted something a little mellower, about separation–it’s an easy theme to find in classical Chinese poetry (much of which was written between friends who had known each other in the capital and been posted to opposite ends of the country), so I turned to the Tang poets. Not remembering my sources quite so well; but I went for an amalgam of poetry about loss and nostalgia, which also–quite naturally–gave me my title. For once, I didn’t have to struggle to find one 🙂

Update on hivemind tea question

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Remember the tea thing I was wondering about? (basically, why my Japanese sencha from London tasted way better than any loose-leaf green tea I’d ever had)

cecile-c came over last weekend (we had a lovely Vietnamese meal in the XIIIe, and an intense gaming session of Battlestar Galactica); and in between struggling to survive the game without being betrayed by the dastardly Cylons, we studied the tea thing. She thinks (and I agree) that it doesn’t have much to do with sencha. Rather, the key point is that said tea is packaged in tea-bags (to be more accurate, in a tea bag, and then sealed in a foil-backed tear-away bag). As Cécile said, green tea is extremely fragile, and can lose its flavour within months of being harvested and dried [1]–however, by the time it gets to France, said green tea will often be months old, which leads to the simple and inescapable conclusion that, well, it’s not going to taste very good at this stage…

I don’t think the tea I brought back from London is necessarily uber-fresh (though it might be, since it was a direct export from Japan via plane, meant for the consumption of Japanese expatriates). However, remember our packaging? With a double layer of paper and then foil? This is probably better for its conservation than merely jamming it into jars that might not be full (ie contain large amounts of air), and might not be sealed hermetically.

This is not reassuring news, as it means I either should find another tea provider with ultra-fresh arrivals, or that I need to buy ecologically wasteful tea bags…


[1]Indeed, one of the reasons why black tea was so popular in Great Britain in Victorian times was that its flavour would survive the months it took to bring it from Asia to Europe, whereas green tea wouldn’t.

Your semi-hemi weekly Vietnamese proverb

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“con rồng, cháu tiên”: “child of dragons, grandchild of immortals”.
This one refers to an old tale: according to legend, the Vietnamese people are descended from the union of the dragon Lạc Long Quân and the immortal Âu Cơ: they had a hundred children together, but because they were so different (he was a dragon from the deep seas, she was an immortal and only felt at home in the mountains), they ended up separating. Lạc Long Quân, summoned home by his mother, took half the children and went towards the sea; and Âu Cơ took the other half into the mountains. This was the origin of the Vietnamese people.

I am currently learning preposition and interrogative words (the words that you tack on the end of a sentence to signal that it’s a question. Yup, it’s a tonal language, which means that raising your voice at the end of a sentence just results in your mangling the last words by giving it a rising accent…). Not exactly fun, but necessary.