Writing My Past into Your Present of Watching the Disgraced Truth
after Yiyun Li
1. Chinese Author Yiyun Li once describes the effect before and after advertisement with plastic surgeries or hair-loss treatments as “the definitiveness of that phrase, before and after, with nothing muddling the in-between” in her essay Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. The essay strikes a question of how we are transformed in constant responses from outer life and our inner selves, between stages of our private life and our public performance, from our past self to our present self, and if a future self is waiting for us somewhere beyond us.
2. I nurture the past mostly because it is more honest to me than the present, which cascades into arguments and clashes, hurting me from its wobble facades and distorted kaleidoscope shards.
3. On a September morning in 2007, a half-built Cần Thơ Bridge collapsed. I know where the bridge is; it is being built next to my grandmother’s district, a five-minute bike ride. I took a bus there to observe because I was 20 years old, and the tender existence of a young adult drew me toward dramatic disasters.
4. On the bus trip, my head ventured to the past. There was no bridge in my childhood. I sat on my mother’s lap, eating coconut candy, fresh pineapple, and sweet banana -rice paper mixed with the diesel smell from over 20 trucks and buses queuing by the ferry and waiting across the river on a slow ferry. The river smells like fish sauce, rice cake and bananas. The river carried lives on its skin and in its veins.
5. Then there is the bridge: collapsing. For some reason, I am not curious how it would look at the monstrous moment. The Mekong with a slow ferry wait, no bridge, and pineapples piling up inviting tropical scent. That vision melted in my chest, heaving up and down, drowsy, enough for me to close my eyes and not question what I was about to see in three hours.
6. I have a trust issue with the present. It transforms like snakes, sneaking between facts and assumptions, between desire and capability, between imagination and reality, between newspapers and erased papers. It sheds the old skin, shrugging off and slipping into the present, like new, with no trace back to the old shell. I struggle between the entanglement of snakes, with other thready snaky bodies, my journalist colleagues, and me to weave a “truth” out for the daily manifestation of life, slipping and deforming. We tangle each other up like wool balls of snake in the hand of a cat-god, playful and untrustworthy, betraying its every moment.
7. I was invited to dinners with a reader. This man, a doctor trained by renounced French institutes, famous in his field, opened the door for me at a restaurant. His elegance struck me with a luxurious life I had never tasted. “I want to celebrate your braveness. You dare to tell the truth. Our country needs young people like you,” he mentioned in an article series I wrote about the child sex abuse situation in the Mekong Delta, where the police sided with the perpetrators. I quietly wonder which truth he meant.
8. Near the bridge collapse site, I slept in the hospital yard with victims’ families, where doctors and nurses rushed out to call names to ask for approvals for emergency surgeries. My mind blended into the slimy dark. An old woman next to me genuflected the sky and the ground. She changed direction four times and finished with a deep bend on the gravel ground. “I prayed the Buddha to bless my sons.” She pointed at the hospital's bright lobby leading to the emergency hall. Her twin sons were pulled out of the concrete mass that morning.
9. Three days after the bridge collapsed, 59 young male workers died. 180 others were seriously injured. The Ministry of Transportation announced that the bridge collapsed maybe because of the rain. I cocooned myself in the past, wrapping tight enough to not explode into the present.
10. I grew up in this part of the Mekong Delta; the rain didn’t kill people.
11. I play Taekwondo. The practice required me to pay attention to my belly. I kick thousands of times, aiming at the belly area. Soft spot. Immediate injury. No matter how strong the fighter is, not protecting the belly might come with great harm later into the long combat. Protecting the belly becomes a matter of winning or losing.
If I let my guard down and the present kicks me on my belly, I lose.
12. In a communist country, the present is an adjusted version of the past, one of many, because the presence of the tomorrow might be adjusted again overnight.
Collective memories last in a short span of time before they are submerged into thick bleach and wiped away. The public does not have time to be woven into the maze of truth and untruth. The country is rushing toward materialistic wealth; nobody wants to be missed out on the not-so-relevant pains of others.
13. I encountered estranged eyes when I mingled into the past. Acquaintances didn’t want to discuss past incidents, or the level of absurdity was too overwhelming that it churned over their throats, and the dinner lost good tastes.
One prevents facing it or having a conversation about it, or it is just an unwanted spice one doesn’t want to add to their dinner plates. “Why do you bother? We cannot change anything?” a journalist fellow asked me with repulsion, chewing a pork and scallion dim sum as if swallowing the stubborn past.
Since I stopped talking about the past, my life has become easier. No one complained. I didn’t feel disappointed and blamed others for their forgetfulness anymore. I preserve the past in its carcass bottle, opening it in the dark, smelling its pungent scent, its discreet existence bothering me, like the night in the hospital yard bothering me for years. Why were the frontmen of the glorious development killed in the front of prosperity? Who killed them?
14. The old woman I sat by that night appeared on TV. Hundreds of billions of VND of donations poured into the village under the bridge, where all victims were from. Cash flows like the Hậu Giang River. Some officials handed her a hefty pile of cash. Her eyes squinted at the light of cameras and crowds. Her younger son died. The others were still in ER. They bought out her sons’ lives.
15. The present is national dementia. It requires one to note down phases, date, times, and process to remember how a disaster happens. Those elements are crucial because it flows like the river, requiring a fluent narrative so that the fact is incorporated, the picture comprehended, and the truth gradually forms like a jelly cake, despite being temporary, gaining some physical existence. Without a linear timeline, a disaster loses its coherence and quickly fades into the milky brain of collective dementia.
The communist propaganda deploys sophisticated tactics to control the national memories: Never giving important things a proper definition, never letting the people form an attachment with a coherent story. Facts are stacked tight and shimmed with not-facts, mixed vigorously with rumors, conspiracies, and smears. Definitions are distorted in mocking names or soaked with humiliating jokes. The fusion brews out a pungent liquid; nobody wants to touch it. Too troubling and unpleasant.
16. For example:
Environmental activists are mocked as prostitutes.
Democracy is twisted into cholera.
17. Forming a detailed picture of how an event happened is an urge to keep my mind intact. I cut out newspaper reports from domestic and international news, compare them to each other, or compare them over important timelines. The comparison reveals hidden parts, sometimes revealing themselves like a cunning fox, sometimes hiding too well like snakes waiting for their prey among the dry leaves.
Then I arrange the process and compare it to the present presented. Another truth emerges like a bloating corpse on the river, out of everyone’s conscience and expectation, exposing itself like a shriek of an angry stork, fuming maggots into the air.
18. Then, the Japanese investors and construction contractors of Can Tho Bridge admitted they were too “hurried” to make the deck before building enough support parts for its weight.
Not the rain.
The humble-looking old men wearing expensive suits drove to Bình Minh Village with crews of national TV channels to say sorry for the victims’ families. They shook hands with old mothers, bowing their heads many times on TV and in front of Vietnamese parents, who didn’t understand what bowing meant or if it would return their dead children.
The Japanese capitalists are good at it, hiding a sword to slit your stomach while gently smiling and bowing at your face. Then they announced a scholarship for all the orphans of dead workers. Then they resumed the construction. They called the project official development assistance loans from the Japan Bank of International Cooperation to the Vietnamese government.
19. Even though the past is disgusting, I keep staring at it, hoping it reveals itself and gives me more meaning in living and being in my job. I was too immersed in my job that it became a part of me. I was miserable hoarding edited versions of the present. They clog my trachea, drawing oxygen out of my brain.
20. Two years after the dinner, that doctor was accused of sexual harassment of his patients.
21. I grew up breathing Buddhism air. Everyone I knew at the time practiced Buddhism in some way. My mother prayed for my well-being and did charity to pay back to life. My friends prayed for me when they went to temples in Tết or in Hungry Ghost Month. My ex-boyfriend was a long-time follower of Buddhism. People I love and loved asked me to let go and not be attached too much because Buddha asks us to let go.
Let go of what? If humans are not attached to anything, that being is not called human but a lifeless object. Are we attached to air? Do our lungs need air desperately every second to survive? Are we attached to water? Why do we go to war when we run out of water? Are we attached to other human beings? Should we ignore someone in an accident and walk away because we let go and not attach? Do you consider looking away victims of a bridge collapse as a manifestation of letting go or not being too attached?
Let’s face it, quoting a mantra of Buddhism is a way to hide oneself from the unpleasant reality of life, like the communists hiding the facts behind smearing words and adjusted truth. Being convenient in untruthfulness doesn’t shield one from the crushing demonstration of injustice that others are suffering. It just covers one from one's own guilt of looking away from other people’s pain.
22. Nobody was punished for their wrongdoings from the bridge collapse.
If Buddha does that, that is his choice. Not mine.
23. Poet Osip Mandel’shtam wrote in his poem “The horseshoes finder”:
“What I am saying at this moment is not being said by me
But is dug from the ground like grains of petrified wheat.”
“The century, trying to bite through them, left its teeth-marks there.
Time pares me down like a coin,
And there is no longer enough of me for myself.”
Mandel’shtam wrote and read this poem for some of his close friends before he was put into a gulag and died there in the winter. The poem is remembered and recited among his friends until it finds another life elsewhere beyond the border of The Soviet.
If there was not for his friends’ memories, for their tight grips on a living piece of Mandel’shtam, I would never have a chance to read this poem.
24. The past can be fragmented, unpleasant, hurtful, or scary. But it doesn’t mean we should bleach it white to the bones to feel pleasant.
The past leaves its teeth marks in our lives like Mandel’shtam said, deep and bruised enough that I keep it like layers of blanket covering me through days and nights of negotiation with my own living among the collective dementia of Vietnam, rushing towards whatever is promising ahead at the price of those forsaken lives.
25. For the past is the cocoon of the present, staring at it can shield me from the restlessness of being in an absurd present, the motto of this century.
** Photo from Nguoi Lao Dong Newspaper: https://nld.com.vn/thoi-su/tuong-niem-55-cong-nhan-tu-vong-vu-sap-nhip-dan-cau-can-tho-20170923190108477.htm