When I was in Viet Nam, I held a half hope that the landscape would bring sub-conscious memories to the fore. No such thing happened. Other than an ability to speak the language, and looking a lot like everyone else, I was effectively just another tourist, observing and photographing the landscape but not feeling as if it belonged to me. And nor should I – after all, when my family left Viet Nam, I was a mere two (going on three) years old.
I have known for a long time that my childhond memories – if such they can be called – are actually crafted from repitition of family stories. I’ll get around to telling some of them here – but some I may not. I have known that they are not true memories, as far as I know.
The only memory I have, which is not part of a story told to me by my parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins and which might therefore be considered ‘true’, is a murky one of an old woman’s voice. The voice murmurs at me and beneath that voice are other women’s voices chattering away at different volumes, arcing and diving in stirring crescendoes and susurring sotto voce rhythms. I believe the memory is of my paternal grandmother, or an aunt, rocking me to sleep in a hammock while the other voices are the women of the family, continuing their daily work amid companionable chatter.
When I fall asleep now, sounds around me often speed up and slow down the way this memory of women’s voices plays itself inside my head.
Is that a memory? It is an impression of noise – there are no pictures that accompany it. Sometimes, when the sound flows back to me, I can almost see … something; but is it my imagination, forming the figures, or a memory of people as I fall asleep as an infant?
This is how I have always felt about being Vietnamese, and the country of Viet Nam itself. I am grasping at something – there is a reality there that pulls me in but I can’t capture it square on: it slinks away and I am afraid that I fictionalise the rest.