I know that, when younger, I dreamed in Vietnamese. One day I must have started dreaming in English – but I don’t know when that happened. I am told, by my ever-present and piercingly observant partner, that I occasionally speak in my sleep what he thinks might be Vietnamese. Of course, when he hears Vietnamese, he might just be hearing sounds and the gibberish I utter in my sleep may have the tones and inflections of Vietnamese, but it could equally be just gibberish.
Once I was on a bus and I heard a woman speaking in Vietnamese. I listened in, as I have a tendency to do (consoling myself that it is a way of refining my language skills rather than invading another’s privacy). I could completely comprehend everything she said but the man’s voice that responded, did so with only meaningless vowel sounds. I tried as best I could to make them out, but even the words I could have guessed by imagining the dialogue were not emitted by this man. I could not resist turning around to look at him, to make sure that he was Vietnamese, or to check that the woman actually had a companion and was not talking into a phone. The woman had a companion and he looked Vietnamese. But I could not understand even the simplest of the things I was expecting him to say. It was most perplexing. I wonder if my partner listens to some of my conversations with my siblings in the same way. One moment, we are perfectly comprehensible – the next, mere vowel sound falling out of our mouths, resembling words he might have known but which cannot be grasped by his brain, cannot be shaped into some meaning.
For years I had this recurring dream:
I walk into a house and a disembodied voice says: “Come here.” I look around and see a flight of stairs, heading downwards. As I turn to walk down the stairs, I find myself carrying a tray of food.
I walk down the stairs carefully balancing the tray. Sometimes, I walk into darkness, sometimes into blindingly bright light, and sometimes into warm-yellow tinted hues.
At the bottom of the stairs there is a man. When I am eye-level with him, I offer the tray of food. He is holding a gun, pointing straight at me. I drop the tray. He pulls the trigger. I scream – and wake up.
This dream was consistent in its themes. The house, the flight of stairs, what was on the tray of food, how the man appears – these details change. I can recall that, in the early versions of this dream, the voice spoke Vietnamese. I recall that in another version, the blinding light basement, was full of shiny metal, like a B-grade science fiction movie. And I recall clearly the dream in which I was carrying pizza.
In my early teens, I attempted to wake myself before the dream ended. I knew, when dreaming this dream, exactly what would happened (after all, I dreamed it so often). I knew I should not listen to the voice, and yet I did. I knew the carrying of the food was humiliation, a symbol of my oppression, to be mocked by my executor. And yet, I always descended the flight of stairs, and I always offered the tray of food, before being shot. As the years went on, the dream took on an added nightmarish meaning: I was powerless to stop myself from walking into my own demise.
I had this dream at least once a month for 2 – 3 years until I forgot about it. Then, in my early years of university it came back. But what the dream did not realise was that in the intervening years, I had learned to control my dreams. I was not always successful, but I could often head off the worst parts of a nightmare. More often, I would wake myself up in the middle of the dream and lie awake, re-plotting it. Then I would sleep again, let the dream start from the beginning and attempt to influence its end. Sometimes I was successful, sometimes I was not.
The last night I dreamed the stairs-food-shot dream, I was carrying pizza. The first version, I was shot. Lying awake after that, I decided what I had to do: I would still be obedient – I had to descend the flight of stairs. But I could rebel in another way. At the bottom of the flight of stairs, I threw the tray at my tormentor and then turned around and ran back up those stairs, through the corridors of the house and out again, into sunshine.
When did I learn this trick? I had a lot of nightmares – this was my way of ensuring I got a decent night’s sleep. One of my nightmares was so vivid, and I was so disturbed, that my screams while I was sleeping brought my father into the room, shaking me violently awake. He took me upstairs with him that night, and made me sleep in the living room nearer to him and my mother.
A couple of years ago, I was surprised to learn that the frequency and intensity of my nightmares was unusual. Not long after that piece of knowledge embedded itself into my overly-receptive imagination, my nightmares seem to have disappeared. I do not have nightmares anymore. Isn’t that odd?