There's so much darkness.
But there’s also light.
A few words before starting today piece:
I was finishing this writing when I heard the news about Chadwick Boseman. His passing hit me harder than expected. The sacrifices he made have shattered glass ceilings, proving once again the arts are especially needed in the world right now. I thought it’s only apt to give tribute to him and those who have paved the way and inspire so many others, including myself.
Rest in power, Chadwick Boseman. And thank you for sharing your talents and bringing light to so many people, even in your darkest hours.
I’m now officially older than my mum when she had me; terrified, on a cold morning of winter in the Highland of Vietnam. My memory is shot so I can’t remember that was the time she gave birth standing up, or that was my brother’s. Both times, she was giving birth without my dad being by her side.
My guilt comes with the fact that I can’t remember shit. And also the fact that not until recently could I understand my mum’s struggles. She never really talks about it, only in passing, she has always been stoic like that since forever. It’s in her blood, a byproduct of where she grew up — which land is covered with sand all year round and flood seasons in between; and how she grew up: the domestic abuse her mother endured, and the death of her baby brother when she was a child herself.
The hurt stops with me, I tell myself every day. Grandma had told mum, often while beating her with a small elastic whip made from a plant in the garden, “Grind the alphabet into food! You must grind the letters into food!” Mum vowed to never beat me, but she did, also with an elastic whip plucked from the garden, how many times I’d lost count. She beat me because she was fearful, scared out of her mind — of poverty and of sufferings. Evidently, she’d been suppressing her own pain since she was a child. She didn’t know better, she didn’t know how to heal, so she disciplined me the only way she knew how. Till this day, I’m still not sure she knows how to heal her wounds.
There’s an old Viet saying “thương con cho roi cho vọt, ghét con cho ghọt cho bùi” “If you love children, give them whips & disciplines. If you hate your children, give them sweets & honey.” Obviously, this “wisdom” is unacceptable by today’s standards. But for a country and most of its people who never had much of anything, got enslaved and exploited by internal and external forces for thousands of years, would you blame them? My generation, the millennials, Gen X, is the last generation that grew up seeing how broken wars had left Vietnam — a transitional generation if you will. Many of us learned from a young age work is valued, and success is how most of us still measure our worth, even though we know better than the ones that came before us.
The painful history of my ancestors raises the question: Is it still abuse if it comes from ignorant love? — a kind of love that is warped and twisted, shaped through generations of trauma in big and small ways. When my ancestors were so low, all we had left was our pain and our love for each other. There hadn’t been much money or resources for as long as anyone could remember, not until the country started trading globally in the late 1990s. So we clung to each other, seeking for each other’s pain, punishing ourselves and our loved ones for the hope for a better future.
As a kid, I hated history classes, mostly because it was a learning-by-heart practice. I only recently started to gain a proper understanding of the history of Vietnam, among which is one of my alleged direct ancestor’s story. Hồ Quý Ly was the only Viet Emperor with the Hồ last name and the most controversial emperor of Vietnam’s Monarchical Period (938–1858). He was responsible for several economic, financial and education reforms, most notably the introduction of country-wide paper currency and the promotion of the Southern Script over Classical Chinese.
However, despite the progress the Hồ dynasty (1400–1407) made, Hồ Quý Ly came into power by treachery violence. In 20 years, he played the game of throne, rising to be the Regent of the country in 1399. Meanwhile, many others politically involved in court were being assassinated all around Hồ. He then tricked his emperor, Trần Thuận Tông, into giving up the throne to his son, Prince An, who was a 3-year-old child at the time. Hồ Quý Ly then trapped and executed Trần Thuận Tông, and took over the throne from the young king only a year later. Do these unspeakable acts erase what he then did for the country? Does that dismiss the fact that he betrayed and massacred the Trần royal family? Absolutely not.
This story may be much more horrifying compared to the violence my mum had unknowingly inflicted on me, not unlike many others of her generations and before. But using the same logic, I argue yes, it is still abuse even if it’s a result of “good intentions” and unresolved trauma. Love doesn’t stand by itself, be all and end all. Love is complicated because we humans are complicated, and despite our denial, we are the products of our environment. We all ought to learn to hold the people whoever hurt us accountable despite their intentions. But how do we do that without feeling resentful, slipping into the darkness ourselves?
I think the answer lies in the arts. There have been plenty of evidence how arts therapy, can help improve physical, mental and emotional well-being. Furthermore, even though there have been changes in the mainstream consciousness in recent years, mental health issues are still considerably stigmatised, especially in developing countries. Other forms of therapy (say, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) can be difficult for lower socio-economical groups to access at scale. On the other hand, the arts can be intimate, private, and with the help of technology, increasingly more accessible.
Any product of the arts takes a tremendous amount of time and efforts. For most, the arts are painstakingly unprofitable financially. Worse yet, creating arts makes us feel like we’re bearing your soul for the world to see. It’s terrifying, so why the world keeps producing and craving for more? And yet somehow, deep down, we know it’s all worth it, for us to make something of ourselves, to face our fears; to inspire and to be inspired, and to let our voices heard. The act of creating and expressing untangle our difficult emotions, leaving us space and time to breath. So we can be okay with our own existence, even just for a little while.
“When things get tough [in life], make good art.” — Neil Gaiman
The best thing about the modern world is you don’t even need to practice arts to reap the benefits. By seeing ourselves in arts, we can let ourselves feel the difficult feelings, which we can strive to understand — processing the ugliness of the world while simultaneously witnessing the love that is still all around us. The arts carry wisdom and joy. The arts have never been a luxury, the arts are one of the necessities for a healthier, happier society. Due to the commercialisation of the arts, by supporting those who practice arts financially, especially where and when the arts are not being respected as they should, we signal to others what truly matters to us.
My mum might not like my act of airing our dirty laundry for the world to see. However, not only making (and consuming) the arts is a fundamental part of who I am, but also more importantly, more crucially, I know if I settle for a life that is not for me, my pain will manifest in other much sinister forms, and the sufferings will live on. Practising arts have never come easy to me on most days. And by sharing my story, I hope others can also find solace, so we can also heal our wounds, big or small, one person at a time. “The hurt must stop with me.”