Tape 2 // Side A

Kathy Nguyen

I. Da Capo

Like many normal proceeding and subsequent evenings, Thạo drove home after her long, numerically driven 12-hour shift ended. She came to fully realize that as the world became dependently obsessed with big data and what those analytics produced, her age deemed her as invaluable,transmogrifying her into some mere statistical data . Their value was significant that produced significant results annually while she was simply an expendable commodity that showed signs of yearly weathering. Even with long, shiny black hair, her age began to reveal itself. Only her age was not respected as she increasingly became less recognized as a human as opposed to her generated data’s overvalue. Not only was she reduced to an aging number, but she was internally battling with the numbers she produced.

That and as an overseas Vietnamese singer professionally performing for Sống Đám[1] Productions in the United States for the Vietnamese community, the future has not been kind to her or her peers and colleagues. The future certainly didn’t help their music’s lifeline, it was almost flatlining. They all couldn’t escape the flow of time and the aging process and that passage of time discriminately correlated with their decreasing concerts, live shows, and CD sales, which were the primary reasons why most of them had two or more jobs for financial security. Singing for their community, keeping their culture alive was her dream romance, but it was not a realistic livelihood. Singing was a paid hobby, even if the paycheck was microscopic.

It was the future; their biggest, unforeseen enemy, one they didn’t even think to strategize for. Future. A word that Thạo once optimistically associated with hope, now caused  a hindrance to both the industry and the Vietnamese arts. No one in the Vietnamese music industry fully predicted that after the older pre-1975 demographics passed on, their music would slowly diminish, predictably disappearing completely because much of the younger demographics could not feel connected to the subtle critical, tragic musical strands of the past.

They were only local celebrities within their decreasing, once comfortable community niches. Though she was also widely recognized in Vietnam, the lyrics she often sang, the music she composed, were censored, which was one of the many reasons she decided not to return to Vietnam as a singer to fulfill her Vietnamese fans’ desires to watch her perform and sing onstage in her birth country. She returned to attend a relative’s funeral. Reluctance – or well-hidden personalized scorn – was always deeply rooted in her inner organs, telling her to not perform and concede with the censorship and to not restrict herself from conveying her stories.

Strange as it seems, the Vietnamese music industry continued to flourish in Vietnam, even under extreme governmental censorship placed under certain songs. Singers multiplied and they generated in numerical patterns, increasingly duplicating in CD sales, DVD sales, ticket sales, audiences, and fanbases. There was never an obvious geographical pattern between the two countries, their non-textbook definitions of the future were always contrasting.

Her life, in both countries, initially bloomed through performances, magnetizing the audience. It was as if the audience couldn’t separate the actual petals from the artificial plastic petals of her life. They couldn’t separate her identities, merging her like a half and half container.

She was a fully formed carton, but the separate contents spilled out, causing a chaotic division of sorts.Her fingers found themselves tapping on the SONY In-Dash CD/ DVD/DM receiver, patiently tapping onto her music playlist until her ears heard the familiar strings of the đàn tranh[2] accompanied by the voice of Quyên Trang,[3] a singer she idolized since she lived in Vietnam.

She focused on the sensations of her heartstrings, feeling the pain of listening to a voice that was only kept alive through cassette tapes, rare vinyl discs sold in Vietnam, or even on YouTube videos.

“bỏ đi trong khói lửa… ôm súng mà đi…”[4]

 Thạo sang along as her right foot rhythmically lifted itself from the brakes to tapping the gas pedal, memories returning as Quyên Trang’s haunting voice permeated inside the car, leaving no room for silence.

She seldom thought about the future – her legacy as a singer – as her daily life now operated like a battery motor, always in motion, always transferring directions, always calculating. But now, she wondered if she too would be relegated as nothing but a memory of the past for the living future. A quick Google search of her name would either bring up multiple variations of Thạo Mỹ’s, or some pirated links to her songs, or even websites that had uploaded her performances illegally. Downloading was always an issue and she expected it to be a continuing reoccurrence, especially as digital music streaming has completely conquered the market now.

Pretty soon, her body of work, the one where she was most passionate about, would be a stockpile of information without value to the future.

“xuân đến lại đi…”[5]



II. Battaglia

 

Thạo entered the nearby Vietnamese music store at the corner, curious to know whether there was new music in stock. The prospect of having new music in stock was minute, just like the chance of floppy disks returning unironically. New music in stock now consisted of new, much younger singers, singing nhạc vàng trước 1975.[6] Their music has become an industry of recycling. She used to have – though lingering feelings still existed somewhere in her overworked body – fond memories of visiting these music stores, both as a customer and a singer being asked to promote Sống Đám Production’s products. Very few opportunities arise for older artists, especially in the current changes in their musical tracks. A bleak outlook, but if Vietnamese music stores have at least 30, or a pessimistic 20 stores worldwide like RadioShack still does, they might survive. It was like a celebrity death match, as her daughter would say.

Only it was more like Darwinist capitalism to her.

The owner noticed his customer and immediately greeted her, “Good evening, chị[7] Thạo Mỹ! You still doing good? How’s bé [8] Maggie?”

 

Thạo smiled. Though his business has been declining in the last ten years, he refused to close the business, determinedly telling customers and colleagues who persuaded him to give up on a fading industry and to stop reviving and over-glorifying the past, that he needed to preserve their country’s art and cultural history. This store opened since the early 90s, when the golden age of Vietnamese music continued to flourish and excite. His parents opened the store after saving enough money to do something they enjoyed. That blood-filled zest transferred over to their only son. And he was always such a supportive fan, dating back to when she first embarked on her professional singing career in the 90s.

“I can’t complain right now, thank you, em.[9] Maggie is fine. Don’t let her know you still call her bé, she would throw a tantrum.”

The music owner responded with a cheeky laugh. “14 is still a bé, chị.

Thạo shook her head, feigning irritation. “Any new nhạc, em?”

His demeanor noticeably shifted. “Just the ones from your production company, chị. Well, from the new singers. Some nhạc vàng but the rest are nhạc trẻ.[10] But someone donated a lot of old cassette tapes their father collected from Vietnam today. A bunch of great, classic singers. Do you want to take a look?”

 She nodded and followed him to his counter, eyeing the two-medium sized cardboard boxes filled with cassette tapes. They were very basic cassettes, no pictures, just discolored papers with a font that was most likely produced by a typewriter.

She picked up a rusty looking cassette cover and skimmed the song list.

 “Chị Thạo Mỹ?! It’s really you! I’m a big fan!”

 Startled, Thạo turned around slowly to face the unfamiliar voice.

“Wow! You’re actually prettier in real life than on screen! And your hair really is shiny! Although, I’m young, I’ve been a fan of yours since I was six! I’m now 11! Sorry my Vietnamese isn’t so good.”

 Thạo responded with a warm smile. “Thank you, em. And your Vietnamese is really good.” She knew her fanbase consisted of older and the younger demographics, but she didn’t expect them to be any younger than 20. “What’s your name?”

  “Natalie, chị. Can I get an autograph?”

  “Yes, of course.”

“Yay! Wait for me, please!” Natalie gave her an endearing toothy smile and made a beeline to one of the displays, knowing full well what she was getting and ran back to Thạo. It was the last CD she released for the Studio. Natalie ripped the CD’s plastic wrap off, opened the CD, took the pictorial sleeve off, and presented it to her.

Thạo wasn’t sure what to do. She didn’t want Natalie to be reprimanded. She glanced over at the owner and nodded at him. He responded with a thumbs up and yelled, “Make sure you pay me $8.99 little girl! My eyes are one you.” The owner used two fingers to point at his eyes and then at her for dramatic effect.

Natalie only giggled and nodded.

Thạo signed the CD and dated it, then she went on to write a brief note on the sleeve, thanking Natalie for her support, signed, and dated it. It was an honest practice of gratitude, but it was also a mechanically performative process.

Natalie shifted the conversation, centering it back to Thạo. “You haven’t released a new CD for three years, chị. What happened? Aren’t you still singing…or are you…?”

  Thạo used social media sparingly, just to communicate with her current existing fanbase since her fansite permanently closed down eons ago, and this question was a constant thorn that remained glued to her skin. She was known for her theatrical performances, dance background, and for being able to fluidly transition into mixed-genres, even if her rapid fame came from singing traditional folk songs or pre-1975 songs. Their music industry maintained its now cut longevity through nostalgia, but those strands have both hindered their cultural progress as recording companies were often harshly criticized for living in the past. Their progression may have stopped now because they were prepackaged recyclables.

Natalie’s unfinished question didn’t go unnoticed. On the heels of her increasing popularity and being the headlining human figure for the Studio, she used to release at least two or three CDs a year, but in recent years and after much public criticism after giving birth to her daughter, not marrying or cohabiting with her daughter’s father diminished her popularity, and her honest announcement of identifying as asexual led the community to believe that she was not heterosexual, leading to accusations pouring in, the public attempted to drown her and her singing career. Outsiders’ inability to accept how she comfortably lived in her own skin was not surprising, given their culture, but optimism took control, leading her to amenably share. It was disappointing enough to see how progressive ideals in the United States continued to regress, moving people backwards.

The Studio stood by her initially, but after some mediocre CD sales, she was sidelined because younger artists who could sing identical songs were on the rise. Her generation was expected to take a step back. The Studio usually scheduled her for at least two or three performances for their taped shows, but they eventually decided to give her one, two if they could fit her in. It wasn’t until six years ago the audience decided to forgive her for her apparent transgressions, not that she asked for it, and the Studio started increasing her projects again.

She never apologized for not lying.

“No, I don’t have any upcoming recording projects right now. I’m sorry, em. But I think the Studio is thinking of scheduling a live production soon and right now, I’m on the official singers’ lineup. To be perfectly honest with you, CD sales have decreased because of illegal downloading and pirated copies, causing the Studio financial strains. And due to copyright issues, we’re not able to sell music digitally.”

 

 

She noticed the small lines forming under Natalie’s chin, her eyes downcast.

“I can’t promise anything, em, but I’ve been composing more lately. There might be a future project in the works, but it just depends.”

Natalie’s face lit up fractionally. “I understand, chị. And when you release your new CD, I’ll be the first to buy it. I’ll always support you.”

 Full of suppressed delight, she gently thanked the little girl, ignoring that her inner conscious was telling her that fanbases were never permanent and people grew out of their initial phases once they’re older, wiser.

Music suddenly started to pour into the store. Thạo knew the owner did it on purpose. His plasma mounted TV screen began playing one of her performances from one of the Studio’s many Blu-rays. Only, he chose to play one of her much older performances, where she was dancing and singing, dating back ten years ago, a time audience often described as her golden era.

“Wow! You’re still so pretty, chị. You haven’t really changed!”

Thạo quietly thanked Natalie while unconsciously touching her long, flowing black hair, wordlessly disagreeing with the girl’s compliment as she felt the tendrils grasping for her fingers, pricking them.

Time was not kind to her.


III. Staccato

Thạo opened the door to her house, holding one box of treasured cassette memories, making it a goal to listen to them tonight.

“Mẹ?”[11] Her daughter descended from the stairs, curious to know what her mother was doing.

The security pad in their kitchen alerted them of a visitor. Looking at her daughter, she asked, “Maggie, could you bring in the delivered groceries?”

 “Okay,” Maggie replied. She glossed over the contents in the box, “Going old school now, Mẹ? Who listens to cassettes anymore? Unless you’re one of those last remaining hipsters, which I’m sure you’re not.”

“The owner sold this box to me for $5. And these were what I grew up listening to. They’re…”

My memories,” Maggie finished for her. “Got it.” With that, she went out to the garage to collect the groceries.

Thạo trailed behind her daughter, wondering why Maggie randomly answered in English when she spoke to her in Vietnamese. Was it because she was born and raised in the United States? Did she think in Vietnamese but conveyed the words in English because it was easier and more comfortable for her?

They ate dinner in companionable silence. Though they had a close relationship, they ran out of things to converse about. Things like “How was school? How was work today? Are you excited to be filming your new performances soon? What book are you currently reading or what’s the hype of this type of music?” ran their courses overtime. Maggie was a precocious child and it showed, she had a strong distaste for repetition, her mother’s questions included.

Slicing the thin air of silence, Maggie revealed, “I forgot, Bố Nuôi[12] called to inform you that the Studio asked you to duet with him, something about fans requesting you two to perform onstage again. As if over 20 duets in the last two decades aren’t enough.”

  Thạo stopped picking at the cá kho [13] and bit her chopsticks as she looked at her daughter, gave her a wry smile, and told her to finish her canh chua. [14]

“So, is the Studio moving forward with the production?” Maggie asked.

It’s been a while since Maggie queried about her other career. This would be the Studio’s first filmed production in two years, whether it was a good sign or a hapless one remains to be seen with the ticket sales. “It’s scheduled for September so they can release it for the winter holiday.”

“Which songs are you performing?”

“I’ll be performing two songs. A solo and a duet.”

“One of your compositions?”

  “Yes, the song I’ve been working on will be the duet.”

“Why with Bố Nuôi again? Can’t you duet with the new singer who looks like a K-pop idol?” Thạo could hear detect some whining in there somewhere.

“The CEOsaid fans have been requesting us to duet again. It’s been six years now since we’ve performed on the Studio’s stage. A reunion sounds good and it might surprise fans.”

  Her daughter remained silent after that, but for dramatic flair, Maggie obnoxiously slurped on some canh chua, exhibiting her annoyance.

Gently setting her chopsticks down, Thạo carefully probed her daughter. “I don’t get why duetting with Bố Nuôi is getting you so worked up for. What’s the underlying issue here?”

 Maggie rolled her eyes and remained silent and Thạo obliged, knowing her daughter would erupt with the truth in a few seconds.

“I still don’t understand why you’re still in an industry that not only was unforgivingly harsh to you, makes no money, doesn’t have a future, and is nearly going extinct here. I know you love singing, Mẹ, I really do, but Vietnamese music isn’t what it used to be anymore. Stop reliving its glory and yours. Can’t you just remain in pace with today’s future?”

Thạo was used to her daughter’s appalling and blunt apathy. It was a normal reoccurrence, the two swung back and forth at each other, but Thạo understood that her daughter was a stranger to Vietnam, especially with a complicated half-citizenship, biracial status. Different geographical standpoints based on circumstances, that much she understood. But what did the future have for her? Was she ever a part of it? That and she believed the future of music was the stylized electronic K-pop that was currently blowing up in the world of #hashtags.

“I told you several times, Maggie, it’s not about the money. I grew up in that generation, lived my life during Vietnam’s turbulence, witnessed what happened, the changes of the country. I just can’t leave all that behind me.”

 “Yes, you can, Mẹ. You simply refuse to exit yourself from the past. I know you graduated from a prestigious performing arts school in Vietnam, but like I said, the world is changing, for the better. I just want the best for you, Mẹ.”

Thạo picked her chopsticks back up and added a piece of broccoli with oyster sauce into Maggie’s bowl. “I understand, Maggie, but you also have to understand that I made a choice, my voice will disappear with the Vietnamese music, regardless if it’s before or after. I ask that you respect my decision.”

 They stared at each other, words forming at the tip of their tongues, but instead, they began to eat, chewing at a steady pace. Both knew the other had unresolved, contradicting, stalling feelings inside them. But both chose to control and stall them from erupting.

“The fish is too salty by the way,” Maggie commented.

 

 IV. Resonance

Numerical digits changed into different ones, at least on her phone, as she sat in a rigid posture, biting the bottom of her pen. The melody was planned out, but the desired magical materializations of the notes and lyrics have yet to be seen. The disappearance of her feedback loop was that much obvious, but she stubbornly waited for any potential inputs that could signal her brain.

She’s only composed and written four songs in her current singing timeline, a fifth currently in the works. The first two songs were based on unpublished poems, a literary and musical practice in Vietnamese songwriting, while the last two were based on the bolero tempo that made Vietnamese music popular.

Most of the songwriters from the pre-1975 era have passed, current music did not carry a similar tune and could not hold a candle to the previous songwriters, and rightly so. Thạo almost felt like a poser trying to emulate the past. Yet at the same time, the remaining audience often criticized them for resinging old songs, yet, they also felt new songs were nothing but shallow lyrical messages about clichéd heartbreaking, bitter relationships. It was true. The newer songs were not comparable to the old songs.

If she learned anything from being on stage, it was that they never stood a chance, becoming unbalanced on the slippery stage and that was a concern that could never be resolved.

Maybe Maggie was correct, she wouldn’t exit the past – its stage.

Upstairs, she could hear her daughter recording her newest mukbang video. “What’s up, mates. It’s Maggie T. again and tonight I’m gonna eat some new Japanese snacks delivered by Amazon today.”

 Thạo twirled her pen repeatedly, sighing. She never understood the appeal behind someone filming themselves while consuming excessive amounts of food. Was it that satisfying to show strangers how much they could eat? Did her audience find it orgasmic?

Knowing she couldn’t produce a solid lyric onto the lifeless paper, she got up to put one of the many cassettes she just purchased into her bruised and cracked Radio+Cassette boombox, something that her daughter ridiculed her for, but it once belonged to her mother. Nostalgic devices were things she could not discard.

Thạo felt at ease hearing the familiar yet, sometimes very low, badly echoed sounds, but those sounds defined Vietnamese music.

 “…anh viết tên tôi…”[15]

 The song was a young woman’s reflection on war, songs that exhausted her daughter, vexing her even. Natalie wanted her to move on from the war and wanted Thạo to Ziploc those brutal memories of the war and the hardships of living as immigrants, freezing them. But she couldn’t and wouldn’t vacuum clean her memories into a dislocated void, throwing the contents away. Those 32 years of displacement couldn’t be concealed. Choices that she solely had and given the agency to choose from. Those memories and experiences were unconcealable, more importantly, they belonged to her until they vacated her.

“But you decided to immigrate, Mẹ. Don’t act like you weren’t given a choice,” Maggie once argued.

Thạo immigrated in 1992 with her mother, who decided that she wanted her daughter to have better opportunities in the United States. That and after twenty years of separation, her father was able to locate them and asked them to immigrate to the United States to live with him.

“ngồi viết tâm sự nhớ một dêm thật dài [16]

và nghe tiếng mưa ngâu…[17]

She was a child then, but she had a choice to return and permanently resettle in Vietnam, but those thoughts never emerged. Their relatives were no longer there, her vague memories of neighbors and friends had long disappeared as she got older. Unreliable memories of what her home was or was not no longer mattered. There were tender memories that compensated for the painful ones, raw, unpleasant emotions also prevailed over the happier times. The scale was always unbalanced, making the decision difficult.

As she listened to the lone strumming of the guitar, she thought about the romanticizations of the desire to return to one’s birth country. There were some people who refused to return to their countries, her father included.

And what were her current feelings about her country in this bleak future where Vietnamese music was nearly dying out? Questions continued to pour as she heard the faint cackling of the cassette tape.

 

V.Requiem

After listening to half of the boxes, she wrote the title for her unwritten song:

“Ai Nhớ Đường Về.”[18]

As the tape of Tape 2’s Side A rattled, stopping the reels, she smiled at her progress, reigniting her exhaust to bitter stillness.



[1] I had difficulty translating Sống Đám, but per Google Translate, the transliteral translation of the word is “live crowd.”

[2] The zither.

[3] This person is fictionalized, I think. I do not want to include actual Vietnamese singers’ names because I fear legal ramifications. By the same token, the lyrics and song titles I include in here are creations I made up. And I hope they make sense or sound equally beautiful to the songs I grew up listening to

[4] Attempted translation: “walking away from the smoke, holding your gun as you leave.”

[5] Translation: “Spring returns then disappears.”

[6] Literal translation: “golden music of 1975,” music that were composed/produced during (before) the war.

[7] Elder sister.

[8] Baby.

[9] An expression to address someone who is younger.

[10] Vietnamese pop music.

[11] Mother.

[12] Godfather/adopted father.

[13] Vietnamese caramelized fish.

[14] Sour soup.

[15] Translation: “You wrote my name…”

[16] Translation: “As I sit writing these memories about a long night”

[17] Translation: “And hearing the rain”

[18] Translation: “Who Remembers the Way Back.”

Kathy Nguyen was born in Arkansas. Her writing has appeared in the electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies, Ekphrasis, and Kartika Review. She is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Multicultural Women’s and Gender Studies at Texas Woman’s University. Interestingly, she learned to read and write in Vietnamese, though not very well, by watching Vietnamese Karaoke DVDs, much to her parents’ bemusement.

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