Some Remarkable Vietnamese Young Women

Our very first trip to Vietnam in 2006 gave us the opportunity to get to know many young people. Ha Noi at that time was just beginning to enter into the computer age in a big way. The artists we met had all attended the University’s art program, but they also now had laptops, so had concrete evidence that their education had many holes, as they could now see what was happening in the rest of the art world. They resented this, but like many situations in Vietnam, were helpless to do anything about it. But, with their new tools to get online, they at least could see and learn about other artists.

Perception of fine art is a challenging topic in Vietnam, as much of the teaching has been very traditional. The scant number of artists who are doing notable art have told us they feel isolated in the face of their countrymen’s childlike preferences. Unlike countries like China and Malaysia, where creative and groundbreaking artwork is seemingly everywhere, the vanguard of Vietnamese artists are trapped by their very borders into struggling with old ideas of what makes great art. This is certainly a conundrum in a fast growing, rapidly modernizing country.

Our first translators, Linh and Huong, were to become close friends during our time there. In Huong’s case, she became a part of our American family, as she visited our home in Wisconsin many times during her college years in the U.S. We were able to watch her grow from a teenager to a woman with many skills, and she has a burgeoning entrepreneurial talent, ambition and supportive family that will probably take her far.

They introduced us to many of Hanoi’s street restaurants, and it was all amazingly delicious. “Em oi,” (sort of a “Hey you”) Linh would call out as we sat down on the little plastic stools placed on the sidewalk. Somehow the waiter or waitress could always hear her above the din of motorbikes and cars and people shouting at each other, and would appear to take our order.

“Whatchuwant?” Linh would invariably ask, as we looked at her completely clueless.

“How would I know what I want?” Larry would always respond. “We don’t know what they’re serving!”

“Bia,” I would pipe up, knowing that at least I would get something I liked, Hanoi’s low alcohol beer, and I could rest assured that I wouldn’t pick up an intestinal issue from tainted water.

And then Linh would order for all of us, end of discussion.

We took Linh and Huong to an Italian restaurant in Hanoi, where we had wine and pasta, as a thank you toward the end of our first stay. I’m sure Larry was planning this for a while, because as soon as we sat down, he said to Linh, “Whatchuwant?”, and then laughed gleefully at his joke. I’m still not sure that she got it, or if she did, she chose to ignore him.

Linh (lt) and Huong with Pamela and Larry
Our translators for three months in 2006, Linh and Huong

As we neared the end of our visit, and Larry and the painter Le Huy Hoang were finishing our project (I had added an improvised violin track to the installation) “Hanoi Windows” together, Larry asked Linh to curate the show, which she agreed to do. She helped put the show together with great ease, a total natural, and that is what she is doing very successfully today.

There was a time when we needed a translator, and neither Huong nor Linh could be with us. So, Huong arranged for her friend Duong (“Zuom”) to stand in.

Duong was an art student at the University, about eighteen when we met her. Her English was also very good at the time, and she, like all the young people we had met in Hanoi, was charming.

Duong would go on to become a close friend, and we stayed at her parents’ home in Dong Da, Ha Noi several times during future visits. When our sons Aubrey and Galen came to Hanoi in late 2010, they were also both welcome in Duong’s parents’ home.

Duong’s family house was designed by her father, a brilliant, if frustrated government worker who, for a hobby, was a week-end architect. It was five stories tall, with a central open shaft to let in light. There were two rooftops from which one could view the burgeoning growth of Dong Da, an area south of Hoan Kiem District, and look down on the rooftops of some of the smaller restaurants and dwellings. With a bathroom on every floor, there was plenty of room and facilities to have guests stay over. Duong, and her younger sister Nha (“Nyah”), stand ready at some point to inherit this and the land adjacent also owned by the family, probably insuring that they will one day be quite well-off women.

Poochie, Duong’s beloved dog, dwelt in the tiny landing that served as our entrance to the home, and he was an old, vicious and bad-tempered animal. Even Larry, who has a magical way with canines, could not warm him up, and he growled and snapped every time a human outside of his family came near. Duong adored him, though, so we did our best to tiptoe by him without causing a fuss. This rarely worked. By the time Galen arrived, he had taken a drastic turn for the worse, prompting Galen (a lifelong animal lover and shelter volunteer) to remark that he thought something was wrong with Poochie. He died the next day, and Duong began a grieving period that lasted until her father brought home a puppy a few days later.

But several months before all this, Duong and two of her friends, Hoa and Hanh, all in their early twenties, decided to take advantage of one of the foreign work programs in the United States in the summer of 2010. They flew to Chicago in June and stayed for five months, working in the Wisconsin Dells, a playground for Midwest American families. The Dells has relatively affordable hotels, restaurants and entertainment, aimed at the middle-class with young children, one of the many tourist towns in the Midwest that offers low paying summer jobs to foreign students. It is a beautiful part of the state of Wisconsin, if you can get past the billboards and big box stores that abound there. For our Vietnamese friends, it was a way to see a little of our country, visit us, and provided a relatively easy way to get a U.S. Visa, something that can be quite a challenge, especially for young Vietnamese women.

We picked them up at O’Hare Airport and took them on a brief tour of Chicago, going to the downtown Millennium Park and reflective Bean sculpture and the surrounding water fountains, where they played and took photos and basically frolicked around like happy children. Then we headed back to our home in Brookfield, and showed them the accommodations, which they rearranged right away to their liking. (We had put two of them in one room, and one in another room, thinking it would give them more privacy and space. They immediately put all three beds together, ala Vietnamese countryside homes.)

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Larry and Hanh checking out the Chicago Bean 2010
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Duong, Hanh and Hoa at Millenium Park, Chicago
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Duong getting a closeup of the Bean

Next on the agenda? Food, of course! They had brought an amazing amount of it in their suitcases, not knowing what they would encounter here. We reassured them by taking them to our local Asian market, something that was comforting and fun for them to see. There were constant discussions in Vietnamese about what to buy and what to make, and which fish sauce was best (critical in Vietnamese cooking). It was fun and informative to see them interact; Duong was the creative, romantic and somewhat dreamy one who regularly went on flights of fancy, Hoa was very practical and well-measured with a penetrating sense of humor, and Hanh was the self-proclaimed no-nonsense leader who took over when things (usually meaning Duong) got out of hand.

We finished the shopping and hauled our loot back home, where the three of them set up shop and began to cook. There was intense concentration, laughter, comparing notes, and it all resulted in a mind-numbingly tantalizing meal. Of course, there was chaos to clean later, but they were on that as well, and insisted on doing it all themselves. And this was our routine until it was time for them to report to work several days later.

We drove them over to the Dells, about a two hour car trip, and checked them into their accommodations for the summer, a rickety old house in the middle of town where they and several other young foreigners would be living. It was barely adequate, but they seemed okay with it, even though they were all from upper middle class Vietnamese families and came from way better living circumstances. The three of them were in one bedroom along with all their stuff, and they set to work figuring out the bathroom and kitchen arrangements. There were students from some Slavic countries as well, but they all had a basic grasp of English, so it seemed it would work out.

There was a Walmart a couple of miles away and they discovered a weekend farmer’s market, so after settling in, Larry was able to find them some used bikes to get around and shop. Duong and Hanh were assigned restaurant work, and Hoa, because her English wasn’t as good back then, cleaned hotel rooms. (She was able to switch to a better job later as her English improved.)

After their Dells experience, they wanted to see more of the United States, so Larry arranged an Amtrak trek from Chicago, through Denver, and ending in San Francisco, then Los Angeles, with himself as tour guide. They loved it, and rented a car in Denver to drive around the Southwest a little, visiting some of the Western Utah parks, like Arches. They all stayed with Galen and his generous then-roommate Natalie in their small 2-bedroom Santa Monica apartment before having to fly back to Vietnam.

Seven years after their trip, Duong is married and has a little girl, Hoa is running her own successful retail online clothing business, and she and Hanh went to Germany for a degree in business. (German universities are tuition free, so a natural magnet for Asian students seeking global experience.) They reminisce about their time in the U.S., and how much it opened their eyes. Larry and I can see it has given them all a much different perspective on their own lives, so has empowered them to create a compelling future.

So, in a sense we’re even. Because Vietnam has given us the same perspective on our journey. Maybe, dare I say it, maybe America isn’t the best country in the world. I remember having this thought for the first time when I returned from my second trip and was confronted by an angry white American male taking out a Hispanic waiter because he didn’t get the right coffee. This and other everyday incidents combine to make me see the world in different hues than before.

 

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Author: Pamela Foard

Teaching and playing professionally since the age of 19, Pamela Foard was appointed a teaching assistant position at her alma mater, Indiana University, while earning a Master’s Degree in Violin Performance. Once graduated, she further honed her teaching skills at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee, and opened her private violin and viola studio in 1978 in Brookfield, Wisconsin, which was active until her move to Los Angeles in 2014. While at IU, Pamela studied with Italian violinist Franco Gulli and Polish violinist Tadeusz Wronski. She has also studied with Gerald Horner of The Fine Arts Quartet, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Dr. Gerald Fischbach, Edward Mumm, former Concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Piotr Janowski of the New Arts Trio in Milwaukee, and Vartan Menoogian of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A transplant from the East coast to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Pamela was barely out of her teens, when her talents as a freelance musician led rapidly to positions as assistant-concertmaster of the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra, the Wisconsin Philharmonic, and concertmaster of the Green Lake Festival Orchestra (Sir David Willcocks conducting), violinist with Skylight Opera Theater, and under Music Directors Kenneth Schermerhorn and Lukas Foss, the number one substitute violinist and violist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra from 1970 to 1986. Pamela founded an all string, unconducted orchestra, Sinfonia Concertante, in Milwaukee in 1979, and was the Artistic Director and Administrative Director for four years, where she also served on the board of directors. She was also the Managing Director for Milwaukee’s contemporary music ensemble, Present Music, from 1996-99. In 2006, she and her husband were invited to be artists-in-residence in Hanoi, Vietnam for a three month program, where they collaborated with Vietnamese artists. She commissioned a tuba concerto for her son Aubrey (currently a professional musician in the Charlotte Symphony and head of the low brass department at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music) in 2008 from Wisconsin composer Mark Petering. In a series of fundraisers for various levels of sponsorship of the concerto, she solicited from donors over $20,000. Pamela has published two books: "Wedding Music Essentials" and " In Concert: The Freelance Musician's Keys to Financial Success”. Presently, Pamela continues to freelance and resides in Marina del Rey, California with her husband, the fine art photographer Lawrence D’Attilio, and their cat Dasher.

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