PLAYLIST I: IMMORTAL LOVE
Singing always ended with a death in this house.
Onscreen, my parents intently concentrated on concurrently watching Lệ Thủy lulling Thanh Sang to sleep by singing a verse of hồ quảng, which sounded very similar to the folk operatic style of cải lương to me. But what do I know? I barely understood the stories being syntactically pitched out to express the character’s interiority. Nor have I acquired a specific auditory taste to appreciate the vocal beauty of the genre. To my parents, cải lương is a historically curated and carefully maintained catalogue of Vietnamese operatic vocal performances and songs comprised of historical or wuxia inspired reenactments. Characters performed and sang about postcolonial modern stories with social and cultural morals imbued in each note, all of which span generations of re-recordings. What distracted me on screen were the gaudy and bright, glittering drape-like folded costumes with sleeves flowing as each note is belted out.
Here I was, just sitting on the carpet eating my plastic bowl of Frosted Flakes, pulpified by a generous pour of milk, while staring straight at the Panasonic screen. My parents watched Lệ Thủy, portraying Ngu Cơ, or Consort Yu as my brother, Brian, liked to inform me, always feeling the need to remind me, his younger sibling, whenever my inability to memorize Vietnamese name variations of Chinese historical figure became evident. Still holding my lazy gaze onscreen, I watched Consort Yu languidly singing to her dreamless husband, unrushed by time as the Chu-Han War neared its end.
The slow sounds of what seemed to be the distinct plucked strings of a dependable zither foreshadowed a looming death. Sacrificial deaths for love always symbolized eternal remembrance.
The final night on the river bank,
Following the sighs and breaths of the wind,
Listening to the flute’s sorrows
Consort Yu stabbed herself with Hạng Võ’s, Xiang Yu’s, sword after singing a few more verses, her slower deliberate tempo unable to mask her inevitable demise.
After what felt like one long breath of clear consecutive notes pouring out from her body, I was surprised she died without belting out more notes.
“That’s it? She’s not singing anymore?” I asked my parents.
“What? She just died, why would she sing anymore?” Father countered. He fake coughed a bit, as if burying an inside joke that refused to exit out of his bellows. “It’s not like a person can sing when they’re slowly dying.” Mother still glared at him.
“But in other cải lươngs some of the singers continue singing even after fake stabbing their armpits.” I knew adding the English s to pluralize was incorrect in Vietnamese and my parents kept lecturing me about it but I’m still young and barely spoke serviceable Vietnamese that my parents understood. Several cải lương reenactments of China’s warring period demonstrated the prowess of high but perfectly pitched cải lương singers; even as their characters were dramatically dying, the singing continued until the performance’s denouement, as if their last breath was conserved just for singing.
They were all melodic deaths, each one presenting the timelessness of love. And a love that ends with a death kind of genre that my mother loved watching and singing along to. I always thought it was brutal of her to enjoy people singing to their deaths.
Violent TV shows and movies, including the many rentals of VHS Hong Kong martial arts serials lining up in front of the VCR, were forbidden on school days. And yet, my parents just watched Consort Yu killing herself. In a few minutes, Xiang Yu was going to fake stab himself. No blood was splattered or seen on screen.
“Not every cải lương follows the same theatrical structure.” I saw Mother rolling her eyes at me. “Just be quiet and let us finish this. You’re lucky these are brief reenacted performances of the actual story.”
And lucky I am. I was not familiar with the Chu-Han War, but anything related to war felt even a minute too long. This rendition was less than thirty minutes. But I didn’t want to watch people dying because of a war. I wanted to watch people breaking each other’s hearts.
“Is it almost over?”
Mother sighed in exasperation. Every minute slight increased her agitation with us each day, sometimes only cải lương and Vietnamese music calmed her, easing her into the ubiquity of family life with us. “Just be quiet a little longer. Let me finish watching.”
Didn’t she mean us, meaning her and Father? I turned around to stare at Father. He wasn’t focusing on the images on the screen as I initially thought, but he was staring at the stained gray painted walls, something unidentifiable to me, silently placing his tobacco pipe’s black bit in his mouth. The only noises he occasionally made came from his teeth clenching on the bit.
He caught me staring at him and smiled. “It’s almost over.” Each passing day, he was more withdrawn and quieter, speaking very little fragmented sentences to Mother while verbalizing any suppressed frustration to my brother but attempting to smile at me as his upper teeth slightly grazed his lower, forcing out complete sentences.
I desperately wanted to watch a rerun of TRL and relive the manic high of watching Brandy and Monica’s duet video, “The Boy Is Mine.” I wanted to firmly sit on the sofa and relive Brandy and Monica stopping the Backstreet Boys’ generic ballad “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” or *NSYNC’s catchy uptempo “Tearin’ Up My Heart,” ongoing weekly battle of the boy bands from reaching number one. Both songs chronicled the superficial aspects of the heart, their voices didn’t even touch the pulsating ventricles and aortas of the heart. What better way to defeat fears of a broken heart than singing about something else?
Both boy bands were striving to become the ultimate popular and most requested weekly video on MTV. Both boy bands were generic considering the pop market saturation that disallowed originality because the musical formula worked and produced revenues; their catchy meticulously recorded melodies, tasting like excessive yet addictive sugar coated candies, obscure the banal lyrics in their songs. But as an eleven year old who joins the bandwagon of people who remain in synchronicity with the sounds of clichéd romantic ballads or high-energy but low stakes bubblegum pop tenderly breaking the hearts of several pre-teen girls, it is societally predetermined for me to listen to them. Outsiders are forced out of the wagon if you don’t allow the insiders to control every little thing about you.
Who wouldn’t die a little inside after hearing the Backstreet Boys softly but with enchanted conviction sing:
I’ll never break your heart
I’ll never make you cry
I’d rather die than live without you
Outwardly sung or alluded to in operatic performance, death seems to be a promise of eternal love.
And after what felt like months of both boy bands dominating the TV screen with their exaggerated confessional lyrics, it was so refreshing to see Brandy and Monica dethrone them with their pulsing R&B intermixed with a distinctive pop sound. Rather than serenading listeners about loving us girls to the end and dying for us, Brandy and Monica did the opposite: a concise dispute between two women fighting over a man. I’m not sure if it’s worth the time to fight for someone’s affections but love rivals broken from a relationship feel more realistic than false, extravagant promises of undying love. Brandy and Monica weren’t quite heartbroken in the song but their distinctive soulful voices anchored by the soft yet urgent chord progressions feel like an escalating heartbeat. Each beat is felt and lingers even after the final lyrics.
Mother breathed out a sigh. Whether it was a sound to signal the end of yet another dramatic death onscreen or one that showed an exhalation tinged with discernible romanticism, I don’t know. “Go watch whatever it is that you want to watch,” she told me, her tongue still latching onto that romantic overture. Was she upset with Father? Or was Father upset with her? Some days a palpable tension engulfed the house, creating a hard distance between Father and Mother; those days whatever enveloped the entire house smelled worse than the second hand smoke caused by the acrid combusted chemicals from Father’s cigarettes or pipe that invisibly stained us with its chemical byproducts; minutes turn into hours as my brother and me secretly watched Celebrity Deathmatch on MTV on school days and feeling suffocated by whatever amorphous thickness coated the air; some days Father and Mother allowed the tension to create an unnavigable space that disallowed the other from entering, widening that space; some days, they reconciled and that distance narrowed in size and we all could breathe easier and in familial unison as we watched whatever Vietnamese musical variety program tapes Father rented for the weekend.
It was Vietnamese music that kept us together. I couldn’t understand it because I preferred the more vibrant youthful sounds of people singing about the ebb and flow of first loves to the distressing mental pain of heartbreak that manifests into the constantly changing physicality of each relationship and breakups.
I didn’t like to endure pain nor did I like it to grow and move around my body. But pop music about heartaches, performed and recorded by whomever, was the only pain I was willing to experience mostly because they were words that sometimes felt hollow. Nothing that I witnessed in front of me.
Did watching cải lương, sharing sofa space, quietly reenact the performative romantic overtures the performers lyrically rendered to one another? Did the theatrical serenades belted by Lệ Thủy and Thanh Sang coalesce their bodies together? As Thanh Sang carried on about how Consort Yu sacrificed herself to allow his character to escape to a ferryman, I just realized the physical distance between my parents on the sofa; their bodies were untouching, far apart from the other as if they feared their individual bodies would repel whatever invisible friction kept them from conjoining.
Not wanting to delve deeper into uncharted adult territory, I quickly ejected the VHS and pushed the buttons on the cable box with a frantic force worthy of a fanatic, switching through multiple channels with people who didn’t look like us nor anyone else who wasn’t white, until the bright red light signaled channel 33. Fans like me who hate-watched music videos were just as fanatic as mega fans, screaming for pop idols who didn’t know of their existence.
I also couldn’t deny that I loved listening to sappy bubblegum pop ballads behind closed doors as the radio played its Top 40. It was the undeniable and alluring power of ballads; they powered through my ear drums, creating resonances from those catchy and rhythmic notes and chords until whatever airway passages forced me to intone them into the memory’s muscle and hum them on multiple occasions.
I couldn’t fault Lệ Thủy’s and Thanh Sang’s onscreen deaths for making me miss this TRL rerun because I forget that TRL sometimes only aired a few supercut seconds of music videos as if narrative video structure wasn’t as significant as the lyrics. I also knew better than to fault my parents. Music could be relistened to and rewatched any day.
Before turning off the TV, the chord progressions and beat in “The Boy Is Mine” were just too hard to ignore, so I watched the brief twenty seconds airing of Brandy singing in that soft warning tone of hers:
Think it’s time we got this straight
Sit and talk face to face
There is no way you could mistake
Him for your man, are you insane?
“Isn’t this duet about two women fighting over a guy?” I’m surprised Mother was still in the living room but wasn’t surprised she had my bowl of leftover cereal milk, drinking the sugary milk flavored by the Frost Flakes. She thought MTV or American pop culture turned children into young demon capitalists and made them lose focus wherever they began situating themselves in reality.
“Well yeah. But at the end, they realized the man was cheating on them and decided to show girl power sisterhood by slamming the door in his face together.”
Mother wasn’t listening to me, opting to instead stare at the now blank gray TV screen. “A woman shouldn’t allow a man to mistreat them.”
PLAYLIST II: LOVERS TO STRANGERS
Karaoke also begins with singing and ends with a death.
At least that was the implication in one of Vân Sơn Entertainment’s comedy and musical variety show skits Father recorded on VHS. “Nàng Karaoke” was a musical skit we were watching together after another family dinner that night. Hồng Đào portrayed Vân Sơn’s wife, a woman who was obsessed with karaoke, deifying herself as the Queen of Karaoke. Fearing her awful singing voice and inability to perceive pitch, Vân Sơn did everything he could, all but clearly communicating with her, and attempted to thwart each attempt of her purchasing any Vietnamese Karaoke Disc.
Hồng Đào karaoked all night — the sound was muted at this point of the skit while Vân Sơn sang in sympathetic monophony, lamenting about his wife’s karaoke obsession. Unable to sleep because of Hồng Đào’s constant bad karaoking, he finally threw the TV into the pool. True to her fanaticism as the skit transitions into a much darker tragicomedy ending, she jumps into the pool with the TV, drowning herself with it, exacting Vân Sơn’s prophetic lyrics:
Drifting with the karaoke
He didn’t care how he directly caused his wife’s presumed death, taking his cotton balls out of each unsympathetic ear and laughing.
My lack of awareness regarding Việt Nam’s karaoke culture was evident. I wasn’t aware that almost every Vietnamese person we knew loved to karaoke, maybe not as obsessively as Hồng Đào’s character, but my parents’ friends loved to karaoke sad love songs that could break hearts more than the Backstreet Boys ever could with their vocal harmonization.
Sometime between his transition into young adulthood, my brother Brian, became interested in Vietnamese songs. From disliking the overly sentimental tones and saccharine textures of love tragedies that our parents still remain faithful to, he became interested in Vietnamese nhạc trẻ because the vibrant textures and sounds were young and contemporary comparatively, snappy melodies of chachacha and disco amplified the electronic instruments.
I liked nhạc trẻ fine. The melodies were memorable and instrumentally and lyrically imitable, like any genres that generated and produced noises. Most noises were memorized for reliable replication.
Our parents hated the genre because both the lyrics and voices were vacuous, devoid of meaning between each brief vocal pause before the chorus started. Songs they grew up listening to were filled with misery and tragedies, all of which resonated with them. Misery, even when formless, enjoys insulating itself with the sorrows of other miserable companions.
My first experience with Vietnamese karaoking was at a wedding, watching several people karaoke familiar songs that I’ve heard since childhood.
“Karaoke is popular in Vietnamese weddings,” Brian told me. He cleared his throat several times and breathed heavily in and out as if each released breath were air filled with nerves before going onstage to perform.
The bride and groom karaoked to such a sad song, probably titled “Lonely Shadows.” Like any sad romance songs that excessively nostalgized a continued yearning for that defined specific moment in time, it didn’t induce a bone chilling sadness but the lyrics permeated a sadness that claimed otherwise.
In the outro of “Lonely Shadows,” the bride, with sorrowful precision heard from other renditions, clearly rendered out:
During autumn, several missing memories come back to me.
But that person’s shadow is still absent.
Those warm passion days have now faded.
Then the groom imitated the bride’s agony by emulating her cadence:
I’ve known for a long time that time is the remedy.
What will happen will happen.
But I still can’t forget the one who hurt me.
I knew this song, incorrectly mouthing the lyrics to no one but those who cared enough to observe me with amusing eyes. Father listened to this song in his car while Mother and Brian slept in the back, so I at least recognized it and the lyrics I could never sing.
“This was my favorite song to sing back in Việt Nam.” His tone felt hollow, robotic, only verbalizing to inform and not to reveal or share.
I couldn’t find the words and added nothing to the conversation. “It’s a pretty song, sad but pretty.” Why did Father and Mother love sad songs? The lyrics were depressing and the music was slow, as if the instruments were crying in sympathetic synchronization with whoever was singing.
Underneath all those deceptively beautiful voices that blended well with each changing symphonic instrument, each note chronicled in the narrative lyrics agonized over how to express internal love to an external confession so it manifests into a physical, intimate love.
Father and Mother were both the most unromantic people I knew. Hands never touching the other, never kissing in the public’s eyes, never telling each other “I love you,” and never exchanging promises.
“Why do you listen to these songs?” Sad romantic Vietnamese songs, their pre-chorus, chorus, post-chorus, and bridge echoing each other’s refrains. Each beat was like a story drumming into the inner canals of the ear to evoke the wallowing palpitations of heartbreak.
He never responded as the cassette cackled into its static pause, disrupting him from moving forward.
The bride and groom stood in front of us in their traditional wedding outfits and continued karaoking about lonely shadows. They were singing that song as if one of them was expected to die from loneliness, catapulting each other into a relentless sorrow. I wasn’t sure why the newlyweds were karaoking such a sad tragic love song. Why celebrate such a joyous celebration and cantillate it into something akin to the demise of a relationship?
“Are you two going to duet?” A guest I’ve never met asked my parents. “Your duets always sounded good.”
Verses poured out of their mouths at home. Until recently, our house was never quiet. There was never a chance for peace to invade the many noises confined in the house since one parent frequently hummed a song’s instrumentals while the other parent quietly sang, never revealing or inquiring about the song title; it was like a guessing game between them. That was maybe their rendition of an intimate gesture.
The guest turned to look at me and smiled. “Have you ever heard your parents sing?” A shake of the head prompted her next response, “Really? They have such beautiful voices. They used to duet all the time.”
“You’ve heard Mom sing before.” Brian was chastising me again. “Remember she was singing to you when you were sick and crying like a baby?”
“I was a baby.”
He ignored me. “Dad accidentally recorded it on a cassette when he was recording a mixtape. Mom was trying to shut you up by singing a lullaby from some song.” He drank some Sprite and gurgled before swallowing. “Sometimes I hear him listening to that tape and can hear your annoying cries. It ruined Mom’s voice.”
“Like you weren’t an annoying kid. So our parents are good singers?” Brian looked like he wanted to say something, maybe sharing a revelation about our parents, but decided not to when we heard Father telling the guests sitting at our table that he was joining other people to smoke cigarettes. At that moment, Brian took a covert sip of someone’s beer, coughed out whatever nerves attacked his body and rejuvenated his acidic alcohol induced confidence, and ran to one of the karaoke corners.
Mother, who was silent throughout most of the wedding, combed the unexplained knots in my hair with her fingers. “Go join your brother.” I perceived it as a command more than a suggestion.
Brian’s Vietnamese singing voice must not be atrocious sounding since people were cheering him on as he karaoked the intro of “Lover For One Hundred Years,” a song he found smooth and techno-like in quality:
One day, someday
If you leave me one day
I remember one time I said
We love each other with the moon witnessing
There wasn’t much distinction between this song and the songs our parents listened to. It wasn’t tragically depressing where it carried long notes of poetic references to flowers wilting to signify the death of a blooming relationship or birds flying off into a perpetual nowhere. Empty as the promises may be, it was a whispery song that included romantic overtures heard in pop ballads.
Then out of nowhere, I heard her voice, Mother’s voice that Brian mentioned earlier, karaoking in the second karaoke corner, the one near the entrance, the one drowning out Brian’s vocals:
Why remind me?
Why return back to the past?
Now, there are two paths, two directions
The worries I count
To every step on the small street hurts softly
Stars fall in the middle of the night
Mother’s voice carried such a force, a halting contrast between a cry of despair with hopes of returning to a past to an escalating rage that offers nothing more than a cold farewell. For the past few weeks—or was it months—I wasn’t sure how to read my parents’ voices. Today, at a wedding that celebrated a marriage by karaoking tragic romance songs, I think I finally heard the silences between Mother and Father. Aside from brief monosyllabic responses that felt forced whenever Brian and I were present, Mother and Father barely spoke to each other. Did something die between them?
Father always quoted that one lyric we always heard in popular Vietnamese songs: “love is only beautiful when it’s broken.” This song, something about two separate dreams being referenced in the title, was Mother’s farewell to Father. That finality in her voice as she sang the outro said it all. She—and he— couldn’t find the words to tell each other about their inability to walk together on a broken path, so she responded by singing a song they were both familiar with.
I wondered if Father heard her gradual crescendo outside. I could only imagine Father standing outside with his acquaintances smoking cigarette after cigarette to burn whatever grievances and stresses that weighed their bodies down. I could only imagine a limp but lit cigarette dangling out of Father’s lips, the cigarette burning until the light died as he pondered about how that shared distance was split into two separate unshared paths.