Vjetnamese Childhood

I moved to Prague when I was six. My parents owned shops in the Vietnamese trading center, which was basically a small Vietnamese town where the Vietnamese from every corner of the country reunited. I often imagined that the center was a labyrinth, as one could easily get lost in the myriads of alleyways of toys, rainbows of sweaters and leather handbags, piles of junk jewelry, and mountains of shoes.

Each of the small shops was owned by a person I knew. I was friends with all of their children. We bonded because we were supposed to. Though our friendship was ephemeral, it was also a bubble, a comfort zone that we all were born in.

The Czechs were a minority at the center. Though sometimes, they would make everyone close their shop for a day for an inspection. That day, on the evening news, there would be footages of the center, and a Czech person would without fail talk about how the Vietnamese were hiding something again and that we were too suspicious to be trusted completely.

Every week, I would sit idly in my parents’ shop. My mother would let me have the cartons from the packages of clothes that she unpacked to sell and I would cut them into small pieces so that I could draw on them. I drew anything I could think of. Countless imaginary worlds, homes and creatures emerged when I finished a drawing. I drew so that I could escape from the television reports and from the dullness of the routine we all got so used to.

In first grade, I was the slowest reader in my class. The children all became shifty when it was my turn to read and my teacher cut me off in the middle when she lost patience. She would tell my mother that it was alright, given my “circumstances”. My mother was furious. She bought me even more story books and in the evening, I tried hopelessly to read the small letters. I wondered why exactly I had to learn that crazy language when I obviously didn’t belong with the smart Czech kids who read like they were born for it.

I believe that the reason I had ever had those thoughts was because somehow, the restrictions others and we ourselves forced upon us became too natural, too common-place to be noticeable.

Maybe it was because the impression we left on the Czechs. Maybe it all stemmed from the countless of wars with Western countries Vietnam was in — the wars we fought and won, yet left a sense of inferiority in our minds and the constant need to prove ourselves to others.

It was normal for Vietnamese kids to be lumped together. It was just kids’ play when my classmates called me passive aggressive names and slurs. It was okay for Vietnamese kids to be considered handicapped.

During this period, my mother let me go to art lessons. However, the assignments were too foreign to me as we had to use too many materials to create things that seemed without meaning. I tried to listen to the teacher’s instructions, but they all seemed wrong. I wanted to spend time on the details to make my drawings lively while she wanted us to create things that were so big and overwhelming that I felt like they were going to swallow me. I thought that maybe I was not as good at art as I had thought. 
 At home, I still drew, but the worlds I created became more realistic. I couldn’t draw to escape anymore. I learned to draw things from my life, the things that were familiar to my teacher and my classmates. I hoped to become the same as others so they could finally understand me. However, we never connected. I became the usual quiet Vietnamese girl and no one ever tried talking to me. Elementary school passed without leaving any imprint.

I met my first Czech best friend in sixth grade, on the first day of middle school. I came late, so when I stepped into the class, I could have a look at all of my new classmates. Apart from me, there were no other Vietnamese children.

Her name was Martina. She sat right behind me. She seemed intimidating in the typical preppy Czech kid way, with her grown-up looks and serious tone. I fiddled with the hem of my Hannah Montana shirt and fixed my pigtails, hoping that I would not have to confront her often.

I hated her. I hated the way she would make fun of my immaturity. I hated how she could become friends with anyone. I hated her witty and humorous personality. What I hated the most however, was how she could make me talk. I babbled on as long as she listened. She would tease me until I snapped. “I know you are not that quiet,” she would say.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I realized we were actually becoming friends. I do recall, however, that we would talk about everything and anything. Sometimes at night, I would wonder if I rambled on too much. But the next day, I would do it all over again.

Martina loved art. Every week, she would go to her art lessons and would continue to do so for 6 years, unlike me. She loved to talk about books she read about Michelangelo and other artists or how she went to an art exhibition with her parents. She would tell me that I was much better at drawing than she was, but I was secretly jealous of her ability to appreciate every form of art. She would tell me that although she didn’t dream of becoming a professional, she loved her clumsy art works because they showed who she was, no matter how others perceived them. I didn’t get it. What was the point of art when no one appreciated it?

Martina never answered my question, but she tried to make me understand. She made me read books about various art movements, history novels and biographies. She would show me the paintings she had come across and asked for my opinion. We loved to talk about controversial opinions on famous paintings and always tried grasp anything that was possible to learn about the art works that were less well-known. When we talked, it was okay to dream of becoming an artist or a writer. It was fine to dream of saving the world. She made me feel safe.

She was the only friend I felt comfortable sharing things outside the class. I needn’t to feel embarrassed because my family’s lifestyle was not as lofty as the lives of Czech families. She was also the only friend who understood that even though I was scared of becoming a Vietnamese market kid, I also couldn’t open up to anyone who wasn’t seemingly the same as me.

We could do everything together. We would attend Museum Nights together and stay in one gallery up to 1 am because we couldn’t find the painting we were looking for. We would travel across the whole city to buy art supplies. We would write novel-length stories just based on the alternative universe we created during the class.

I started buying sketchbooks, pencils, pens, watercolors used specially for professional painting. At home, I would display them on my small desk and bask in their specific aroma. I reveled in the way a 8B pencil would slide across the smooth paper with ease and how refined the strokes appeared. I drew whatever I came into my mind, from a maze of books to a candy town with paths made of sugar canes. I seldom showed them to anyone, but I knew that I didn’t need to seek anyone’s approval anymore. I just knew that I loved to draw, to create things and that was all I needed. I hoped that someday, I could be as enthusiastic and passionate about art as my dear friend was.

In seventh grade, we decided to join a competition together. With the help of our teacher, we began our project of creating a joined project to join the art and essay contest of our school. The subject was “labyrinth”. We spent a few days just sketching and solidifying our ideas before we decided that we would draw a library full of books. We wanted to create our own wonderland and yet still keep the mysterious impression that labyrinths evoke. We worked on the painting for 2 months, perfecting each of the details. We each drew our own part of the labyrinth on different canvases so that we could create a contrast that would harmonize. This was also the first time I tried typography, and also found joy in drawing letters instead of writing them. The final product was almost bigger than me. When I finished the last letter of “Alea iacta est”, which was a quote we decided to use, we looked at our work and saw the many imperfections in the painting, but this was the first “big thing” that I created since my unsuccessful art lessons. I felt like I could create worlds and universes.

We managed to win the third prize. The painting is still on display at my school today, five years later.

As we got older, things became more complicated. Kids started doing what a typical teenagers our age did — they went out of their way to achieve their goals, while I was still stuck in my shell, waiting for things to happen. We started fighting because I couldn’t accept the fact that Martina was not in fact replacing me, but she also had other friends. This was also the time I found out that my parents wanted to return to Vietnam.

I told her after we fought again. That day, it was the first time I actually thought about my life without her and my other Czech friends. I didn’t know if things would change for her when I left, but I knew that my life would never be the same.

The first months in my own home country were tough. However, we talked daily.

Martina sent me post cards and packages from everywhere she visited. She would include photographs she thought I would like. She typed up 7 pages of quotes on her old typewriter because they reminded her of me.

The messages were so long that I spent hours just replying her. I delayed texting her back because of school work and when I finally got to reply, I didn’t know what to say.

At some point, the messages stopped coming altogether. I didn’t blame her. I knew better than anyone that she had her own life beside me. I thought that it was time to finally let her go.

Before I left for Vietnam, I always worried about how different I was. Here everyone was the same as me. There was no bubble. No restraints. Yet I still felt out of place.

No one would talk to me. I would sit at my desk, watching my new class mates quietly, wondering how to reach out to them. We were so alike and yet I couldn’t find anything that could connect us.

I doodled in my notebooks. Then, I started bringing my sketchbooks to the school. I would sit and draw whatever came to my mind, usually my house and my friends in Czech Republic. The kids ignored me, for the most part. However, one day, a smiling girl named Chi would come to my desk and ask me: “Is this your home?”

Chi took my sketchbook and showed it to her friend, without asking my permission. The other girl stared me for a while, before she hesitantly came to my desk and asked: “So, you draw?”

From then on, it was like Chi decided that her mission was to include me in every activity in our class. Whenever there was anything that required drawing or painting, she would make me participate with her. One day, we had to finish a last-minute Teachers’ Day poster and Chi persuaded others to help me. Initially, we were working quietly but soon enough, they started asking questions. As soon as they started, they couldn’t stop. I looked at Chi, wondering if her smile at that moment hurt her face, and thought about how this bubbly girl and art were saving me, once again.

We eventually ended up going to different high schools. However, that didn’t stop Chi from dragging me into various activities.

The most stressful yet the greatest thing we have done together so far is Imperfection Project. This time, I wasn’t the one who created art; instead I worked with other children to help them create the world from their perspective. We went to a few villages for disabled children, where we would spend the whole day just interacting with the kids and aid them in expressing their thoughts.
 Each of the drawings was a piece of the kids’ world. They were so delighted to create something that would remind us of them. The children became artists with their own thoughts and emotions, instead of people without an identity. The money that was raised from selling the paintings suddenly was more meaningful as the connection between the children and those who donated became more personal. The children not only received money but also the happiness that their paintings were now in loving hands that would cherish them forever. The art the children created showed their perspective of the world instead of focusing on the difficulties of their lives. Which is why I believe art is the greatest way of expression that can leave a major imprint on everything around us.

To me, art used to be a way to escape the reality. I wanted to draw my way out of my dull and aimless surroundings to the world of adventures and happiness. However, now I realize that art has much more power. It is not a means of escape — it is a way to alter the world around us. It is the embodiment of all our thoughts and ambitions. The happiness it brings is not artificial or imaginary; it is right there in our minds. Art doesn’t have to be understood. It is not anything scary or forced. Its natural abstractness is concretely beautiful for every individual and that is what makes art so special and so powerful.

I no longer strive to meet any standards. My biggest aim now is to be able to reach out, to connect with others by what I enjoy doing the most. I would like to help others see their differences and similarities, to find their own self and their own independence through the greatest way of expression.

As for Martina, after almost a year, I messaged her again. We still don’t talk as often as I would like to as each of us has a different life now, but we will always have one thing in common. I hope that one day, I will be able to push people out from their comfort zones and to infect them with the enthusiasm I have for art, just like Martina did.

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