lost in translation.jpg
Thanksgiving in Hanoi
by Bunkong Tuon

A student texts me.
“Dinner and a movie
tonight, Professor?”
I write back, “I’m game.”
I check our group’s Facebook
page an hour later.
Another student has put up
polls on dinner and movie options.
Someone volunteers
to order food
for all nineteen of us,
including a guest from Australia.
They have been in Vietnam
for almost three months.
We are no longer tourists
snapping pictures
of government buildings, monuments,
Hoàn Kiếm lake, the Opera House,
the Hỏa Lò prison where McCain
was kept for five and a half years.
The Temple of Literature no longer moves
me the way it once did:
the hair on my arms
and neck swayed in humility and admiration.
I now see it for what it is: a tourist trap.
People from all corners of the earth flock
to Vietnam’s first national university
to take photos of statues of turtles,
cranes, and the Great Confucius.
At the end middle-aged women
try to sell you t-shirts
that read “Good Morning
Vietnam,” “Phở Metal Jacket,”
and “Make Phở, Not War.”

Around 7 PM
the doorbell rings, a group
of two to four begins showing up.
They are good to place
their sneakers and sandals
at the door, not wanting to invite
evil spirits to my apartment.
The food arrives.
Turkey sandwiches and pumpkin
pies. But a turkey sandwich
is missing.
There’s been communication
breakdown somewhere.
As if by magic it’s decided
for each to donate a small bit
of his or her sandwich.
Soon, there’s enough
food for everyone.
Someone yells,
“This is what Thanksgiving
is all about!”
And we burst laughing.

The winning movie
is Lost in Translation.
All of us crammed
in my living room.
Some on my couch
and loveseats.
Most on the floor
with sandwiches and pumpkin
pies on their laps.
I sit on a chair
close to the TV.
My hearing is bad.
And I refuse to wear
glasses.
We are all glued
to the screen.
The movie touches
a chord in all of us.
Americans
in a foreign land.
We laugh when
Bill Murray’s character
is befuddled, then frustrated,
not understanding
what’s he supposed
to do or say
in a commercial
for Suntory Time whiskey
or when the treadmill
doesn’t do what he wants
it to do.

We become quiet
when we see the loneliness
in Murray’s and Johansson’s
characters, the restlessness
at night, walking in crowded streets
or stuck in an elevator
where you are the only foreigner.
And my thoughts turn to my wife
and our six-month old daughter.
I Skype regularly with them.
I’m overwhelmed with pride
to see my daughter sitting
on her own and holding her spoon.
And I am envy and love
seeing my baby girl sleep
on my wife’s shoulder
so completely, so deeply,
so safe and secure
in her mother’s presence.
And my thoughts turn
to my students.
They have been good,
responsible, adventurous
but not reckless, curious
and smart, in search of the other
in the world only to find it
in themselves.
When someone falls ill
or behind, they make sure
to let me know immediately.
They hold fire chats to talk
about what they go through.
And I think how lucky we have been,
how much we have seen and experienced,
how their youthful flame ignites
my own passions.

Here I am
in this living room in an apartment
in Hà Nội, so far from wife and daughter,
from Domino pizzas, Italian subs,
from fat, juicy, artery-choking bacon and cheeseburgers,
from good old fake American Chinese food,
from that autumn smell when fallen
leaves mixed with rain and cold air
making you feel awakened to this living organism
we call earth,
and my students are eating their pies
and watching Murray’s character whispering
into Johansson’s character, who is laughing,
and the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey”
comes on and the credits roll,
and I feel pride and joy
and luck, and I don’t feel so alone.

PHOTO: Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation (2003).

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: In fall 2015, I led a semester abroad in Vietnam and by the third month, around Thanksgiving, I was missing home, wife, and baby girl. My students came over to my place, ordered turkey sandwiches and pumpkin pies, and with our little feast, we watched Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation in my living room. That evening was good, magical, and right, and I wanted to capture those qualities in addition to the spirit of spontaneity in this poem.

bunkong

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bunkong Tuon is an associate professor of English at Union College, in Schenectady, New York. He is the author of Gruel (NYQ Books, 2015).