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Impressionable Flesh Speaking

By Linh Dinh

Those impressions are dear to him and no doubt he hoards them imperceptibly, and even unconsciously. How and why, of course, he does not know either. He may suddenly, after hoarding impressions for many years, abandon everything and go off to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage for his soul’s salvation, or perhaps he will suddenly set fire to his native village, and perhaps do both.“–Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Book 3, Chapter 6, as translated by Constance Garnett
Poets are also hoarders of impressions, of course. Most are nothing but. Speaking of peasants, I want to point out that the Vietnamese language, especially the truly native words not borrowed from the Chinese, somewhat equivalent to pre-Norman English, is very much grounded in the body with its pleasures and horrors, as I try to explain in this flash assay:
The word mình, body, has wide application in Vietnamese. It is sometimes used as a first person pronoun, as in “body has lived here for a long time,” or “body does not know him.” Body is I. It is also we or us. As in: “Body eat rice; they eat bread.” Body is also used to address one’s spouse. As in: “Body, what would you like to eat today?”


A spouse can also be referred to as “my house.” As in: “My house is not home at the moment. Please call back later.” To be married is to live in a new house, to be engulfed in another body.
The core of the Vietnamese body is not the heart but the stomach. Instead of saying “I don’t know what’s in his heart,” a Vietnamese would say, “I don’t know what’s in his stomach.” To be content is to have a happy stomach, vui lòng. To be in grief is to have a rotting stomach, thúi ruột. To be in extreme anguish is to have one’s stomach chopped into pieces, đứt ruột.
Eating is the body’s primary function. Whatever else the body does, it must ăn, must eat. To dress is to ăn mặc, eat and dress. To talk is to ăn nói, eat and talk. To have sex is to ăn nằm, eat and lie down with somebody. To be married is to ăn ở, eat and live with somebody.
To win at anything, a bet, a soccer match, is simply to ăn, to eat, an echo back to the days when to win is to swallow one’s opponent whole, perhaps. To dominate or decisively defeat someone is to ăn sống, eat raw.
To indulge in pleasures is to eat and play, ăn chơi. To celebrate is to eat with happiness, ăn mừng. To go to a party is to eat at a party, ăn tiệc. One doesn’t celebrate the New Year, one eats during the New Year, ăn Tết.
To look for work is to look for something to eat, kiếm ăn. To work is to make and eat, làm ăn. A good business prospect is described as having something easy to eat, dễ ăn. To do well in business is to eat customers, ăn khách.
To spend money is to eat and digest, ăn tiêu. To take a bribe is to eat money, ăn tiền. To work an illicit job, thievery, prostitution, is to eat dew, ăn sương. To steal is to eat in secret, ăn trộm.
Eating, and how one eats, becomes a metaphor for nearly everything, as these proverbs testify:

A magpie, starved, eats banyan fruit. A phoenix, starved, eats chicken shit.

Fish eat ants, ants eat fish.
Have vegetable, eat vegetable. Have rice gruel, eat rice gruel.
The smart eat men, the stupid are eaten.
Tailors eat rags, artists eat paints.
Father eats salty food, son’s thirsty.
Eating new rice, telling old stories.
Eat in front, swim behind.
Eat for real, fake work.
Arrive late, gnaw on a bone.
Ate rice gruel, pissed in the bowl.
A bowl of sweat for a bowl of rice.
A piece of meat is a piece of shame.
Selling ass to feed mouth.
Two hands, two eyes are just enough to feed one stomach.
Better to die sated than to live hungry.

To be homeless is to eat the wind and lie with the dew, ăn gió nằm sương. This phrase used to refer to the hardships of a long journey, a concept similar to the English “travel,” a variation on travail, from the French travailler, to work.
To inherit property is to eat fragrance and fire, ăn hương hỏa, which refer to the incense and oil lamp on the ancestral altar present in most Vietnamese homes.
A remote place is described as where “dogs eat rocks, chickens eat pebbles,” chó ăn đá gà ăn sôi.
To be primitive is to eat fur while living in a hole, ăn lông ở lỗ.
To die is to eat dirt, ăn đất.
A common Vietnamese greeting is “Have you eaten yet?”
One should always answer, “After eating dew all night, I’m more than ready to eat and to lie down.”

Black%2520Flag%2520Minutemen.jpg
[flyer by the artist and wordsmith Raymond Pettibon]

Comments (4)

  • On April 14, 2008 at 5:07 pm Mark Wallace wrote:

    A fascinating post, Linh. To what extent would you say that the centrality of eating to the Vietnamese language comes from a history of hunger and even starvation, and to what extent might it come from other factors?

  • On April 14, 2008 at 6:56 pm Linh Dinh wrote:

    Hi Mark,
    I have no idea how pervasive starvation was before the 20th century, but during World War Two, roughly two million Vietnamese, about one in ten, starved to death during the Japanese occupation, and almost everyone was starving during the hard-core Communist years, especially the post-Vietnam War years, as I’ve written in the introduction to Three Vietnamese Poets:

    Food shortage became a daily fact of life. Sorghum and cassavas were often substituted for rice in people’s diet. Salt, sugar, and MSG were rationed. Fish sauce turned into salt water. Wine was made by fermenting the core of a pineapple. Phan Nhien Hao recalls his student days in the late 80′s: “I was hungry all the time. All the students living in the dormitories were really walking skeletons. Most of the time you could think of nothing but food.”
    Nguyen Quoc Chanh remembers: “Before 1975, our family grew sugarcanes. Then my father was intimidated into giving much of his land to the government. They would have taken it away from him anyway. It didn’t take long for the entire country to become destitute. We would eat this yellow sorgum, imported from India, which tasted really rubbery, for months at a time. And once a week we had to hear some idiot stuttering and lisping his way through an incoherent lecture on the glories of Marxism.”

    My best guess is that the Vietnamese use all these eating metaphors simply because most of them were farmers and fishermen until very recently, all they did was cultivate food then eat it. Even today, eating is a huge and drawn out passion. Like everybody else, poets would meet to drink, eat and talk for hours on end. Unlike the country’s architecture, painting, sculpture and, frankly, literature, Vietnamese cooking is truly sophisticated and can make a valid claim to being world class. I remember a New York Times critic saying that Saigon’s Bến Thành market was the greatest food market she has ever set foot in, The variety and fragrant or pungent freshness of a Vietnamese market is truly astounding. Just writing about it makes me want to beam myself over there!

  • On April 14, 2008 at 9:06 pm Steve wrote:

    Cool!
    I was hoping for the secret links between Vietnamese idiom and West Coast punk rock. Maybe next post? (The Eat, alas, were from Florida, not L.A.)
    Are there any other languages in which the verb “to eat” has a similar centrality?

  • On April 15, 2008 at 8:58 am Linh Dinh wrote:

    Hi Steve,
    Let’s hope someone out there can answer your question about “languages in which the verb “to eat” has a similar centrality.” As for the West Coast punk rock scene, maybe I’ll transcribe a bunch of Raymond Pettibon’s texts, lifted from his drawings, to show how brilliant he is as a poet.
    Cheers!


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, April 14th, 2008 by Linh Dinh.