The assimilation and dissimilation of two Vietnamese living abroad
Drifters : Serendipity marks the conclusion to the first chapter of our creative exploration of which photography is the main medium. More importantly, this book has allowed us a momentary pause during which we have been able to revisit old memories, abandoned and fragmented thoughts. It has allowed us a space to put our vulnerability on display. It has enabled us to better understand ourselves in light of distant memories. However, it is our belief that we do not experience this life alone, so if you’re also going through a difficult time, know that we’re sharing the pressure, the fear, and the loneliness. In this time of moral turmoil when the color of your skin determines how you are perceived, neon lights appear unassuming and indiscriminate. Under neon lights, you are no longer just the shade that you’re born with. You are whatever color the lights cast on you. Red, blue, green, orange. Bright, vivid and worth every single shutter click. And just like neon lights, distant memories, though often overlooked, once fully embraced, give insights into who you have become and illuminate the possibilities of who you could have been. The neon lights captured in Drifters: Serendipity remind us of our hometown of Saigon, our time growing up there, and an old part of ourselves. Our younger selves dreamed of adulthood as something extraordinary. But now in the middle of our 20s, we’re still lost souls in the spectrum of things. Yet, we believe that all this mess is a temporary arrangement. That heartbreaks and failures help us to embrace the triumphs in life.
The following are excerpts and images from Duy and Thao’s book Drifters: Serendipity:
Fall of 2005
I boarded a plane from Saigon and headed for Pleasant Hill, Oregon at the age in which the world is often seen through rose-colored lenses and pubescent rebellion is just as pleasurable as eating a good bowl of pho. Fifteen years old, alone in a foreign land, I embarked on a journey determined to prove my worth. Eleven years later and still so much left to prove. But I’ve come to realize one thing: The more time I spent forging my own path, the further I drifted away from my own home.
As the last decade passed, Saigon, though constant in my longing, was no longer a place to which I belonged. As I stayed and pursued my goals and aspirations in America, I became an outsider. For that, I missed out on a lot. I missed out on seeing my baby brother grow up. I missed out on growing together with my older brother as young adults. I missed out on bonding with my parents and even missed out on having the talk with them.
I remember during my first year, completely consumed by my own frustration and homesickness, I would spend many nights in the darkness of my room under the blanket crying. And to mask my uncontrollable sobbing, I’d put on Backstreet Boys’ Never Gone album. As silly as that might sound, it was the only cheap bootlegged CD that I acquired shortly before I left home. For the longest time, I could not bring myself to listening to this whole album as it reminded me of the many times my emotions got the best of me. Those brooding lyrics transport me back to that very bedside. There I stand watching my old self completely falling apart, wondering what could have happened if I had given up. — Duy
In 2008, on the flight from Vietnam to Portland, Oregon, I did not expect everything in my life to change drastically. My plan was to go to college, get a degree, go home, and then maybe settle down. The longer I lived in another country, the further away I drifted from my previous plans. I chose to fully immerse in American culture and decided to not go home so often. While adapting with Western values, I slowly detached from what I knew. A few years in, Vietnam became a place I no longer fit in. Drifting between two lands, two cultures, but I never truly belonged anywhere. As I stayed and filled my life with hopes and dreams in the Pacific Northwest, my family was torn apart with jealousy and betrayals. —Thao
Like many young Vietnamese men in the early ‘90s, my father owned an olive green Honda Cub. It was a small motorbike, but it sure got our family of four through a lot. On hot summer nights, my father used to take the whole family for rides and somehow we almost always ended up lugging home groceries. Our Honda was an older model and did not have the front basket like others. As resourceful as my father was, he would strap a red plastic (perforated to look like woven) shopping bag full of produce to the rear end of the Honda with copious amount of elastic cords. Our family of four would then squeeze our way onto the padded seat with my father at the helm. My older brother would sit at the tip; his knees bent and fitted snugly below the Honda’s neck. I would sit sandwiched between my parents, hands clutching my father’s pants. My mother would reach forward to hold onto my father’s waist with one hand while holding my right leg away from the scalding hot exhaust pipe with the other. We would ride in this “formation” everywhere. —Duy
During a trip to Hong Kong, my parents gifted me with a Nikon D40, my first D-SLR. The camera quickly became a part of my identity. I would spend most weekends driving around town and photographing the streets of Saigon. District 2 was one of my frequent stops. Isolated from the rest of a bustling town by Saigon River, the place was populated with poor families and rice fields. There a corner right by the water where I parked my mom’s scooter. I photographed the city’s shadow, the summer sunset and a couple kids hanging out next to me. There was this little girl who never had her photos taken before. She would come and ask many questions about the camera, so I took her portraits. As I showed the kid her own photos on the screen, her eyes sparkled with joy. —Thao
One thing you must know: In Vietnamese culture, we believe that the spirits of those who have passed away always look over us. For my parents, this belief is at the core of their spirituality, especially after having seen and known many loved ones who died in the war. My mother has gone on many expeditions to find the soils upon which once lay the bodies of my maternal great-grandpa and grandpa. She firmly believes that their spirits are still out there waiting to come home to the warm family altar. So you see, as a kid, topics of death and spirituality were not unfamiliar to me. —Duy
Lam and I tried to keep our relationship a secret, but every glance and whisper from my nosy neighbors were a brutal attack. One night, as I sneaked back in the house, my mom was waiting with a stack of The L Word DVD collection in her hands. I stared at her. Trying not to exhale while estimating how angry she might be. The air was so tense that I could almost cut it like a cake. My mom broke the silence. “I didn’t give birth to you to have a sick mind. What is this kind of illness? I am so ashamed of you.” —Thao
Growing up, my cinematic universe was filled to the brim with Hong Kong films. My childhood would not be complete without long television series such as Legend of the Condor Heroes and many of its redos, slapstick comedic films of Stephen Chow, Hong Kong mafia flicks or moody moving pictures of Wong Kar-wai starring Tony Leung. To this day I can still vividly recall the laborious rewinding of VHS tapes in preparation for a binge-watching weekend. Or the contest within my group of friends to see who could put up the best Viet dubbed impersonations. Or the endless on-foot chase of the baddest machete swinging Hong Kong mafiosi through the packed illuminated streets. Or even the grainy and wildly saturated yellow lights of a tunnel setting the mood for Tony Leung and his mistress. —Duy
My obsession with Wong Kar Wai’s films started in 2008. It was my first winter in the US away from home, from Saigon, and everything familiar. Freshly wounded from a serious breakup. It was also the year that Oregon was hit with the biggest snowstorm in 50 years. My excitement to see snow for the first time quickly fleeted when I got stuck in the apartment for days only with a few ramen packets and a bottle of mayonnaise. I spent every snow day watching Wong Kar Wai’s films. Every frame was filled with lively nights and nostalgic lights that brought me back to Saigon. Moving to New York City in another loosely-planned phase of my adult life revives those old feelings. This city feels very much like home. I love the nights with endless lights in front of my eyes. I love the bustling streets full of loud noises and honking cars. Every street corner brings back memories of Saigon. —Thao
In our daily struggles for the past seven years, I have learned to open up, to feel at ease with my own vulnerability. In a sense, Drifters: Serendipity is a means for me to rediscover all of my buried feelings and memories from the years past and most importantly, to finally embrace them. And who could be better to make this book into a reality with me than Thao? —Duy
When Duy suggested documenting our photography in this book, I agreed. I desperately needed an outlet for my pains, frustrations, angers and guilts. I wanted to transform those negative emotions into something beautiful. Drifters: Serendipity became the result of that process. —Thao
Text and Images by Duy Vo and Thao Bui