Back to Front : Vietnam to Germany
words & photography by Helary Ngo
“I think you travel to search and you come back home to find yourself there.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A travel reflection of how one needs to take steps backward in order to be able to go forward.
György Lukács, a Hungarian philosopher, stated Philosophy is really homesickness, it is the urge to be at home everywhere. Yet for me, this statement has its emotional ambivalence. For a traveller, it has its poetic intelligence - to be lost, to be amongst unknown places, to experience the possibility of elevating one’s knowledge of oneself and their placement in the world. However, for a migrant, it has its poignancy and its melancholy - to be forced to move out is the act of trying and searching for a home elsewhere or even everywhere. Lukács, both a traveller and a migrant, carries this ambivalence. He migrated and travelled to Austria, Germany, the Soviet Union, Romania. He was exiled for most of his life.
Is his statement, where he expresses that 'philosophy is really homesickness' is the urge to be at home everywhere a resignation? A deep sigh of a man who had no choice but to be at home within his own sense of cultural homelessness? Or is it a man who realised that home is something within a person rather than bounded to a certain geographic or physical setting. That home is within all of us.
I came from a Vietnamese migrant family and I was born in Australia. It was during the end of my Honours degree of Arts majoring in Cultural Studies when I realised the irony - that I was studying Cultural Studies and yet I could not even grasp my own Vietnamese culture. I was not able to speak the language fluently, had no concept of the cultural nuances of Vietnam and struggled to fully communicate and connect with members of my family outside my immediate family, particularly those in Vietnam.
Within this irony, I realised that I had hit my own personal dead-end. I felt that I was a hypocrite and not confident enough to fully work in the field of Cultural Studies. To muse, to write, to express. I felt that I was not the best of myself and that I was grieving for something intangible that was lost when my parents went on that tiny, rocky refugee boat on the beach shores to escape Vietnam. That I was not able to transfer the richness of my cultural background to the people I love around me (family, friends) and to future generations. Philosophy is really homesickness. It is that homesickness that Lukács mentioned. It is the start of my own personal philosophical endeavours to be at home everywhere within my own diversity.
I had to go backwards in order to go forwards. I felt that I had to understand a sense of home within my cultural background - for myself, within myself.
Going backwards was about going to Vietnam to live there for 6 months. Going forwards was about going to Germany to live and to find my own creative expression and incidentally, love. It is both migrating and travelling. Ultimately I did find that I was at home everywhere. It is the sense of home built upon self-discovery, self-confidence, self-knowledge, self-love, self-patience and also the love of my relationships: my family, my boyfriend, my friends.
2. Back: Vietnam
I rode my bike to the rural side from the city centre of Huế. The path was a 10 km bike ride by the river, up among the mountains with the rosy sunset leaking through the peaks, through the watery rice fields and then through this isolated, eerily mysterious huge cemetery. At this rural town, I assisted in giving community English classes to little children in the surrounding rural areas. They were such enthusiastic and mischievous children and they never missed an opportunity to lovingly tease me.
One evening, I was riding my bike home after assisting the kids. There was no electric lighting in this path, the road was inky black. I reached the mountains and I had a moment where I was completely held still, enchanted. As the grainy warm sound of a gong from the mountain temple resonated through the trees, I saw a boat floating on the river. These monks were chanting on the boat, their yellow robes could be seen from a distance. As they chanted and alongside their rhythmically sound little instruments, they candle lit paper lotus flowers to float upon the water. The little flowers looked meditative yet fragile in their temporality. I am reminded of how the earth looks like from outer space; these sporadic golden dots of light upon the darkness. And yet, in reverse, here on earth, as I stood alone with my bike in this gravel road on a mountain, I am looking down at these sporadic light of flowers and the enormity of the whole cosmos seemed to be captured within that single moment.
Despite the months that passed through living and being every day in Vietnam, there is so much I still do not understand. But in moments like that, I am glad to have been in Vietnam and to have felt the infinity of humanity and cultures.
3. Front: Germany
As we drove, the leaves covered the forest ground like a crimson velvet carpet in the midst of the grey fog. It was early in the morning in Rügen, Germany where he and I drove up the hill. Entwined with the clarity of the crispy air this Autumn morning was the clarity of our shared happiness.
We were silent and we talked. Sometimes one of us would mutter a sentence without a following flow of conversation and this stand-alone sentence was as peaceful and as soft as a feather falling to the ground. In love after having re-met in a café a month before. I was only living in Germany for three months with the intention and hope of pursuing inspiration and creative expression. What was unexpected for me was the chance to nourish a beautiful connection with someone.
We parked on the hill top and found a path to trotter our way down to the Baltic Sea. The sound of our shoes hitting moist soil was one mere musical note to the whole symphony - leaves, bark and insects amongst other mysterious little gulps and burps and hisses that a forest makes. We felt small and insignificant. And feeling small makes us both humble.
When we finally reached the sea, the beach was filled with smooth, granite pebbles. As the waves rumbled to the shore, it dragged the pebbles across the beach, making them laugh childishly as they rolled gleefully on top of each other, ‘clickety, clickety, click ,click’. It was the endless sound of pebbles laughing as they clang onto each other. Each pebble had its own unique, quiet laugh.
The red leaves showered the sea and floated on top of the water, creating strange, red earthly veins upon the Baltic Seas charcoal black waters. With these thousands of red leaf-veins, it seemed like the sea was breathing and bleeding, forming itself into infinite secret patterns of water life.
Looming over us, were chalk cliffs, majestic and strangely white amongst the mossy, dark colours of the landscape. Everything was visceral - the colours, the sounds, our shoes on this shore.
I felt a kiss on my head and I looked up to him. We smiled and head back to the car.
I am here, I thought to myself as I looked out at the mist. I am fully here, within that moment. I have gone back to front. Almost like how we would sew the seams of a dress inside-out. The seams show the work. But when we flip the dress outside-in and it’s a dress, all the seams are inside. I have worked on the seams of my being and this has nourished me and nourished all who and that is connected to me. I am at home everywhere.