On Hot Russian Composers and A Questionable Self Identity
I’m not proud to make this declaration by any means; I’m actually quite devastated that this has become a facet of my being, but holy fuck do I detest reading. I’m not talking about the day-to-day casual Reddit browsing, Facebook lurking stuff, or the kind that is fundamental. I’m talking like the big-ass textbooks, fucking “War and Peace” type of reading expected of me from a bunch of classes I’ve taken. Every Facebook meme ever created that pokes fun at not doing the reading can have my name found tagged somewhere in the comments section. And before you say anything, yes, I see the irony in me writing this for people to read while simultaneously dispelling my unfavorable feelings toward the practice. The title says it all, but bear with me.
I have this inclination to test the patience of authority; I love erring on the side of mischief. I’m honestly a little shit, and this display of little shittiness can best be shown through my inability to tell you about the plot of a single novel the average high schooler should have read in any of their English classes. I mean, I didn’t even check out the last book I was required to read for my AP Lit class senior year, like I was that done with reading by then. Jay Gatsby? I don’t know her. Hamlet? Couldn’t say that I am familiar with that queen. Mrs. Dalloway? Which school did she teach at? Because I can’t say I’ve ever met her. I’m not even telling you all of this to, like, brag, either — like, it’s actually something real embarrassing and shameful to admit, but this primer on my propensity toward not reading becomes relevant soon, I swear.
Reading is hard. Reading is really fucking hard and I relished in the glory of my simple acts of disobedience by just … not doing it. My attention span is essentially the Planck-length equivalent of time, which could perhaps explain my habit of becoming engrossed in the lives and times of the authors of books I should’ve been reading instead of reading the actual books themselves. I mean, I told you it’s not that I hate literature or anything. It most likely was because I couldn’t be bothered to read anything expected of me out of both laziness and adolescent mischief. This habit would manifest itself throughout various classes, in different forms, but nonetheless with the same result. Physics lessons on Einstein’s theories of relativity led me to instead learn about his hobbies as an amateur violinist while calculus lectures on Newton’s creation of an entirely new branch of mathematics led me to follow this tangent about his religious fervor and penchant for being weird as hell.
Toward the end of middle school, I had to learn this Tchaikovsky piece for a symphony audition. It was his “Serenade for Strings,” the 48th opus, which was this orchestral masterpiece written in the absolute most horrific time signature ever. The technical demands of the piece alongside the massive Romantic-era middle finger that was the time signature drove me to, of course, not read through the piece at all. I want to make a brief mention that my habit of disregarding readings did not simply end at the written text; rather, it indiscriminately dismantled any drive I would have to begin reading anything that was required of me, and that included this daunting six-page shitstorm of a serenade. During the free periods I should have spent rehearsing the serenade’s dreaded triple piano “pianississimo” measures, I instead, surprisingly, read this book about the composer himself. It was in “The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky” that I read this quote from him that would resonate with me well into the current day. Tchaikovsky described himself as “Russian in the fullest sense of the word,” to which I thought: “How incredible. Not just a veritable sense, but the fullest sense. How affirming it must be to be able to fully identify with a culture.” I think the reason as to why his words connected with me to such an extent is because they made me aware of this hollow cavity inside me that housed my cultural identity. It led to the realization that I couldn’t truly say that I fully identify as anything.
I was born on the first of November in Cần Thơ, a large port village that skims the Mekong Delta along the southern fringes of Vietnam. I couldn’t really tell you anything about what life was like there besides the fact that it’s just really fucking hot. I was really young when I left Vietnam with my parents to pursue the prospect of a better life here in the States. The first four years of my life I recall entirely in Vietnamese. My clearest memory from this time in my life was a very specific moment where my mother was sitting at the kitchen table eating. I asked her why she made so much noise while she ate, to which she laughed and asked me if I would like to eat with her. I sat there with her and we just had this casual and carefree conversation in the kitchen. I don’t know why this one specific memory is so clearly branded frame for frame in my mind, but it, like other memories of my early childhood, was narrated back to me entirely in my mother tongue. I think the closest I’ve ever felt to Tchaikovsky’s cultural “fullness” was at this point in my life.
I started school at 4 years old. I never realized that the children in my class had the privilege of growing up in homes where English was regularly spoken. I remember crying so hard on the first day of preschool that I fucking puked a storm on my teacher. It was such a mess; there were all of these people around me mouthing these weird sounds and reacting with confusion when I couldn’t understand them and then the puke being everywhere — like it really was just not cute. I didn’t pick up English as quickly as my teachers would have liked during early elementary school. I swear to God I was about a hair away from repeating the first grade because of my inability to properly speak the language or make any progress in those little English workbooks where you fill in a letter to make words and phrases. In the end, I couldn’t tell you what made it all click, but I would eventually pick up English incredibly fast. Like, scary fast; scary like the reading teachers had to constantly tell me to slow down with my reading, essentially putting a harness on my reading skills so that the other kids could “catch up.” This was pretty much how the rest of my schooling went with regard to English. I honestly did pretty well in my English classes. Like I’m not even trying to gas myself up here or anything, but my essays were usually pretty fucking lit despite my never doing the required readings for any of those classes. I don’t even know, like I went from this scared and confused child who couldn’t understand what anyone around him was saying to someone who would be asked to proofread college and scholarship essays for friends. English was no longer a burden on me. I learned to use it well enough that I began to identify as somebody who had a pretty lit command of the language, but this achievement came at a cost. What I hadn’t noticed was that during the years I spent developing my English, my ability to speak Vietnamese suffered. I began to realize that I couldn’t speak Vietnamese like I used to. I would stutter, mumble and replace various words with their English equivalent. As much as I tried to communicate with my parents, the words just couldn’t come out with the clarity and eloquence I was so familiar with when speaking English. I knew that I knew these words. Spoken to me, I’d understand almost every Vietnamese word my parents would speak, but as I sorted through the linguistic rolodex in my brain to try to hunt for the right string of words or phrases to respond back to them, nothing came out. I don’t really know how to describe it. It’s like getting into a really fucked up accident and having to learn how to walk again. Like you knew that at some point in the past you could do it, and that you did it pretty well, but here you are, trying to pick up these pieces of your past so that you can put together at least a semblance of who you once were. With language having had such a profound impact on me, I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that I more or less lost my ability to proudly communicate in my mother tongue. I was even having trouble calling it that. Like aren’t you supposed to know your mother tongue better than anything else? By technicality English is my second language, so I just felt so distraught realizing that my ability to speak it had so greatly surpassed the language I was basically born speaking. In a way it felt like language, something I had learned to confide in for so long and something that helped me form my identity, betrayed me in some type of way? I can’t really think of another word for it. Honestly, I was just about 50 shades of shook over the whole situation if you really want to know the truth.
This whole story brings me back to what I was talking about earlier, the whole discussion on “fullness.” I guess a kind of end goal for me in terms of culture and identity would be to connect to something remotely similar to Tchaikovsky’s cultural “fullness,” and I don’t mean end goal like it’s something I want to do before I die or anything. I just mean it in the sense like, “Damn, wouldn’t it be really fucking incredible to feel the way Tchaikovsky felt about his own identity?” I think why this whole ordeal hit me so hard is because I feel like language is one of the most important facets of a culture. Like, beyond anything else, language connects you with others in such a personal way, so I kept asking myself, like, if I can’t speak the language of a particular culture, can I even fully identify with it? I’m just very preoccupied with the word “fully,” but how, like, many things can I even fully identify as? It just brings up a shit ton of questions, like, “Can I fully identify as a given ethnicity if I wasn’t born in a certain place?” or “Can I fully be an ethnicity if I don’t necessarily look like a person who belongs to it?” Perhaps such an inability to fully identify as anything nowadays is something symptomatic of the modern age. Like, it could just be something that accompanies the common practice of compartmentalizing every aspect of our being into these new and labeled divisions. Maybe in some ways this Tchaikovskic fullness isn’t realistic. Like, I could just one day come to the realization that I will never be able to, in any manner, replicate even the modicum of the fullness Tchaikovsky wrote about, but even if that were the case, I don’t think there are any real detriments toward the pursuit of such a feeling. Some might call it myopic, like somehow having this focus on a singular aspect of culture in the hopes of attaining some abstract fulfillment isn’t sensible. I mean, I can definitely see how people would believe that, seeing it as being vapid and shallow, but I think we have to keep in mind that we all currently live in this era where we ourselves have the ability, now more than ever, to form our own identities. We can choose to append or remove certain facets and aspects of ourselves to grow closer to our ideal self, and I think that’s a very freeing aspect of it all, despite claims that it can be seen as being inauthentic or full of shit. I guess the hyper-idealized millennial sense of self is the result of a fluid amalgamation of various different things. Maybe this fluidity is a completely different sense of self than Tchaikovsky’s original interpretation of fullness, or perhaps the result of this amalgamation is exactly how he may have felt. I mean, as much as I’d like to, I can’t really slide into his DMs to ask him how he personally defines fullness, so I guess a lot of it is up in the air. The fact of the matter is, I’m still trying to figure out my own sense of self and how it relates in the context of the world around me. And maybe I won’t ever be able to say that I am Vietnamese in the fullest sense of the word and feel the satisfaction Tchaikovsky felt. I guess I can be fine with that and just do my best to work toward a sense of fullness and fulfillment that reflects what it means to be fully myself, whatever the hell that may even mean.