Sunday, April 30, 2006

Que Nha

This phrase is among the new words I learned while traveling in Viet Nam. I was rather taken with this phrase – it has so many meanings and connotations that are so apt.

My eldest brother wrote a translation of it in a power point presentation that he did for our mother's sixtieth birthday. The translation he used was: home-town. But it connotes and denotes so much more than this.

Firstly, it is pronounced “wey na”. The 'wey' has a downwards inflection: a sad, somewhat nostalgic lilt. The n in 'na' is hard, like it is being choked out of the roof of your mouth, carrying thoughts too difficult for you to express. And 'na' is said with an upwards inflection, as if you are aching with a question that cannot be asked.

Secondly, if your family hailed from the Mekong delta, as my family do, this phrase suggests a sort of backwards-ness that people from country / rural regions would be familiar with when other people refer disparagingly to their home-town. It is said with a toss of the head – to indicate it is behind you. It suggests a rural backwater, a place that time has left behind.

Thirdly, the first word – que – rhymes with (and it will only take a slightly wrong inflection to turn it into) the word for embarrassed. The little rhyme play conjures up an affectionate shyness about admitting to the rural village that you hail from.

Lastly, the phrase means my home town – but it means everyone else's home town too.

When in Sai Gon (Ho Cho Minh City though no Saigonese calls it that), people would ask us whether we were travelers (du lich) or foreigners returning home (Viet Kieu). We were both. However, in the north, we were more du lich. In the south, we were very much Viet Kieu. This term is a pejorative but also an identifier that has been embraced by Viet Kieu the world (France, Canada, the USA and Australia in particular) over.

In any event, after we told people we were Viet Kieu, the very next question was: when are you going to que nha?

They never had to ask where we were from; instead, after asking when we were going to que nha, our answers would invariably tell them where our family were from. If they felt like it, they would also tell us about their que nha and it could be days travel away from our que nha.

Such a wonderful catch all word – so simple, yet so complex too. Just like home.

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