Thursday, September 21, 2006

Dream a little dream

I know that, when younger, I dreamed in Vietnamese. One day I must have started dreaming in English – but I don't know when that happened. I am told, by my ever-present and piercingly observant partner, that I occasionally speak in my sleep what he thinks might be Vietnamese. Of course, when he hears Vietnamese, he might just be hearing sounds and the gibberish I utter in my sleep may have the tones and inflections of Vietnamese, but it could equally be just gibberish.

Once I was on a bus and I heard a woman speaking in Vietnamese. I listened in, as I have a tendency to do (consoling myself that it is a way of refining my language skills rather than invading another's privacy). I could completely comprehend everything she said but the man's voice that responded, did so with only meaningless vowel sounds. I tried as best I could to make them out, but even the words I could have guessed by imagining the dialogue were not emitted by this man. I could not resist turning around to look at him, to make sure that he was Vietnamese, or to check that the woman actually had a companion and was not talking into a phone. The woman had a companion and he looked Vietnamese. But I could not understand even the simplest of the things I was expecting him to say. It was most perplexing. I wonder if my partner listens to some of my conversations with my siblings in the same way. One moment, we are perfectly comprehensible – the next, mere vowel sound falling out of our mouths, resembling words he might have known but which cannot be grasped by his brain, cannot be shaped into some meaning.

For years I had this recurring dream:

I walk into a house and a disembodied voice says: "Come here." I look around and see a flight of stairs, heading downwards. As I turn to walk down the stairs, I find myself carrying a tray of food.

I walk down the stairs carefully balancing the tray. Sometimes, I walk into darkness, sometimes into blindingly bright light, and sometimes into warm-yellow tinted hues.

At the bottom of the stairs there is a man. When I am eye-level with him, I offer the tray of food. He is holding a gun, pointing straight at me. I drop the tray. He pulls the trigger. I scream - and wake up.

This dream was consistent in its themes. The house, the flight of stairs, what was on the tray of food, how the man appears - these details change. I can recall that, in the early versions of this dream, the voice spoke Vietnamese. I recall that in another version, the blinding light basement, was full of shiny metal, like a B-grade science fiction movie. And I recall clearly the dream in which I was carrying pizza.

In my early teens, I attempted to wake myself before the dream ended. I knew, when dreaming this dream, exactly what would happened (after all, I dreamed it so often). I knew I should not listen to the voice, and yet I did. I knew the carrying of the food was humiliation, a symbol of my oppression, to be mocked by my executor. And yet, I always descended the flight of stairs, and I always offered the tray of food, before being shot. As the years went on, the dream took on an added nightmarish meaning: I was powerless to stop myself from walking into my own demise.

I had this dream at least once a month for 2 - 3 years until I forgot about it. Then, in my early years of university it came back. But what the dream did not realise was that in the intervening years, I had learned to control my dreams. I was not always successful, but I could often head off the worst parts of a nightmare. More often, I would wake myself up in the middle of the dream and lie awake, re-plotting it. Then I would sleep again, let the dream start from the beginning and attempt to influence its end. Sometimes I was successful, sometimes I was not.

The last night I dreamed the stairs-food-shot dream, I was carrying pizza. The first version, I was shot. Lying awake after that, I decided what I had to do: I would still be obedient - I had to descend the flight of stairs. But I could rebel in another way. At the bottom of the flight of stairs, I threw the tray at my tormentor and then turned around and ran back up those stairs, through the corridors of the house and out again, into sunshine.

When did I learn this trick? I had a lot of nightmares – this was my way of ensuring I got a decent night's sleep. One of my nightmares was so vivid, and I was so disturbed, that my screams while I was sleeping brought my father into the room, shaking me violently awake. He took me upstairs with him that night, and made me sleep in the living room nearer to him and my mother.

A couple of years ago, I was surprised to learn that the frequency and intensity of my nightmares was unusual. Not long after that piece of knowledge embedded itself into my overly-receptive imagination, my nightmares seem to have disappeared. I do not have nightmares anymore. Isn't that odd?


laziicat said...

wow. you actually remember dreams. i just know i have them but very rarely does the content of the dream stay with me... least your partner has a legit exscuse to NOT under stand your family....language barrier and all boi and i, we are both viet but i am a southy (with abit of north lurking somewhere) whilst he is hue. and you know what that means. if i dont concentrate when i am over his house talking to his parents i loose the plot totally...and the times i have had to remind him when talking to my parents/gran to either slow down or shake the accent...

just as bad....harhahrhhar

sume said...

That is strange. Even the idea of recurring dreams are a rarity with me. I can't control my dreams at all, when I can sleep that is. This insomnia is killin' me.

It's interesting how you interpretted the dream. I was prone to nightmares as child but only have them occasionally now. Their underlying themes seem to be helplessness and lack of control, often manifested in dreams of being trapped.

On the language, my SO mentioned on a few occasions how he dreamed in English and sometimes in Arabic. When I use to hear him speaking in Arabic, it did sound like gibberish, but eventually I was able to distiquish sounds and eventually words. Amazingly, I eventually learned enough (which I've now mostly forgotten) to carry on and follow conversations to some extent.

Needless to say, I got very good at hand signals and very animated conversations.

honglien123 said...

I don't usually remember my dreams and I don't care to in case they are nightmares. Although, there is one that I've only had once, but I remember it so clearly...I would die and I'd get to choose to go back in time, to an alternate reality of my life and enter the consciousness of 16 year old self. Only, instead of forgetting my last life, I'd remember all of it. I'd even remember which stocks and economic trends were going to go through the roof and I'd write them down furiously so that I could save my lunch money to invest...and I'd remind myself of the exact moment in time when I met my hubs, so that I could meet him again when I redo my life. I'd change the parts that were bad and try desparately to preserve the good...while I write everything down, the monk that I knew who died of cancer at 55 and who was like a father to me...would walk past and wink...

In terms of dreaming in Vietnamese, I'm not sure since I don't normally remember, but I think in Vietnamese sometimes when I'm in conversation with my parents or grandparents.

OTT said...

Laziicat -

I have always remembered my dreams - if I don't, it means I am overworked or overtired, so I try to rest up for the specific purpose of recalling my dreams.

Yeah - the Hue accent is difficult! I could barely understand anyone in Hue! At least in the north I could make out what was going on but all that imperial language went completely past southern, peasant fishing stock me.

Sume -

I used to have more recurring dreams than I do now. I trained myself to control / direct my dreams - I like being able to though I am not always successful!

Insomnia is no good! Your mind must be working overtime - I had trouble sleeping for a few months in the early years of my university, and I've since learned a trick to get myself to sleep: I walk myself through an imaginary house - decorating it as I go. Sometimes, I don't even get into the front door and I have fallen asleep.

Powerlessness / Helplessness must be a common theme of dreams/nightmares...

I enjoy animated gesticalution conversations - it's wonderful how effectively human beings can communicate even when we don't share a common language. I also generally just gesticulate a lot when talking - I was once set a challenge to declaim on a topic while sitting on my hands. I failed :-( I kept yanking my hands out to try to explain a concept...

Hong Lien -

I kind of like the discovery of what my subconscious is telling me, even when it's bad.

That's a fascinating dream you have had! All these disparate elements that must be important to you are thrown into the dream - meeting your husband, reincarnation, the monk, investing. What interesting things the dream hints at!

Sadly, I don't even think in Vietnamese anymore, not even when talking to my parents / grandparents. I am interpreting inside my head as I go along. Sometimes I am very slow in Viet conversations because of my sad, sad need to interpret into English, work out what it would be in Vietnamese and then say something. I talk at incredible speed in English, but in Vietnamese I am so slow!

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