Life Life

14/02/2019 - 07:18

The word ‘dạ’ of mine* 

It is unclear since when the image of Hue in media outlets, on social networks and in the thoughts of many people has been of conical hats and the flying white ‘ao dai’

On the sloping road, my mother talked about "Sweet and lovely ‘dạ thưa’ words" from the lyrics of the song “Nang tho xu Hue” (Hue Muse).  She hinted a little reminder in her tone. I mumbled something under my breath. Perhaps the phrase was so familiar so I could not really feel it. Or maybe it was because I feel more joy and compassion in the phrase ‘dạ o’ (yes, auntie) that older people use when speaking to me.

Joy in my hometown. Photo: Doan Quang

It may be very strange to hear, but in fact, I often wish to receive the ‘dạ’ a few more times, to feel the joy rising in my heart. My Hue people, how lovely they are!

It is unclear since when the image of Hue in media outlets, on social networks and in the thoughts of many people has been of conical hats and the flying white ‘ao dai’. Without a strong impression, it is rare for people to remember Hue and Hue people as someone else aside from the image of gentle, lovely girls. 

I do not dare to assert that I am much different. I think for sure it is because I have just passed through the stage in my life in which I wore a white ‘ao dai’ every day and rode a bicycle with friends along the road to school. So, this image for me is strangely familiar. I also say ‘dạ’ often. Therefore, the word ‘dạ’ from when I was a little girl to now seems quite modern. It comes naturally and then disappears into thin air.

At this time, sitting by the car window halfway rolled down, my mother’s words reminded me of grandma helper back home, and of another old lady about her age, who always ‘dạ’ with a small customer when the two exchanged money and some lottery tickets.

I have a very different point of view. The ‘dạ, thưa’ of older people around me is when grandma helper hurriedly answered my grandmother as they cleaned the house or the kitchen together. The word ‘dạ’ and countless other Hue words, when spoken by those in the stage of old age are no longer clear voices. The words are hidden behind the warm smile blacken from eating betel nut. They are the sounds of heavy breathing as they climb the stairs. They are the local accents mixed between the /nh/ and the /d/ sounds. At the end stage of life, there are not many who say ‘dạ’ or ‘thưa’ anymore. Therefore, I feel blessed to be able to hear such magical sounds.

Back when grandma helper first came to live and work for us, I heard her saying ‘dạ’ all the time, from ‘Dạ o’ (yes, auntie), ‘dạ chị’ (yes, sister), to even ‘dạ cháu’ (yes, grandchild). Those first awkward conversations where one said ‘dạ’ and the other would also reply ‘dạ’ became the memory of grandma helper for me. Because she is a traditional Hue woman, the nature of patience is ingrained in her. After 16 years of working for us, she became close to us like a family member. Her conversations with family members became less formal, and the word ‘dạ’ was used less frequently. Yet in many of the conversations, perhaps because of her position as our housemaid, I believe with grandma helper, the word ‘dạ’ carries the meaning of unconditional agreement. It subconsciously appears in her throat, unescapably. She never refuses any requests or suggestions.

Though I am quite young, I find myself quite drawn to old people. A very different ‘dạ’ is the soft voiced ‘dạ, tui cảm ơn’ (yes, thank you), as soft as the image of the small trembling hand, drawing the lottery ticket for the customer, along with happy eyes shining. At a higher pitch, ‘dạ’ becomes ‘’ for the old lady with trouble hearing – ‘Dá, chị noái răng?’ (Yes? What did you say?). ‘Dạ tui ở trên ni, đi bộ cả ngày rứa, chơ khôn đi thì mơi cơm mô ăn’ (Yes, I live in the area. I walk all day. That’s the only way can I make enough money to eat.); “Dạ tui cạm ơn. Dạ cầu phước cho chị”. (Yes, thank you. Yes, bless you, sister.)

But after a few questions, the ‘dạ’ can come as a sharp sigh. It carries the images of the old lady’s children all working far away and of her living alone. The ‘dạ’ then is full of melancholy and resignation. Indeed, if we were to count, there would be many shades of the word ‘dạ’. It is the word of experiences, of love, and of longing; it is the word of heartache and resignation of those old figures in their dark blouses, in their conical hats, in their straggling steps; it is the word of hard work and of sacrifice of the old Hue. How lovely is the sound! The ‘dạ’ of a girl in a white ao dai can never be as deep...

A few days ago, for a reason I can’t say, grandma helper said, ‘Probably at year-end, I might ask your mother to stop working...’ I was truly scared when she said so. Though I have heard this sentence before a few years back, but each time she said it, a feeling of insecurity flooded through me. If she quits then who will be my second grandmother? If she quits, who will converse with my grandmother every day? Who will half say ‘’ (informal yes), half say ‘dạ’ when someone asks for help? Who will remind me of the hesitations those first few days? Would it be that my ‘dạ’ would disappear, like the old lady with the walking stick and lottery tickets who has not passed by our house recently? Strangely, grandma helper would not live far from us... but I just felt so disappointed.

Unlike others, the ‘dạ’ in my experience does not remind me of a Hue with just ‘ao dai’ and Truong Tien Bridge. It reminds me of the strong smell of the rubbing oil, of the loose blouse, of the pant legs one higher than the other, of the silver hair and of the kind and gentle soul that is as lovely as ever.

By Le Phuong Hanh Nhi

* Translator note: ‘Dạ’ or ‘dạ thưa’ in Vietnamese are honorific polite markers to show respect or humbleness.