• Bearing the Weight of History - the Story of a Chăm-Việt-American

    The Story of Thnh Nữ Vn-Anh



    "I am a Chăm"

    We met a young woman in San Jose who wore a scarf over her head, which identified her as a person of Islamic faith. But she spoke perfect Vietnamese. A Vietnamese Muslim - Wow - what a rare site! We asked her more questions and were curious about her background. "I am a Chăm," she said, looking keenly at us for our response. She wasn't sure if we knew what a Chăm is.


    Viet's Twin Civilization

    Probably all Vietnamese with basic formal education in Vietnam would know about "người Chm," the native people of Central Vietnam. The Cham people were said to have a glorious culture built on Hindu and Islamic faiths. Thp Chm (Cham temple ruins) are famous historical relics, the largest of which at Mỹ Sơn is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Chams were brave sea-faring people. They traded with cultures all over Southeast Asia. Their language belongs to the great language family of Malayo-polynesian, whose origin stretched from East-African Madagascar to the Pacific Islands.

    In terms of cultural development, the Viets and the Chams started out on a parallel course that mirrored each other like hands of the same person. Coming out of the stone age, the Chams developed a sophisticated iron-based technology, called the Sa Huỳnh culture, while the Viets in north cultivated the bronze-based Đồng Sơn culture. The Chams were a sea-faring people while the Viets, coming from the Austro-Asiatic language family (cousin to Khmer language), thrived on agriculture. The Viets imported Han-Chinese intellectualism for their societal development, while the Cham society was built on Hindu intellectualism. The Viet's family was patriarchal and male-centered, favored by labor-intensive agriculture; while the Cham's family - with the women being the community's pillars and the men spending long months at sea - was matrilineal and women-centered.

    Even the Viet's myth of creation holds vague references to the Chams as well. The Myth talked about the angel Princess marrying a dragon Prince to create the first one hundred children who became the peoples of Southeast Asia. The angel princess, whose name was u Cơ, was the descendant of Thần Nng (the God of Agriculture) who supposedly lived somewhere in the Yangtze River region. The Dragon Prince, whose name was Lạc Long Qun, came from the sea. After the children were born, the couple split up, with half going with their mother back to the inland region and other half followed their father to live by the sea. The Myth said that modern Viets came from the stock that went with mother u Cơ. That explained the Viet's proclivity toward agriculture. But what modern people came from the group that lived with father Lạc Long Qun? Who else but the sea-faring Chams, of course!


    Brothers no more

    Hardly anyone outside of Southeast Asia knows about the Chams today, because the Viets had wiped their nation, Champa ("Chim Thnh" in Vietnamese) off the world's map since the fourteenth century. There is a deep conflict within the Vietnamese cultural consciousness about what they had done to the Chams. On one hand, they railed against the Chinese for trying to take over their homeland, originally in the Red River delta in today North Vietnam. On other hand, they did the very same thing to the Cham by taking away the Cham's way of life and country.

    This conflict is especially strong among the South Vietnamese who lost their country to North Vietnam in 1975. The Vietnamese refugees often said among themselves that the brutal Vietnam War and the subsequent loss of South Vietnam was a karmic retribution for their ancestor's unjust actions. It was also ironic that the Viets' new home, America, the land of dream and opportunity, was also built upon a bloody legacy at the expense of the native peoples. Human civilization seems to be full of savagery, and the Viets contributed their own dark chapter in their relations with the Chams.




    "Don't call me 'Chm'"

    Our first meeting with Vn Anh did not get off so great. Off the bat, Vn-Anh, she politely stopped us from calling her "Chm," a sound with a falling tone. "We are 'Chăm' (sound a little bit like 'chum'," she said, "Chm is derogatory to us." For those thinking that fussing over a tiny diacritical mark is bordering on insanity, we want to remind them that in the tonal Vietnamese language tone is everything. "M" (rising tone) means mother, but "Ma" (flat tone) means a ghost. "Tướng Khng Qun" means an Air Force general, but "Tướng Khng Quần" means a general without pants. Getting the wrong tone can get you into a lot of trouble.

    That was how we got into trouble with Vn-Anh for calling her a "Chm". Honesty, we never heard of the word "Chăm" before. All historical texts we learned used the word "Chm." We were a bit irked by Vn-Anh's demand for different term. We never meant any disrespect and didn't like someone telling us to stop using a historically honored word. But when we checked the internet on the proper term to call the Cham people, sure enough, "Chăm" was indeed the term that Cham people call themselves. The early score: Vn-Anh 1, CQF 0.


    Opening a big can of worms

    The discovery of a thriving Chăm community on the internet pleased us. We were taught that the Chăm culture had been totally destroyed. So we organized a talk on January 9th, 2011 for Vn-Anh to tell us more about her family and culture. We didn't have a great turn out, as many of our Viet friends, admittedly were uncomfortable with the cross-cultural discussion that we attempted. "You are opening a very big can of worms," professor Trương Bổn Ti, a supporter of Cham culture, reminded the group.

    Honestly, most Viets don't want to talk about this issue. "Why stir up the past?" one friend said. But Vn Anh reminded us that the legacy of maltreatment of the Chams is not of the past but the present. Even today, some Vietnamese still refer to the Chams as "mọi" (savages), cow and pig worshipers and cast them as an inferior race.

    Other Viet friends are uncomfortable with the idea of speaking ill of our own forebearers. In the Confucian tradition, doing such thing amounts to being ungrateful if not a sin. But the fact of the matter is Vn-Anh is a Viet, Cham culture is a part of Viet's greater cultural landscape, and most if not all South Vietnamese have some trace of Cham ancestry in their blood due to generations of intermarriages. So it is only right and necessary to hear what Vn-Anh has to say and what her Cham community has experienced. Furthermore, as children of the same Mother Earth, we all have the power and the responsibility to ease any the historical burden and make it better for the future generations, just by understanding. So with this intent, talking about the difficult past legacy may turn out to be of much greater service for our ancestors than looking the other way.

    Another worry we had was that the heavy historical topic would result in more bad feelings. Good intentions often beget disasters. Even Vn-Anh was nervous and she insisted on a low-key invitation-only crowd. Academic discussions on Cham-Viet relations in the past have been known to end up in fiery debates or cold resentments. At the outset, we looked naive for doing this program. If scholars could not enlighten Cham-Viet relation, how could a group of rag-tag non-experts like us do any good to a far-gone tragedy?

    But we weren't interested in scholarly truth. We were interested in Vn Anh's personal truth. A part of our motivation to form Cultural Quest Foundation comes from the belief that every person holds an important truth about his or her own culture and history, worthy to be told and shared. The most valuable source of history is in the eyewitnesses, not in the books. We become truly ignorant of our history when we don't listen to our elders and neighbors, not when we don't get enough history units. So when Vn-Anh accepted our invite to tell her story, we were delighted to give her the center stage and used scholarly information only as backdrops. That was exactly what we did and we weren't disappointed. At the end of the program, all attendees felt satisfied, hopeful and appreciative of her sharing.



    14th century map of Đại Việt (Vietnam) and Champa



    Princess Huyền Trn

    The golden age of Champa took place in the early centuries of the modern era along side with the rise of other great Hinduist worshiping centers such as Angkor in Cambodia and Bali in Indonesia. The Cham temples were adorn with curvacious Apsara dancers conjuring a time of elegance, grace and transcendence. Important Cham cities and towns were named after Hindu Gods, such as Indrapura (Đ Nẵng), Vijaya (Quy Nhơn) etc..., as professor Arti Nigam, an Indian psychologist, pointed out during the forum.

    The Khmer and Cham Hindus had one of history's most interesting love-hate relationships. While the Chams worshiped God Shiva, the Khmer honored God Vishnu. Like a classic sibling rivalry, they fought each other like enemies and then helped each other like best friends. After the Viet invasion in the fourteenth century, Cham Hinduism declined and gave way to Islamic intellectualism. Some Chams became Buddhists much like the Khmer. Cham society became culturally fragmented, by which some people hung on to the Hindu faith, while others followed the newer Islamic trend.

    The most famous story between the Cham and Viet during this time was that of Princess Huyền Trn, the daughter of Viet King Trần Anh Tng. After decades of conflict, King Trần Anh Tng and the Cham King Chế Mn signed a historic land-for-peace deal. In this agreement, the Chams would cede to the Viets two provinces and the Cham King would marry the beautiful Viet Princess, thus joining two kingdoms into one family.

    But the Viets did not keep their side of the deal. After King Chế Mn died, the Viet king ordered an attack on the Chams to retrieve his daughter, because he feared that Princess Huyền Trn would be burned alive in the Cham king's funeral pyre as dictated by Cham's custom. That attack turned out to be the first shot in the Viet's campaign of Nam Tiến (southward expansion) that eventually annexed all of Champa and part of Khmer Kingdom into Vietnam's territory.

    The story of Princess Huyền Trn captured Viet's imagination for the ages. It has a dramatic cast of characters including a powerful Viet king also a loving father, a courageous and lovely princess, and a barbaric enemy who would sacrifice an innocent woman, not to mention the man who would lead the Princess's rescue was rumored to be her own former lover.

    But unbeknown to most Viets today, there is another side to this story. Apparently, Princess Huyền Trn was never in any danger of being sacrificed. According to Cham custom of the time, only the Queen could choose to sacrifice herself in order to empower the throne for her descendants. To do so, she would have needed approval from a ruling council, in case she was needed to rule the country. Sacrifice one's life for a greater cause was nothing new nor undesirable in either Viet or Cham culture at the time. It was the queen's choice to sacrifice herself. But Princess Huyền Trn was not the queen, but the King's concubine, albeit an important one. There was no way she could die from Cham custom.


    Cultural Survival at Stake

    The West never got to know Champa, except for what little Marco Polo had wrote about this fabled kingdom during his brief visit to the Cham's seaport Singapura (Hội An). Armed with Marco Polo's data, Christopher Columbus aimed to find "Ciamba" during his Western voyage to find Asia. The East Indies happened to lie roughly on a similar parallel as Champa. By the time Western countries arrived in large numbers in the latter centuries, Champa was already relegated to archeological and historical curiosities. French colonization that stopped Viet's expansionism came too late for the Chams, as it could only help to save the Khmer kingdom instead. As the Viets pushed southward, the once seafaring Chăm people moved farther south and then into Cambodia with the largest number living in a land-locked community called Kampong Cham.

    Once both Hindus, the Khmer now Buddhists and the Chams now Muslims lived peacefully side by side, guided by each of their own gentle religion. But then the Vietnam War came and followed with the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror. Untold number of Chăm were killed in the seventies for the crime of being non-indigenous. Ironically this time, it was the Vietnamese communists that went into Cambodia to get rid of their fellow communists, the Khmer Rouge, and saved the whole country from total annihilation.

    In the twenty-first century, the threat of physical persecution has lifted, but the struggle for cultural survival is more fierce than ever. Like all indigenous cultures, the Chăm culture faces a direct assault from the pop culture which sways young people away from traditional values. Vn Anh's generation must deal with the difficult task of redefining what it means to be a Chăm in today's complex globalized world.



    Khmer Cham women visit the site where large number of Chams were killed during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror (1975-1979)



    Indifference toward being different

    In central Vietnam today, small Cham villages still remained. Vn Anh grew up in one of those villages near Phan Rang (formerly Panduranga). She spoke fluent Cham and Vietnamese. Her community was Islamic. They prayed and worshipped Allah and carried on a proud culture, personified in traditional dances, rituals and family's heirlooms and relics. Invisibility seemed to have been a good thing for Vn Anh, until she came to America in the post 9/11 era. Islam is viewed with deep suspicion here. Yet, she could not part from her head scarf that stands for her faith and integrity. Many people wanted her to take off her scarf, including some family members, for her own good in order to blend in with the hair-obsessed culture of America. But refusing to conform to societal norm may be an easier way for Vn Anh to cope. It may give her a tough day at work, but get her better sleep at night.



    Flanked by international visitors, Cham villagers stand next to their makeshift mosque in Kampong Cham, Cambodia


    To be able to dream is a success

    It does not take much to realize that Vn Anh carries a heavy burden of history on her shoulders. Yet we never heard Vn Anh talking about violence and revenge against the Việt or anyone else. On a practical level that's a good thing because she's got too many identities to afford to let any of them be at war with each other. She is a Cham, a Viet, a Muslim and an American. - a quad-cultural identity Her cultural interest is in neither Cham nor Viet or American alone, but in how much all cultures have in common and bring richness to her spirit. Her interest in Islam is very intense.

    She started a non-profit group, Moonlight Humanity to help the poor in Southeast Asia. Given that her Chăm people in Cambodia and Vietnam live in abject poverty and in much isolation from the world, she dreams of an ambitious plan to build schools, dig wells, finance new businesses, construct mosques and community centers, etc.... Visit her group's website at http://www.moonlighthumanity.org.

    Starting an ambitious charitable organization at a time of global economic downturn may seem unwise, but it would be a mistake to dismiss her vision. We need to be reminded of who Vn-Anh is and where she came from. She is a Chăm, the people with a glorious history and persistent sense of survival. As a Chăm, she is still here, growing and thriving, rather than been succumbed to hatred and despair. For any human being who could come out of a genocidal history and still be able to dream big, not for one but for many, that is a success...a big success. Ultimately, as human beings, each of us are only responsible for our own dreams. The reality is often created by the collective dreams of many. There is nothing wrong with Vn Anh dreaming of a better life for her people. But her dream could only come true there if other Viets, Muslims, Americans and people in the world also share her dream for the Chăm people to get what they deserved all along: dignity, security and respect.




    Watch our video the Shame of Đồ Bn (Hận Đồ Bn) - Đồ Bn being the former Cham capital near present day Quy Nhơn.

    "Why are old Vietnamese songs so sad?" asked a viewer. Many Cham and Viet old songs tend to be very sad, because they were not written for the mere entertainment value. They are more like spiritual doors onto the sacredness of life, love and relationship. Losses and heartbreaks have the power to help us appreciate life more deeply than pleasantries. These songs are like fish sauce for the soul. Salty, yes, but they suppose to bring out the full flavor of your own humanity. By the way, Quy Nhơn (the modern name for Đồ Bn) means "returning to humanity". See if this song does that for you.






    Want to hear what Cham singing sound like compared to Viet sound?

    Listen to a part of the song Hn Vọng Phu II (the Rock of the Waiting Wife II). The song is about a Cham-inspired Vietnamese legend that celebrated the woman's love for her husband. She waited for her husband who was at war for so long, that the weather washed away her flesh to leave behind her internal will in a form of a rock statue. Even mountains and rivers had to change their paths to yield to her desire and persistence. This song is spliced together with Cham language in the first part and Viet in the latter. English subtitle is included. Enjoy!




    Listen to one of Vn Anh's favorite songs

    Lng Chăm Qu Em (My Chăm Village) is a song Vn Anh knew from her childhood. It's about two young lovers of two different socioeconomic classes and religions looking to build a life together. The song, sung both in Vietnamese and Chăm, is performed by a famous Chăm-Viet singer Chế Linh. Performers wear authentic Chăm costumes of white garbs and red ear-tassels. The setting is in Cambodia's Angkor Thom, which was built in 10th century for Hindu worship. During that time, the Chăms were also Hindus and had vast temples similar to the Khmer. Today, Cambodia is home to the largest population of Cham people in the world. Enjoy this video from Vn Sơn Entertainment!



    Comments 2 Comments
    1. cqf-article-team's Avatar
      cqf-article-team -
      From Julie Thi Underhill, managing editor of www.diacritics.org:

      I really love this article -- it's so honest and deep and complex. So thank you!!
    1. Far-East's Avatar
      Far-East -
      I read on wikipedia that Columbus was specifically looking for "Ciamba" on his fourth and final voyage to the new world. He read from Marco Polo about going to Champa (Ciamba) and then south to Strait of Malacca to go to India.

      I don't have the link any more to this article. Please find it and add this neat historical tidbit to the story.
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