RACISM IN THE VIETNAMESE CHURCH AND COMMUNITY

11/27/04 by Joseph Nguyen

 

Generally, there are four main distinct Vietnamese dialects: North Vietnamese (Bắc), Southern Vietnamese (Nam), Middle Vietnamese (Trung) and the Huế (the last King's region), which is near Middle Vietnam. Although I use the words "Southern Vietnamese" in this writing, if you are Middle Vietnamese or Huế, feel free to substitute yours into the writings, where applicable.

 

Why are writing, singing, reading and speaking in the Southern Vietnamese dialects and accents wrong to do? You may have many reason based on your point of reference, and I've heard of most of them. I don't agree with them, obviously. Thus, I will share with you why I don't see anything wrong with it.

 

I found a thick Vietnamese dictionary that was printed in Si Gn before 1954 and compared it to the ones of today. There were lots of changes, more and more each passing year. These changes all had one theme: get rid of South Vietnamese from the Vietnamese language. It would be prejudice and racist for anyone to think that Northern Vietnamese is right and everyone else is wrong, don't you think?

 

As one who is born in Southern Vietnam, and growing up there until I was almost 10 years old, I see the my native language gradually changed before my very eyes. First come small changes, then big changes. Small changes are like these writings: Chnh Phủ (government) becomes Chnh Phủ, Bịnh Viện becomes Bệnh Viện, and Nhứt becomes Nhất. My elderly mentors would give me the excuses like, "Oh, they're just small changes. We have Northern Vietnamese in our communities now and we should open our minds and accept their way as equal." A very noble, loving suggestion, I thought. But in application, either I accept Northern Vietnamese as the right way or I will be persecuted. Small changes become big ones, too. Words that are not vulgar become vulgar, and words that are proper become improper. And vice versa.

 

These changes took away my freedom of expression. Then suddenly, God took many of us to America, the land of the free and the home of the brave. America is a land so blessed by God that most people would like to make it here if they can't make it to Heaven. I believe it would be a disservice to God to continue this unjust form of slavery, after He has showed us what freedom is all about.

 

If you think that I don't know much Vietnamese because I left the country when I was just finishing my fourth grade, you are right. I have supplemented my Vietnamese skills when I was in college by taking Advanced Vietnamese and Vietnamese Literature, which was taught by a Northern Vietnamese instructor. But where I learned most of my Vietnamese was when I started to attend Vietnamese-speaking churches after I graduated from college. Yes, I learned my Vietnamese from the ordinary folks whom I attend church with. This is where I find many people who had just a third grade education knowing a lot more literature that those who had finished all 12 grades in Vietnam. Although my Vietnamese is a mixture of many different kinds, my native tongue still emerges as my most natural and truthful dialect.

 

Now, I'm an American. But best of all, I am a believer in Jesus Christ. It's not natural to change things that are right. I have to be true to myself when I worship God or sing praise to his name. Yet I see many of my colleagues try to consciously do sing in Northern Vietnamese with effort, for fear of ridicule or worse. There is racial cleansing going on, and upheld in the churches.

 

Many Vietnamese come up with rationales as to why the slavery should go on. Upon careful examinations of all these rationales, I see them as not fully thought out. I do not wish to insult anyone's intelligence, so I will only deal with a couple of excuses. One rationale is that the Southern Vietnamese "don't pronounce words correctly or clearly. For example, the V-sound is pronounced with the Yea-sound." That's correct. Like Japanese, there is no V-sound in Southern Vietnamese. If there were only Southern Vietnamese influence in the alphabetized version of Vietnamese, there would not be the letter V in any Vietnamese word other than foreign words. While the V-sound and the Z-sound is non-existent in Southern Vietnamese, Northern Vietnamese has no Yea-sound and no R-sound, and substituted these with Z-sound. Northern Vietnamese had no Sh-sound and had to substitute it with S-sound (Note that S is pronounced Sh while X retains the S-sound in Southern Vietnamese, whereas both S and X sound the same in Northern Vietnamese.) Nor does Northern Vietnamese had the Tr-sound, and had to substitute it with the Ch-sound in their pronunciation. There are those who will try to disagree with me on this, but the "proof of the pudding" is to record them while they are unaware of it and playback their pronunciation. Thus, no one can say Northern Vietnamese pronounce more accurately without being ignorant of the facts that we all have some type of deficiency. I think this is one of the ways God has balanced the scales. In any language, there are many inconsistent ways we pronounce words, as is the case of the American English language.

 

Another rationale that people had used was that Western music only sounds good in Northern Vietnamese. Many of the western music (or modern music) had been translated into Northern Vietnamese in the early days. So from this basis, the slave drivers apply Northern Vietnamese pronunciation to all non-traditional Vietnamese songs, regardless of where the authors are from. Even Western style songs written by Southern Vietnamese composers are still demanded to be sung in Northern Vietnamese in public. However, as I explore this thoroughly, I find not much differences between the two languages other than word choice. Both pronunciations sound good to me if sung from the heart, naturally. If you are not comfortable with some words, make slight changes to them. For the most part, since there was infiltration where North and South becomes one, there is not many words that are uncommon to the general Vietnamese vocabulary. There's nothing magical about Western music that requires it to be sung in Northern Vietnamese. Music is a part of everyone's psyche, and like love, it works in any language- straight from the heart! God's gift of music should be shared to all cultures and language.

 

Modern Vietnamese in the Roman alphabet version, which is phonetic based, is in existence for only 100 years and has been changing since the Vietnamese Bible was published in 1929. Much credit was given to Father Alexander de Rhodes, a Jesuit Priest who came to Vietnam in 1624 but was extricated in 1645. But the first publication, a Rhodes' Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary in 1651 and today's Vietnamese books had much changes, especially in the area of spelling and diacritical marks. Even in the 1950s, people were still using Chinese brush characters (Chữ Nho & Chữ Nom) in Vietnam. The spelling changes were based on the dialects of the ones making the changes.

 

Pronunciation is correct only relative to certain regions. It does not apply to a whole class of people. I have many Chinese friends. They tell me of efforts to move Mandarin toward a Roman alphabet version, too. But these proved to be unsuccessful due to the hardliners wanting to keep the brush-stroke tradition, and the spelling of each world would inevitably pit one group as being more accurate than another group of Chinese speakers. If you look at the phone book, you'll see many spelling variations of the same Chinese name.

 

Anyone can see through these rationales. All I ask Vietnamese people, especially Vietnamese Christians, to do is to love one another as Jesus had loved them[1].

 

The worst part of this holocaust is that within the churches of Jesus Christ, the leaders themselves act this way. Even in America, the very souls Jesus had bled and died for, the very souls He had released from their prison doors, they are being put into another prison by the leadership. You may think there is freedom of worship in America, but I tell you that's not the case inside the Vietnamese churches. And when I see persecution within the churches on the Southern Vietnamese, I realized that if I don't stand up for what is right in God's eyes, God will not be pleased with me. I feel God's calling for me to finish this writing within 2004, to mark the 50th year after the massive infiltration of Northern Vietnamese into South Vietnam. This is when the unjust slavery begins on a massive scale.

 

Because the so-called Vietnamese "church" of Jesus is at the forefront of this racism, judgment begins with the household of God - It must stop. For any "church" of Jesus to be prejudiced against South Vietnamese means that "church" is prejudiced against Jesus himself. While it is a dishonor to the millions of South Vietnamese soldiers who have sacrificed their lives and limbs for the freedom of the South from bondage, it is mainly sinning against God himself. He gave his Son's life for us to be free to worship him from the heart. Yet the Vietnamese "church" have prevented the South Vietnamese from doing so. How have they prevented true worship? To make this paper less lengthy, I won't go into too many details. When you read my action steps for the Vietnamese churches, you will get a glimpse of this persecution. Oh, racism can get really ugly. And to think how the racists can call themselves Christians. My battle is not against flesh and blood, so I typically go as far as I could with God on my side, and then God takes care of the rest.

 

IF THE SON (JESUS) SETS YOU FREE, YOU WILL BE FREE INDEED[2]. SO WHY ARE YOU BOUND BY MAN-MADE RULE?

 

Here are some key points about why the imposed slavery to the Northern Vietnamese dialect is wrong.

 

1.      Diversity is Strength. Vietnam is diverse and has influence from all kinds of culture and language. Separated by geography and culture, Vietnamese heritage can be considered to have 4 major groups, each comprised of tens of millions of Vietnamese people- North, South, Middle and Hue. North and South are the major groups in number. If North Vietnamese language is to be considered Vietnamese, then South Vietnamese language is also Vietnamese. South Vietnamese language should not be considered as uneducated or stupid Vietnamese. In America, we call the notion of the "Superior Northern Vietnamese" a type of racism or prejudice. To silence Southern Vietnamese from literature, public meetings, church meetings, radio, and television or other media is simply racial cleansing at its worst. It is a form of hate. God considers hate to be equivalent to the sin of murder. If Vietnam is to be united as one, we must respect one another and free one another to be true to themselves.

 

2.      Fairness and Respect[3]. If South Vietnamese allows the Northern Vietnamese to speak, read and talk in Northern Vietnamese dialects and accents, the same gesture of unprejudiced mindset should be extended to the Southern Vietnamese. Since 1954, when Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel line, massive invasion of North, Middle and Hue people enters South Vietnam. With the exception of South Vietnamese farmers who lost their land to create space for these refugees, most Southern Vietnamese welcome their new neighbor. The welcome is reflected in a song titled "Tiếng H Miền Nam" (may be translated as "Folk Music of the South.") A famous Northern Vietnamese composer, Phạm Duy (1922-Present), who settled in the South 4 years before the 17th parallel split, wrote that song. Jesus would have considered this welcome a gesture of brotherly love. However, the sinful heart of men considers this easy going attitude to be the weak point that enables to the elimination of Southern Vietnamese from the literatures, songs, and voice from the mouth of the Southern Vietnamese people by their new neighbors. The easy going attitude, in the absence of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, eventually led to the down fall of South Vietnam to the North in terms of language first, and finally in terms of losing the war in 1975. Southern Vietnamese people were forced into a cultural slavery which the Northern Vietnamese neighbors impose on them, leading them to accept that they are wrong and the North was right, and that if anyone speak and write Southern Vietnamese, he/she is truly "Qu Ma Dốt Nt" (translated as "Stupid Idiot.") Since no one wants to be considered as a stupid idiot, only old folks songs that have long been sung in Southern Vietnamese accents are allowed to be sung in Southern Vietnamese accents, and all new songs, especially western songs translated into Vietnamese are "required" to be sung in Northern Vietnamese accents. Occasionally, a handful of songs slips by with Southern Vietnamese accents if it talks about the uneducated Southern Vietnamese farmer's simple lifestyle or if the singer pretends to be drunk or joking. If I were a Southern Vietnamese soldier from the South, having to listen to western music all sung in Northern Vietnamese accents by Southern Vietnamese singers, my psyche would have been damaged greatly and I would not fight as valiantly as I thought. That's one way to kill me. Even Southern Vietnamese who follow this psychological slavery look down on other Southern Vietnamese who don't follow this slavery as stupid. Yet, these so-called stupid ones are the ones who live truly from the heart - who talk, sing, read and write in their native Southern Vietnamese accents and dialects. In America, the people who are racist (or sometimes called "Red Necks") are the true stupid ones, because they are ignorant of the fact that God considers all men equal.

 

3.      Differences are facts of life. God would vary people's language so that they would look toward Him as the answer and not on man's wisdom trying to gain strength by having a common language. He changed the world's common language into hundreds of other languages at the Tower of Babel[4]. But He didn't stop there. After 440 years from the time Israel went to Egypt, even North-Western Israelites spoke differently from North-Eastern Israelites[5]. Yet, God loves them both just like he loves both the Northern Vietnamese and Southern Vietnamese.

 

4.      God prefers to communicate with us in our own way. God spoke[6] to each one of us in our own language (dialects, accents, etc.) so why should any of us insult Him by reply back to Him in a more superior one? In fact, Jesus spoke[7] with a peculiar accent from Galilee to his disciples, and even while he was being tried in Pilate's court. People can understand him with his differences. We have the benefit of hearing some of those words through their transliteration into Koine Greek in the New Testament. For example, Jesus and his Galilean friends pronounced the name "Alazar" as "Lazar," of which Jerome added the "us" ending to make the name "Lazarus" when he translated the Bible into Latin. Galilean Jews are even ridiculed of in the Talmud (which is a product of man's idea of God's religion) for their peculiar speech, yet Jesus chose to speak Galilean. If Jesus is in our church today, one may speculate that Jesus will speak Southern Vietnamese due to the prejudice against them by the Northern Vietnamese and by the snobbish Southern Vietnamese who are afraid of ridicule by the North Vietnamese.

 

5.      God is the God of all nations, languages, and dialect[8]. Southern Vietnamese people have their existence in God's sight. All people are equal in the sight of God[9]. We all have sinned and come short of God's glory. There is only one way to God for all mankind, and that's through Jesus blood. We brought nothing into this world and we can take nothing out of it. Please, no more racial cleansing.

 

Here are some recommendations for actions, which starts in the household of God:

 

  1. With your God given money, be a good steward of what God has blessed you and start buying music sung in Southern Vietnamese, especially if you are Southern Vietnamese.
  2. If you are in church, make sure the person speaking in Southern Vietnamese have a place in worship. If he or she stands up and share something in church, make sure the volume on the microphone is not turned lower than another who chose to speak in northern accent. Be consistent. Don't let him go up to serve only when there are not a lot of people there.
  3. Make sure you don't look down on yourself by "kissing up" to the Northern Vietnamese Only crowd, also, by trying to pronounce words the way they do. Be your natural self.
  4. Make sure you don't teach the kids of the Southern Vietnamese to pronounce words and sing songs in the Northern Vietnamese dialects. Your job is to spread God's Word, not Northern Vietnamese.
  5. If you are someone organizing a big music event where Southern Vietnamese are part of the choir, make sure you don't shift the microphone away from him or her, even realizing they are your best singers.
  6. In public events such as Tết, and there are 2 men speaking on stage where one speaks in Northern Vietnamese and the other in Southern Vietnamese, do not lower the microphone of the Southern Vietnamese such that it is noticeably difficult to hear the Southern Vietnamese. When the two of them sing together, I can only hear the Northern Vietnamese guy.
  7. If you still insist on rejecting the Southern Vietnamese because of the dialect, please tell him or her that upfront. Show your true color. Don't make life difficult for them throughout their months of practice, in the hope that they will finally give up. Don't wait until the hour that he or she is about to sing to say that the solo portion has been cancelled.
  8. If you are a church leader who is organizing a special service to the community, e.g. Christmas or Resurrection, and you've never require an audition, don't suddenly require an audition because of someone wishing to participate in their Southern Vietnamese.
  9. If you do require an audition, with stringent rules like everyone must remember their songs without looking at music sheet, stick to the rules. Do not reject the Southern Vietnamese because he or she is ready while the rest of the people you selected either does not show up or is not ready and was still not ready even after 3 or 4 tries.
  10. If you are teaching Vietnamese, make sure you provide the students with many choices and instructors for Vietnamese. There is a silent majority of Southern Vietnamese out there.

 

To those who are still bent on enforcing the North Vietnamese agenda, I have this to say. Jesus loves you unto repentance, very much. Start by repenting of this sin of hatred. God taught us to do justly, to have mercy and to walk humbly with Him[10]. So, don't you ridicule anyone or hold anyone back from serving Him in his or her native tongue. And, don't remove whole groups of people from true worship of God in public either. Repentance starts in the church[11], then it will catch worldwide.

 

Are you still determined on silencing the Southern Vietnamese from public life, such as from spreading the gospel and the love of Jesus in Southern Vietnamese accents? I give you fair warning now. When you see Jesus, either after you die or in the near future, you'll see what he will do to you. God taught that hatred for another person is the same as committing murder[12]. God also teaches that no murderer shall inherit the Kingdom of God. Are you that evil? Perhaps so, but today is the day of repentance[13]. Today is the day of salvation.

 

There is legal form of slavery, such as when someone owes you great amount of money that they would have to work for you until the year of Jubilee[14] or until they can pay it off. There is even an illegal form of slavery in God's sight, that of forced slavery by conquest. Let there be a Jubilee to free yourself and your people from the bondage of men. The Jubilee occurs every 50-year cycle on the Jewish calendar. God declares that after 50 years of legal slavery, all slaves in Israel receive their freedom. Based on that comparison, start now by setting the Southern Vietnamese free.

 

By treating people with dignity and respect, you will show yourself to be true servants of God. By giving equal time to other Vietnamese dialects, especially on radio and TV airwaves, you will show to the world that God is no respecter of persons, but that He wants every Vietnamese to be saved. And whatever you do unto the least of these my brothers you are doing it to me, says Jesus. All should be done for God's glory, not for showing off your education level or for the elevating Northern Vietnamese ways. May the grace of God and peace through Jesus Christ be yours. God bless you all.



[1] John 13:34

[2] John 8:36, Isaiah 42:6-8

[3] Leviticus 19:15, Romans 13:7

[4] Genesis 11:9

[5] Judges 12:6

[6] Acts 22:13-15

[7] Mark 14:70

[8] Revelation 5:9

[9] Acts 10:34

[10] Micah 6:8

[11] 1 Peter 4:17

[12] 1 John 3:15

[13] Hebrews 4:7, Luke 19:9

[14] Leviticus 25:10