From Russia With Love

Lantuat Nguen is the first Vietnamese Russian ever to have received the title of “Honored Artist of the Russian Federation” – the highest honor possible for an artist presented by the Russian President. This title earned him privileges only the prestigious in Russia can enjoy, including premium healthcare and a yearly 2-week spa-like treatment health sabbatical at a state-owned facility reserved for government officials for extensive checkup.

Given the glittering, some rust shows on the other side of this old gold coin: his subsistent salary over the years has not allowed him to pay visit to the US as he wished. In 2011, however, things changed when the Novosibirsk Music Conservatory where Lantuat works was recognized as the third largest State level Conservatory and his salary doubled. Lantuat saved for a year to realize his dream visit to America in July 2012. This land of abundance surprised and shocked him from the ridiculous, to the sublime.

America

Not at all defensive or protective in face of new things, open-minded and confident 78 year-old Lantuat once setting foot on the U.S. land, his first stop being LA, could not stop complimenting the country and its people. His first impression of the country is that “America is a very progressive and truly hi-tech place.” Checked. The people are very hard working – “Look at all the spotless streets and even the highways everywhere!” Lantuat said. Hmm

Honestly, the association of “clean streets” and “hard-working” is the last thing that comes to mind. Normally in the US, clean streets have everything to do with money, don’t they? With available budget, the city can hire anyone to do the cleaning wherever they want. Why did Lantuat say such a thing? Depending on how familiar you are with Vietnamese, French or Russian culture, there are some “interesting” explanation that follows suit. But I leave it up to your imagination.

On a side note, I’d add this: As a product of an educational and cultural mix of France, Việt Nam, and Russia, Lantuat is a “handful:” very sensitive, gallant, and romantic; original and creative, as a good composer’s supposed to be; delightfully young at heart, from his daily contacts with 18-20 year-old music students in his teaching; efficient and modern, with his western musical techniques. Lantuat came to the former Soviet Union in 1959 when he was 25 and has kept his Vietnamese soul and some traits of traditional Vietnamese thoughts ever since. More than 50 years living in Russia, however, has made Lantuat very susceptible to changes. The mix of those young-old-modern influences makes him a very likeable person yet mysterious at the same time. He’d say things that require second guessing.

As we talked, very often Lantuat would say that as old as he is already having one foot in the grave, he is glad to be doing fine. Well, this is 21st century, 60 is the new 40; Lantuat is a very positive, agile and healthy person; everybody would guess he is in his fifties. It is strange to hear him talk about aging all the times. When asked to explain, Lantuat said, “Well, that is coquet!” [French adjective for “coquettish.”] Who would have thought! But then you have to try to understand the French, or the French-educated Vietnamese.

To clear the air, Lantuat continued to say that, “It is not true everybody enjoys or wants to live old. Some people are only 60 but life seems to be over to them. That is why I really appreciate what Russia is doing for me: I can still teach at this old age. In Việt Nam, 70-75 is considered ‘ancient.’” Besides, Lantuat admitted that Russia is not so well-off as America and pensions over there are small. As a result, retirees are usually worried about life in old age, about what they could do to supplement their pension. So not everybody is happy in retirement. The good news is the Russian government is taking measures to improve the situation so the seniors can have a more decent life.

As Lantuat revealed the context for his flirtation with aging and appreciation for what he has, I cannot help thinking that we in the US should count our blessings every day! 

Americans

After more than a week in America, Lantuat visited Chicago. By this point, obviously infatuated with American prosperity and the organization of life here, and enthralled by the freedom American people take for granted, Lantuat was fascinated just by watching the people in Chicago. On the weekend, the outdoor Theater at the Millennium Park was packed. Newborns and toddlers, young boys and girls, students and parents, they were sitting on the folding chairs they carried with them or lying on the blankets they spread over the grass, singing and dancing along the music and enjoying themselves. An everyday scene in the US. Observing people “free styling” on the concert ground, almost staring at them for minutes, Lantuat kept repeating to himself, “Incredible! I cannot believe people are free to do whatever they want here. They can sit or lie at their heart’s content, in the public!”

If you are American, you have to stop and think for a while. And count more blessing.

And NO, not everybody can behave in whatever way they want in the public without being judged or, worse, harassed. In many places, people have to be very conscious of what they can and cannot do in the public.

Walking along the windy streets of Chicago, Lantuat was also shocked at the ethnic diversity here. He could not help thinking about the time he moved to Novosibirsk in 1983 for his new job. He recalled there was a strong reaction in the press about appointing an Asian to be Professor of Music in the Conservatory. It was a tough fight for him then to gradually gain the Russians’ respect and trust. Two images of past and present collided. He said never before did he see so many people in so many skin colors and from so many ethnic groups living and working in one place like this. What can we say, this is America! 

But he was also taken aback by the number of overweight people he saw in America! Ouch!!!! Lantuat said Russian girls are the most beautiful in the world. Hmm…

For California

But then, Lantuat is not an ordinary tourist. As a very active and sociable person, his list of accolades in Russia includes Council Member of Novosibirsk, Adviser to the President’s Representative on Matters of Race and Ethnicity, among others. He is a regular commentator on television and radio. He writes to the newspapers and gives interviews very often. So much so that more than two million people in Novosibirsk cannot say they don’t know him. “Because of me,” Lantuat said, “Russia knows that not all Vietnamese people here are marketers. I am a symbol of success for the Vietnamese in Siberia.”

This proud attitude did not keep Lantuat from being so impressed at the prosperity of the Vietnamese in Orange County, Southern California. The Vietnamese community there have succeeded in establishing its own enclave in the bounty America – a phenomenon Lantuat considered possible only in the USA. To see the Vietnamese own their business and hire employees from different ethnic groups, and to see the overwhelming number of Vietnamese in one place, Lantuat was beaming.

As interesting as Chicago is, this beautiful city does not hold his heart. Lantuat already left part of his Vietnamese soul at Little Sài Gòn. “Chicago is impressive,” Lantuat confided, “but Orange County is ‘cute.’” He said the strong feeling he had for California urged him to create a composition for it – a song, perhaps. The creation process already started in his mind, as we were talking.

With this composition for California, Lantuat wanted to say: “I’ll be back!”

Lantuat in CA

Listen to music by Lantuat.

***** The Vietnamese version of this article has been published by the Vien Dong Daily News, also available online here.

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