By Stephanie Harp
Ars longa, vita brevis (Art is eternal, life is fleeting)
– logo, Tsunami Tattoo
Phuc Tran is a busy man. After more than two decades of teaching classical languages, while owning a tattoo shop, he has made another name for himself – as a writer. Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In was first published in 2020 and is now in paperback. And as primary tattooer at Tsunami Tattoo, the shop he and his wife Sue opened in Portland in 2003, he has a waiting list that is a year long. “There are more people who want to get tattoos than there are of me, I guess,” he said.
In 2022, Sigh, Gone was chosen for the Maine Humanities Council’s ReadMe campaign, and was Maine’s adult selection for the Library of Congress National Book Festival. “That was an incredible honor and privilege. I’m delighted, and humbled,” he said. In his new role as author, he makes an average of one or two appearances a week for readings, conversations, and workshops. “It’s been pretty amazing to see how people can see the humanity of [the book], which is what I think happens when we really see and hear each other’s stories,” he said. When juggling teaching, tattooing, writing, and family became too much, he stepped away from teaching.
Tran arrived in the U.S. with his family as refugees from Vietnam in 1975, when he was less than 2 years old. Sigh, Gone – the title is a play on Sài Gòn (Saigon), where he was born – is the tale of his difficult transition to American life in central Pennsylvania, from the time he was a toddler until he finished high school. This included choosing an Americanized way to say his name, pronouncing “Phuc” like “Luke,” which is not how it sounds in Vietnamese.
He credits both punk rock and literature with saving him – the first as a means to finding friendships and a niche, and the second as a window into the larger world. In college, he majored in classical languages and literature, and taught both middle and high school in New York City and in Maine. “Mostly Latin, a little Greek, sometimes German,” he said. “Occasionally I would be an interloper in the English department.” When he taught at Portland’s Waynflete School from 2003 to 2019, Latin was required in sixth grade. He taught independent studies in German, and once or twice even taught Sanskrit. “It’s so hard that only the most ambitious students really want to take it. The grammar and all of it – it’s a very quirky, Byzantine language.”
And Tran certainly understands how words impact communication (he knows a total of six languages, including English and Vietnamese) especially between people speaking different ones. Growing up, he would run into difficulties explaining to his parents some English-language ideas that are not really translatable into Vietnamese. “When you’re young, you can see those abstract concepts that are baked into language. Your brain is much more elastic and readily adaptable. As you’re older, especially as you’re acquiring more and more languages, the barrier is much higher,” he said, describing this as another cultural gap that develops between first and second generation immigrants and refugees. The fissures, as he called them, are part of the loss inherent in leaving a home country and moving to a different one. “Parents and kids need to work hard to make sure that the gaps are bridged,” said Tran.
He believes that how well people adapt depends on the community where they live. “My situation growing up in Pennsylvania was distinct. Specifically because of the federal government, my brother and I and our family were isolated from other Vietnamese,” he said. This was due to a policy of refugee dispersion, which hindered the ability to form communities among those from the same background, leading to language attrition. “I don’t think that’s the policy or the mindset now, which is great. … Maybe we would benefit from expanding what it means to preserve a culture, or to maintain a connection to two cultures. I bristle a little bit when people say, ‘It’s really nice that you’ve kept up with your culture,’ ” – meaning the culture of Vietnam – “as if American culture can’t include Viet culture or any aspect of it.”
In Maine today, things seem different to him. “My sense is that the Somali and Sudanese and the other communities of New Mainers that are here are able to organize and connect in a way that we weren’t,” he said. “I think that every sort of community and generation has different needs. … Above all else, people having a sense of space and community is really important, and I think that was something that was missing for my family.”
Being Asian American in Maine does not feel as isolating for him as people might assume. “I grew up in a place that was also 90% white, so I feel quite comfortable in Maine. And I felt comfortable in New York City also. I think when you grow up in a marginalized space, and your early area of expertise is navigating dominant culture, you become really good at it,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad.” While he is comfortable here, Tran acknowledges that different people need different things. “I think Maine is incredibly diverse. Beneath the apparent homogeneity of race, it is a diverse and rich state with lots of different backgrounds and stories.”
When his parents – resourceful as immigrants need to be – met his wife’s resourceful Maine parents, they connected. “It’s sort of only a half joke. Refugees are the original DIY’ers,” he said. “You don’t get anything as it is, out of the box. You’re constantly jury-rigging stuff – from the washer/dryer that kind of works but doesn’t work, to forming a community, a DIY community.”
His two daughters are 9 and 12. “They have such a deep sense of place that I’ll never have,” he said. “They were born here, my wife was born here, she is a Mainer. They have this unassailable sense of who they are and of belonging here. Which broadens the idea of who is a Mainer. That’s a longstanding conversation. I think my daughters are part of that.”
Meanwhile, Tran will continue to make his art – on paper and in tattoos – and will continue to craft the many identities of his life.