Residence: Los Angeles, California
Date of Performance/Collection: Mar 2007
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Vietnamese
“gần mực thì đen, gần đèn thì sang”
Literal translation: “close to ink then black, near by light then bright”
The informant learned of this Vietnamese proverb when he was in third grade of Vietnamese school, while studying for a test. Again he heard it from his grandmother also, which is when he began to remember it clearly. His grandmother would tell him this proverb whenever she talked about his studies and friends at school. She would say, “gần mực thì đen, gần đèn thì sang,” which implies that you are what your friends make of you. If you hang out with bad friends (ink), you will become bad (black). If you have good friends (light), they will influence you to become good (bright). The informant believes this piece of wisdom because he sees it come true in his cousins’ lives. One was really wild and rebellious and when she found a boyfriend who was very religious and good, she began to change into her old, nice self. The informant likes to retell this to his friends who are Vietnamese, often making them laugh because normally one would not randomly quote a proverb out of the blue, but he likes to lighten the mood with quirky sayings.
This is a fairly common Vietnamese proverb, often used to teach younger kids to have good friends and be influenced by good people, opposed to bad friends. The original proverb is actually a play on words as well as a useful saying about choosing your friends wisely. It is slightly repetitive yet different, it also uses “đen” for black and “đèn” for light, in order to emphasize the similarities between the two phrases for increased memorability. This creates the most unique phrase that is easy to learn and easy to say. Usually it is the older generation teaching the younger generation, as it is in the informant’s case. However, the younger generation can also spread it to others. I believe they spread the knowledge because somewhere deep down they have an appreciation for the Vietnamese language and because that proverb is so true and the play on words is so easy to memorize, it remains in one’s memory, even from childhood.