Where Quintessence Collides

Kyo York - the American with a Vietnamese soul.

If you are a fan of Guong Mat Than Quen 2013, you will never forget the American speaking and singing Vietnamese songs fluently. Kyo York also has a profound understanding of Vietnamese culture and a huge love of the country’s traditions. Humorous, kind-hearted and modest are words that best describe him. Kyo York was born in 1985, New York.

When did you first visit Vietnam and why did you choose this country?

I arrived via a study abroad program called Semester at Sea in 2007 and stayed for nearly one week. I came back with a different program for charity in 2010 called Princeton in Asia through Princeton University and was a fellow in Hau Giang in the Mekong Delta teaching English to English majors at Hau Giang Community College. I believe Vietnam chose me then. I was put here without having a choice in the matter but it fits me perfectly and has become my second home.

Where are you living? Are you alone or with your family? Have you ever invited your friends/family to Vietnam?

I live in district three in Saigon by myself. Because I perform all over the country, I’m only ever really home a few days out of each month. My oldest brother John came to Vietnam and went on a music tour with me in 2015. It was fantastic. He had such a great time and it still remains one of the most favorite places he’s ever visited.

You were an IT engineer before. What made you pursue a singing career? Why do you want to be a singer, especially singing Vietnamese songs?

On the contrary, I never said I was an IT engineer at all to anyone (laughs.) I did work for Apple for a three-year period and in my time with the company, I was trained to diagnose and fix problems with Mac computers and iPhones. It became quite a passion. Singing has been what I have been doing since I could walk so it comes very naturally to me. I never wanted to be a singer, though. I started singing in Vietnamese by accident as a tool to help me study Vietnamese to better communicate with my ambitious English major students. Later on, I was discovered by Siu Black and the rest of my music career in Vietnam is the journey I’m on right now. I feel blessed and honored as well as thankful to get to do what I love and be loved by so many. I have so many people to thank and especially Vietnam and Vietnamese people for opening their hearts to me. What I do on stage is pure love and passion. It’s indescribable and so precious to me.

In 2016, you released a music video “Khi Cha Già Đi,” composed by NguyễnVăn Chung. What is the story behind that video?

I love my mother and father very much. They divorced and I lived with my father from the age of 13. In 2017, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimers disease at the young age of 64. This bit of news has devastated me and it has been very hard for me to deal with. Khi Cha Gia Di is a song I think any father can relate to.

The love a parent reserves for their children is unlike any other. It’s precious and amazing. Nguyen Van Chung is an absolute visionary and an incredible composer. In 2018, I also released an original song about mothers called “Nơi Xa Con Nhớ Mẹ.” This song has also gotten a lot of positive feedback. If you haven’t heard it, definitely check it out on my youtube channel youtube.com/Kyoyork and don’t forget to subscribe to my page.

What are the differences between your first impression and current thoughts about Vietnam and the Vietnamese people?

My first impressions of Vietnam were intense. Everything was very new. The heat, the traffic, the rapid development, the food. Everything was so in your face. It was exhilarating and exciting to be here and I had so much to discover. I have had quite a few bumps in the road that have helped me to understand myself better.

Photos by Kieng Can
Photos by Kieng Can

Tons of cultural misunderstandings and a lot of life lessons. My impression of Vietnam now is very deep. I’ve been to nearly every province performing and have tasted all of Vietnam’s specialties, seen nearly all of Vietnam’s most beautiful places and have talked to the richest and poorest of Vietnamese people. This has enriched my experience here tremendously. I feel very connected to Vietnamese people and culture and feel I have a pretty good understanding of it.

What were some difficulties when you first came to Vietnam?

Definitely the food. I had a major stomach ache for nearly three weeks because I wasn’t used to the food but wanted to try literally everything. Also, tons of language barriers and misunderstandings. It was so hard to communicate with anyone, even my students at the time.

What are some differences between Vietnamese culture and Western culture, specifically the United States?

I feel there’s a 60 or 70 per cent difference between Eastern and Western culture in general. Everything is different, from the way people communicate with each other to the way they eat. Easily seen is for example, chopsticks as opposed to forks, water squirters as opposed to toilet paper, squatting toilets as opposed to toilet bowls, extreme casual dress as opposed to looking very presentable. That’s not to say that the opposite doesn’t exist here, right? Who eats CơmTấm with chopsticks? But I’m talking in sweeping generalizations. Much deeper than that, though, is Vietnamese people’s loyalty to the family structure. This is something the West doesn’t do as well as the East. Vietnamese people are so devoted to their families and their parents that often one household will have many generations living together, taking care of one another. That is so amazing. Vietnam taught me a different way of doing things and that has been more valuable to me than anything else. Living somewhere new opens your mind and heart in indescribable ways. I always say, everyone should live abroad once to really understand the world in perspective.

Which part of Vietnamese culture do you like most?

Ahhh! This is impossible for me to answer because I love so much about the culture, especially music. I love the Vietnamese Ao Dai and Non La. These are the things that most remind me of Vietnam. Anytime I see these two items, I’m immediately reminded of Vietnam. They’re very recognizable

What made you learn Vietnamese? How did you learn so fast? What was the most difficult?

I am pretty sure “made” is the word we could use here. When I first came to the Delta, nobody could communicate with me and vise versa. It was an ideal environment to be in because it helped me to learn very quickly. I always tell people who aspire to improve their English to put themselves in environments where they’re actively using it. And don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Mistakes are what teach us in life. It was a task to even buy groceries. Going to the market was a chore. I got better at Vietnamese because I knew life would be easier if I learned it. Was I right or what? Vietnamese is an extensively difficult language. Not for the feint of heart, for sure. It’s such a challenge because of the accents. A big portion of the difficulty is also that most Vietnamese people only talk to other Vietnamese people in Vietnamese. Very few foreigners live and work in Vietnam compared to the 90 million people natives. In a diverse place like America, we hear people speak in English from all over the world so our ears are more in tune to hear mistakes and fix them for a person in our own heads. Vietnamese people have a hard time understanding broken Vietnamese spoken by beginners or foreigners. The most difficult thing is the accents. So terribly hard to memorize and get right each time. That’s why I love it. I love anything difficult or impossible.

Do you want to get married to a Vietnamese girl? Why?

Want is not in my vocabulary for love. I don’t think love is a choice but rather a feeling. I’ve loved many people without really wanting to. I wouldn’t be opposed to marrying a Vietnamese girl at all. They’re very beautiful, for the most part, and very “duyên.” Needless to say, I’ve been dreamy-eyed over many Vietnamese girls. What I look for in love is a person who loves me for who I am “warts and all.” Someone who loves me, even the good and the bad. I hope I can find someone who offers that feeling for me.

If you do marry a Vietnamese woman, how would you avoid conflicts, in terms of cultural differences?

Cultural difference is a major headache. Culture is something that is ingrained in our DNA. It is so difficult to change the little things that cause major misunderstandings and drama. My best advice is that it seems Vietnamese women generally overthink things rather than seeing things at face value. The best thing you can do with each other is open about your positive or negative feelings. Talk about everything and try not to blame culture for misunderstandings.

You travel the country a lot. How do you feel about Vietnam’s landscape?

I love it. I don’t know what else to say. Vietnam is an absolutely beautiful country from north to south and has been lucky and blessed to receive some of nature’s best kept secrets.

Do you like Vietnamese food? We have some weird dishes. Tell us what you love the most and what you dislike.

Vietnamese food is so diverse and tasty. I love all of it, including Durian, but my favorite is Canh Chua Ca Loc. It’s amazing and very simple. The food I hate, of course, is dog meat although I have never tried it.

Have you ever been to Canada? What do you think about the country?

I have been to Canada a couple of times and hope to come back if I get invited to sing in 2019. I’d love to be able to visit again and sing for the Vietnamese community there. Canada is gorgeous with beautiful scenery and nice, cold winters. I also love Niagara Falls.

What is your personal philosophy?

I think you should take each day as it comes and try to be better than you were yesterday. If we look too far into the future and set our goals too high, we may be easily disappointed. It’s best to go on the path life pulls you in and be thankful for everything and everyone around you, good and bad included. Every person and experience you have gives you valuable lessons.

What Vietnamese proverb do you like most?

I like the quote “Không có việc gì khó.” I often think about it. I believe people limit themselves in very unfair ways. People have so much individual talent but can’t tap into it because of a lack of confidence. I think everyone should believe in themselves and take on tasks. People should be who they want to be and love themselves. I know it’s easier said than done but I truly believe nothing is impossible and you need to push yourself in everything you do.

Have you ever celebrated Tết in Vietnam? If so, how do you prepare for it?

I have celebrated Tet a lot in Vietnam. It’s extremely fun to be a part of it. I especially like the fact that every year I learn something new and amazing about the holiday. It’s great to be a part of the ceremonies and sing in lots of Tet-themed, year end shows. It’s a magical time of year.

I always get a new Ao Dai made and I perform a lot. I also usually do a music video or two. My favorite one is Xuan Yeu Thuong. Check it out on my youtube channel. I’m sure you’ll love it too.

What are your future plans?

This year is full of exciting new things including movies, TV shows, lots of new music, my annual concert in commemoration of Trinh Cong Son called “NơiVềNươngNáu” and so much more. I hope those reading this will continue to follow me this year and get ready for all of the excitement I have in store.

This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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