Kyo York came to Vietnam as a volunteer, but fate helped the American discover Vietnamese music and subsequent fame. In an interview with The Saigon Times, Kyo York talks about his life and career as a singer in Vietnam. Excerpts:
The Saigon Times: The landscape looks like that of the Mekong Delta region. Does it remind you of the first days you came to Vietnam as a volunteer?
Kyo York: I came to Vietnam in 2009 as part of a volunteer program from Princeton University called Princeton in Asia. I was volunteering in the Mekong Delta, in Hau Giang (Province) for about a year and a half. Halfway through, I moved to Can Tho.
After the program ended, I came to Saigon and have lived here ever since. I started my time in Saigon as a teacher, roughly for about a summer. And then I was fortunate to have the opportunity to sing in several TV shows. I am now a singer. I have studied music since I was about 7 years old.
Among the expats living and working in Vietnam, you are one of the few who can speak Vietnamese fluently, even using slang like native speakers. How long have you been in Vietnam? What brought you to Vietnam?
It is pretty much a combination of different things. When I first came here, I didn’t know any Vietnamese. I worked for Apple and they gave me an iPhone. It was the first iPhone ever made. I brought it here to Vietnam with me. At the time, I would listen to what people were saying and write it on my iPhone. I would ask the people around me if it was correct and if it wasn’t they would fix it for me. Then I would practice the words and try to use them in my daily conversations. When you learn a new language, the most important thing you can do is to use it all the time, as much as possible.
I also bought a book, “Vietnamese for foreigners.” At night, I would read that and fill in some of the worksheets. At that time, in Hau Giang, the power used to go out pretty frequently, so I would actually light candles in my room and study at night, and then I would talk to people. I was at a great advantage because in Hau Giang, there were very few people who could actually speak English. So, I needed to learn Vietnamese.
And from there, I taught myself the rest via music. That was a really big reason for me to learn the pronunciation and to help perfect my language skills. I used a lot of different songs and translated them into English. I asked about the meanings of the songs and then I sang them. That was a huge push for me to understand Vietnamese holistically.
After I started singing, I taught myself how to read and write. And then everything came together. So, the most important thing with language is speaking. Second, listening. The third is reading and writing. So that’s my recommendation for anybody who strives to learn any language.
How did you learn singing?
I have a very good friend in the Mekong Delta. His name is Mr. Tan. At the time, he was my translator. He had a really beautiful voice and we would often go for karaoke in the Mekong Delta with his friends and some colleagues. He would always sing a song called “Riêng một góc trời”, and I really liked that song. So, I started learning that song in 2010.
I actually got to sing that song with Tuấn Ngọc in a live performance at “Phòng trà Đồng Dao.” That was a big deal for me because Tuấn Ngọc was one of my idols. And then I learned the song “Ly cà phê Ban Mê” from Siu Black. She’s also one of my idols and I became very close friends with her. I got to perform in her live show. Those were my first two songs and then after “Ly cà phê Ban Mê,” it was “Đôi mắt Pleiku” and “Hạ trắng.”
When I learned the song “Hạ trắng,” that started my love for Trịnh Công Sơn music. And that’s probably one of the most important steps in my career in 2011. I got to perform in a memorial concert for Trịnh Công Sơn with a song called “Mười năm nhớ.” That was live on VTV3 and VTV1. Just this year, I got to perform for the 20-year memorial anniversary for Trịnh Công Sơn music as well. So, everything comes full circle. Music is such a huge part of my life. It is what I love to do and it is who I am.
When did you decide to choose singing to earn a living?
I don’t think I chose singing. I think singing chose me. I believe in fate. I think that when life pulls you in a direction, you should follow that direction.
If you are doing something you love, and something else comes along that you love even more, that’s the universe telling you that you were born to do something else. That’s how I felt about singing in Vietnam. So, it wasn’t really something that I chose, but it is something that happened. It is a direction that I went in. And that’s actually why I am doing it, and I think, partly, why I am successful because it is something that I was meant to do and born to do.
The worst thing you can do is not act on what you feel, your passion or what you want to do. You should have dreams and you should pursue those dreams because you only get so much time on this earth. I think I am lucky to have discovered what I was meant to do very early on and pursued it. For anybody who loves to do something, I would recommend doing it and putting all of your heart and soul into it. Chances are you’ll have a bunch of opportunities that will lead you in the direction that you are supposed to go.
Have you faced any barriers as a foreign singer performing in Vietnam?
I honestly don’t think that. I do what I like to do and I believe that if you do something to your best ability, you will do it well. Then, chances are that you are likely to have more opportunities to do the same thing in a different arena, a different stage or a different show.
I don’t find it an obstacle to be a performer here in Vietnam. I think I am very lucky to be able to not only sing, but also be an MC. I translate and do all kinds of things. I don’t see it as something that weighs on my mind very much. It is just something that comes very naturally to me.
Have your parents ever come to Vietnam to see your performances? What do they think about you singing Vietnamese songs?
My parents have not had the opportunity to come to Vietnam. I love my parents very much. They’re my biggest fans and watch all of my videos. They’re very supportive, but my mom and dad are afraid to fly. My dad can’t, and as for my mom, I hope maybe in the next two years, depending on the Covid situation, to bring her here and have her enjoy Vietnam the way that I do. My brother has been here and loves it. He wants to come back as well. My family loves Vietnam and they get quite a bit of information about the culture and the history of Vietnam as well as the beautiful landscape from all of my music videos. They’re also very curious and interested in coming here and exploring Vietnam.
What made you decide to stay in Vietnam?
That’s a good question. I don’t really know how to answer that. There is so much here to discover and to explore my personality. I love to explore and learn new things. I find Vietnamese culture and the Vietnamese language very interesting. I’ve traveled all over the country and explored all kinds of things that I think are very special.
Competition exists in every sector. What would you do to compete with other local singers?
The best way to compete is not to compete. Always be different, always be yourself. Do what you are doing, and be aware of the people around you but don’t compete with them. If you are special and have something unique and do what you do well, you are your only competition. Your own worst enemy is your mind. If you can continually make yourself better than you were yesterday, you’ll always be more successful than you were today. That’s how I see my life. My only competition is myself. How can I be better than I was yesterday? How can I continue to do what I love to do? How can I focus on being perfect at what I am doing now? That’s the most important thing; always compete with yourself first and don’t worry about what’s going on around you.
Recently, young music lovers saw you translate some Vietnamese songs, such as Saigon broken heart, into English. Is that the way ahead for your singing career in Vietnam?
I have been doing that since about 2017-2018; I do it because I enjoy translating songs for young people so they can hear their favorite songs in English. It is also a good way for me to continue practicing my translation skills as well as to reach out to a younger generation and to provide them with study materials for when they are pursuing their studies in English. I hope that my products are both a way to study English as well as to bridge the gap between music from America and Vietnam and bring Vietnamese music to the world.
However, that’s not the only thing I do. I do original material and all kinds of stuff on my YouTube channel. If you haven’t subscribed, go to Youtube.com/kyoyork and make sure you do. There is some great material on my channel. It’s also a way for me to communicate with my fans. I am the one that’s commenting and answering all of those posts on YouTube and Facebook. I hope you guys enjoy what I do and continue to support me. That would make me the happiest.