American student's singing ambitions rekindled by the sound of Vietnamese
Singing and teaching in Vietnam has not made Kyle Cochran (aka Kyo York) rich, but his life is better than ever. Photo courtesy of Kyo York
When he first set foot in the Mekong Delta as a volunteer to teach English under a Princeton program, the self-described "somewhat shy, big, fat and ugly" American student with a self-admitted inferiority complex had no idea how Vietnam was going to change him.
That was two years ago. Now he is not shy, fat or ugly and has shrugged off his inferiority complex completely.
Kyle Cochran says his transformation was set in motion by a Vietnamese woman.
"I weighed 98 kilograms when I first arrived in Vietnam. But a local girl saved me with her love. Although the affair has ended, she is still one of my best friends," Cochran said in amazingly fluent Vietnamese for someone who has studied the language by himself for only a year or so.
His love for the woman prompted to him to get into better shape by working out. And then he worked out what he wanted to do in life.
Cochran has lost 25 kilograms since coming to Vietnam.
"Even my parents and brothers could not recognize me when they saw my pictures," Cochran said, smiling.
Another telling difference in Cochran's life is that he is no longer known as Kyle Cochran. Now, he is Kyo York.
The change in name is rooted in the most significant development in his life finding his voice, again.
Cochran loved singing as a child and performed at school, but coming from a non-affluent background, he began earning his living when he was 14, working at every job he could get. He was working at the Apple store in New York when the thought struck him that he needed to do something different. He heard about a Princeton program to volunteer in other countries and signed up to come to Vietnam and teach English to underprivileged children in Hau Giang Province.
When he arrived, he was immediately smitten by the Vietnamese language. To his ears, it sounded like music. That led him to listen to Vietnamese music and he was impressed by Trinh Cong Son's ballads. Before long, he came to know other composers he liked, like Ngo Thuy Mien, Duc Huy and Nguyen Cuong. And he began to sing their songs.
Kyo York perfoms the Vietnamese song Phoi Pha (Fading Away)
Kyo York is a name inspired by famous Vietnamese singer Siu Black. He went to Siu Black's coffee lounge and said he wanted to sing. The singer from the Central Highlands, famous for her strong voice, rotund body and stentorian laugh, recognized his talent and encouraged Cochran to pursue singing in Vietnamese.
"She kept calling me "˜Kyo' or maybe it sounds like "˜Kaio.' I found that interesting and totally in accord with the friendly image of Asian people, especially Vietnamese. I am a New Yorker, so "˜York' is the perfect match with "˜Kyo.' Somebody said it sounds Japanese, but I feel pretty much Vietnamese with my name."
Many fans say that his fluency in Vietnamese, the fruit of just one-year of self-study, is magical.
"Of course, learning Vietnamese is not easy, but to tell the truth, I have tried earlier with foreign languages like Spanish and Italian when I was in high school. All that went down the drain. Vietnamese is the first and greatest success. It makes me feel like I was Vietnamese in my previous incarnation and totally believe that nothing is impossible."
York says one of the ways to learn is to leave your embarrassment behind.
"When I teach in school, many of my local students are afraid of being laughed at when they murder the foreign language (English). Actually, no one will do that. Getting rid of that fear will help you improve rapidly.
"I'm proud of one thing in my country; that people do not care who you are, which color your skin is, or where you are from when you perform an English song. They just care about how amazing your voice is. I know most of the local audiences focus on my western appearance when I sing Vietnamese songs. And I want to change that type of interest. I want to be recognized as a professional singer with Vietnamese songs in the local music industry."
He is well on his way. The 26-year-old teacher and singer will have a mini-live show on November 20, Teacher's Day in Vietnam, at the Yesterday Bar to celebrate two years of living in Vietnam. York teaches biology and math at an international high school in Ho Chi Minh City, where he has been living for nearly one year.
York became exposed to other singers in the country for two reasons: his ability to sing Vietnamese songs like a native singer and a facebook page written in Vietnamese with diacritics (www.facebook.com/kyoyork6).
"My brother saw the page and left a comment that he did not get a word of what I or others wrote. But he showed my page, photos and even the singing clips to my mom with such pride. I was really happy. Singing has changed my whole life."
York said one of his desires now is to have his mother come to Vietnam and attend his show.
"I do not hesitate to say that I was born in a poor family and my childhood was filled with having to work to earn a living. I did many jobs to cover my school fees as my parents could not afford it. I got a degree in communications, not information technology or computer engineering, as some local newspapers have misreported.
I used to work at the Apple store in New York and that was one of my best part-time jobs."
One reason that made the job at the Apple store in New York unforgettable was a couple meetings with the legendary Steve Jobs, who died of pancreatic cancer on October 5, 2011.
York is not dreaming of riches.
Singing and teaching in Vietnam will not turn him into a rich man, but his life has bloomed, he said.
"I have been able to save some money to support my family, though. My mom wrote in an email that she was proud how her son has matured."
Despite his new-found fame in Vietnam, York has his feet on the ground. While one can find him at the most luxurious clubs in the city like Dong Dao or Khong Ten, one can also enjoy his singing at some small coffee shops and lounges.
"That is my way. I do not think of anything else but respecting my audience. They can join me no matter what their pocket size."
York sees himself as a kind of perfectionist, and this, he feels has been appreciated by his audience. He now needs only two or three days to learn to sing a Vietnamese song, but he never performs with that amount of practice.
"The more you prepare, the better results you gain. Sometimes this sees me wear my stage dress when
I teach. I have no time to change my clothes. Feel like a clown. Luckily, my students just laugh, don't complain. They are also my great fans," York said, laughing.
While he has had the chance to perform with famous Vietnamese singers, York is clear about one thing. "I never want to be compared to anyone. I have my own dream, purpose and unique path to pursue. It is just about me and Vietnam."
At present, York is also taking part in a TV show named Toi yeu Viet Nam (I love Vietnam), funded by Honda Vietnam Company, which raises local awareness of traffic regulations and etiquette.
He got involved in a slight traffic accident, so the show is a "good new experience."
"I have the chance to erase my sole unpleasant experience in Vietnam."