death and life in vietnam

dawn reflections in da nangmy recent trip to Vietnam to visit family after my father-in-law’s passing afforded me a lot of time to think. Even while I was still there, I knew I wanted to share with the world reflections on the experience of losing a loved one across cultures, from a personal and a Baha’i perspective. as it turns out, I’ve actually got a lot of notes, so much so that it’d probably take way more effort than I can give at the moment to put it all into one big essay-type format. So I figure I’ll split it into a few posts, covering a few different—but very related—topics. These may change, but I figured people might like to know what I’m planning.

As noted, I expect these posts will come out every 3–4 days, as I have time to work on each of them (that said, the dates noted here are approximate).

Edit: All posts are now up (finally)!

3rd baha’i national convention, vietnam

A little behind, but as I mentioned a little while back, here’s an English translation of a Vietnamese news article on the third National Baha’i Convention in Can Tho, Vietnam, on May 2, 2010. I’ve added my own explanatory footnotes below. The article is a little off on a few facts, but overall it’s pretty good. This translation should at least give you a good idea of the general state of the Faith in Vietnam, and how it’s viewed by the institutions of society; in my opinion, it also offers an intriguing view of the perspective of modern Vietnam on religion in general. Thanks to Quynh and Google Translate for help with the translation.

On the morning of May 2nd, nearly 300 followers of the Baha’i Community in Vietnam attended the third annual National Convention of the Baha’i Community in Vietnam in Can Tho city.

The convention elected nine members of the religious council of the Baha’is of Vietnam for the 2010-2011 term and set out key tasks, following the motto “Sống tốt đời, đẹp đạo” (“Living well, in one’s life and in one’s faith”), aiming to improve the lives  of their brethren and benefit their country, to work effectively and mobilize their numbers to promote unity within the nation and solidarity with other religions.

Speaking at the conference, Mr. Đặng Tài Tính, Director of International Cooperation for the National Committee for Religious Department, stressed that the Government of Vietnam always implements a consistent policy to respect and ensure the freedom of belief and religion of the people, but that the people also have to comply with Vietnamese laws.

The charter of the Baha’i Community in Vietnam confirms in its principles and objectives that “activities shall be held in compliance with the laws of Vietnam, and shall uphold the spirit of harmony and unity of the nation and of religion, for the socio-economic development of the country…”, a crucial principle which serves to orient believers and grassroots organizations following the doctrine and laws of the Baha’i religion and the laws of Vietnam.

At the meeting, representatives of the Board of Counsellors[1] for Asia stated their appreciation to the Government of Vietnam’s facilitation for its help in facilitating the implementation of the activities of the Baha’i Community in Vietnam.

Mr. Nguyen Thuc, head of the interim board of representatives[2] of the Baha’i (religious) Community of Vietnam, said that since the recognition of its legal status, the entire community has entered a period of development and has achieved outstanding large-scale growth in individual religious practice, religious education, Holy day gatherings, the formation of committees and work groups and other administrative functioning.

In whichever locality Baha’i believers live and practice their religion, they largely have good relationships with government at all levels, allowing their activities to flourish in accordance with the Government’s policies on belief and religion and the provisions of law.

The Baha’i Faith came to Vietnam in 1954. The Baha’i religious community in Vietnam has almost 7,000 followers, faith activities in 43 provinces and cities, mainly concentrated in the central and southern regions.

The Baha’i community of Vietnam officially obtained its Certificate of Operation Registration[3] with the Government’s Committee for Religious Affairs on February 28th, 2007.

After nearly a year of operation, in July 2008, the Government’s Committee for Religious Affairs decided to recognize the religious organizations of the Baha’i religious community of Vietnam.

Up to now, the Baha’i Community of Vietnam has nearly 80 representatives of the Provisional Committee in the local level.

Footnotes:

The article mentions the rule of law many times over. I didn’t see the point of this until I started to read up on the history of religious groups in Vietnam, most of which seem to have had the unfortunate historical tendency to not only quarrel amongst themselves but try to overthrow governments. Some religious communities still display these tendencies, hence the constant reminders in modern government speech. Baha’is, though, are already enjoined by the core teachings of their Faith to show obedience and loyalty to their government, as the next paragraph states—a fact which apparently inspires some shock and awe in Vietnamese officials.

The term “Baha’i Community” is rendered consistently as “Baha’i religious community” in the original Vietnamese, but I’ve translated it as simply “Baha’i Community” for English readability.

1: The Continental Board of Counsellors, a high-level, non-clerical institution, purely advisory in character, with counterparts throughout the world; rendered as “Continental Advisory Committee” in the Vietnamese text.

2: The term translated here as “board of representatives” refers to the National Spiritual Assembly, a national body elected by the believers in a country to oversee the administrative affairs and spiritual health of the community.

3: I’m not really sure how this should be translated, but basically it’s a cerficate that shows they are officially registered as a religious community with the Government, and they are authorized to operate and conduct activities as such.

though your heart is breaking

smile
traumatic things happen sometimes. shocking, distressing, heartbreaking and life-changing things.

Quynh’s dear father, a humble, steadfast believer who tirelessly served the Cause of Baha’u’llah in Vietnam for forty years, passed away at the end of August. it was an accident; no warning, nothing. the family was devastated, and remains so, although with around six weeks worth of coming terms with the reality of what’s happened, wounds are slowly beginning to heal—perhaps tears act as a soothing balm in this case.

I’ve been in Vietnam since September 5th, or around two weeks after his passing, most of that time in Da Nang with Quynh’s mother, who’s taken her husband’s death the hardest. Part of my time is taken up with remote work for the Conference Board (a very positive arrangement that’s been working marvelously so far), and the rest with hanging being a good Vietnamese son-in-law—preparing rice for lunch, taking out the garbage, folding laundry, fetching things from nearby shops, doing odd jobs around the house, and keeping incense burning at the family shrine. I make sure to stay nearby in case Quynh’s mother needs anything, and I keep an eye open to make sure she’s not starting to sink into depression, which was common for the first while after I arrived. A 100-day period of mourning is common when a close family member passes away, and Hai (Quynh’s father) was very highly respected and very much loved by a vast group of friends and extended family. The hurt runs deep. I’m at a loss sometimes, because my command of Vietnamese isn’t good enough to express how I feel, or offer significant words of comfort. But I try my best, speak slowly when I need to, and things seem to work out.

When Quynh called me to tell me her father was in the hospital, I was having dinner with Catherine at a Vietnamese restaurant (a mediocre one—I won’t name names). after spending something like an hour speaking to her over the phone, I came back to my seat, finished my meal quickly, and cracked open the stereotypical fortune cookie, which told me to smile. Smiling was the last thing I wanted to do, especially after I heard the news the next morning. It was a difficult time. But I took it as a message, if not an incipient mission statement, for the journey on which I was about to embark: sometimes, especially when language and culture are barriers, the best thing you can do is to be strong, offer a shoulder to cry on, and smile. Sometimes i feel like I could, or should, be doing more, but maybe God has other plans for me right now.

As a postscript, thanks to all of you who’ve written with your condolences and assurance of prayers—even if I haven’t gotten around to thank you personally yet, you can rest assured that every single prayer has made a difference to the family.

wedding preparations

I realize I’ve been pretty lax at blogging during the past little while; I blame the fact that so many eventful things have happened in that time. perhaps the most significant of these was my wedding—followers of this blog will remember that Quynh and I got engaged during my first trip to Vietnam; you may even have read the story. In the interest of saving some time while imparting some crucial information, I’ve collected a number of tweets relating to our wedding to share with you all. This installment covers the preparation for the wedding, beginning around December, all the way through to the wedding. Check back for more joyous reminiscing!

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interview with a stranger

Written on Feb. 25, 2010.

The air here in Da Nang is cool this afternoon, and the shade inside the dusty, cream-coloured offices of the Justice Department is a welcome change from the hot sun outside. I tap my thoughts and reflections out onto an iPhone as I wait for Quynh to finish her interview upstairs. We’re scheduled to be married in just over a week, and this set of interviews is the last legal hurdle to jump for our union to be recognized by the state – at least, besides signing a bunch more documents in triplicate.

I went under the scope first, and they brought in a translator to talk with me so they could make sense of my strange moon-language. The questions they asked were… bizarre. What’s her phone number? Her date of birth? Her email address? I guess I was expecting relevant questions, you know, like something besides what you’d put on a credit card application. But in retrospect, remembering what Quynh and I had discussed about the nature of the interview process, these banal questions make sense. They’re apparently intended to weed out arranged marriages, ones brokered through agents– proverbial “mail-order brides”.

I guess I always thought of the business of “mail-order marriages” as a big joke. I’d heard of stories regarding the practice and found them to be too unbelievable to be true. How could two people become so desperate– or morally directionless– as to reduce marriage to a mere transaction, to reduce a human being to a mere commodity? When Quynh explained to me that such “agency marriages” were a well-known (though strongly condemned) practice among Vietnamese women, I was filled with incalculable rage, so much so that I nearly fell off a speeding motorbike. it seemed to violate everything I’d ever believed about love, marriage, and human relationships.

supposedly the phenomenon is mainly driven by despair, on both sides. Quynh explained to me that many of the prospective husbands– the word “customers” brings my blood to a boil, although most are indeed customers– would be considered “past their prime”, and perhaps feel impotent to attract women in their own country. As a side note, some of Quynh’s neighbours have expressed astonished at how young I look– perhaps expecting her North American husband to be in his 50s. On the prospective bride’s side weighs the burden of percieved “marriageability”, or, in the case of a Vietnamese woman in her late 20s, the steadily dwindling levels thereof. In short, an unmarried woman over 30 years old is widely viewed as a failure. Such a perception isn’t unique to Vietnamese culture, but it’s much more pronounced here.

not so forbidding

game overAfter the Great Wall (and the outlying Not-So-Great Wall, aka the Mediocre Wall) we decided we’d sleep in the next morning and catch the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City wasn’t so forbidden—they all let us in as long as we bought tickets. In fact, the only thing that was forbidden was going back in after you went out the back door. Attached is a photo of the brilliant commentary on the signage at the North Gate (tours go from south to north). All in all, we were amazed at how huge, er, how extreme the place was in all respects. We had a little game of “guess whether there’s another palace past this one”. I always lost, all the way to the end. The palaces kept on becoming more and more beautiful the further we went north—that is, the further we came to the emperor’s private dwelling—yet somehow, more and more lonely as well. You really get the feeling of being locked away in the proverbial ivory tower in there. I’m pretty sure there was an ivory tower somewhere, too.

After we finished walking through the Not-So-Forbidden City, we walked northwest of the grounds and ended up walking through Beihai Park (no, not Baha’i Park) at sunset, then making our way back to our hotel/hostel via Yoshinoya, a fast food restaurant with chicken-and-rice bowls, and Three Trees Coffee (see below). We found a pho restaurant not far from where we’re staying; we took a picture for the novelty, but we didn’t go in. We can get all the pho we need when we get back to Vietnam, we figure.  Today, we’re waking up early to see the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace. That means more excitement for us and more photos for you, when you wake up tomorrow.

Miss you all, and, as the postcards say, wish you were here.