taking care of the shrine

This post is the second in a series on Vietnamese customs relating to death, from a personal and a Baha’i perspective.

The gesture of offering incense is omnipresent throughout Asia, it seems. China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, India—anyone who’s Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Shinto—even some types of Christian—knows what it means to offer incense. “In North America, not so much,” as I would tell everyone in Da Nang. In the West, most people treat incense as a way to make your house smell good, not as an object of religious practice.

taking care of the shrineI spent my time during my last trip to Vietnam trying to discern how to be a good son-in-law. Eventually, I figured out a few things that seemed to be key: preparing rice at lunch, taking out the garbage, fetching things from nearby shops, and regularly offering incense at the family shrine. If you remember my post about Vietnamese funeral customs, you’ll recall that when someone dies in Vietnam, a shrine is erected as a memorial, and that a central element of that shrine is a pot of sand used to plant sticks of incense as offerings, generally placed in front of a photo of the deceased. This shrine is an active centre of worship for (at least) the 100 days following their passing. “Worship?” I hear you ask. Yes, worship, or at least that’s how they refer to it—the act of paying one’s respects by offering incense. Vietnamese, even Baha’is, tend to draw a line between this act of “worship” and the personal prayers one might say before bed, or in times of trouble, and so on. Paying one’s respects at the family shrine is one of the most fundamental acts of Vietnamese spiritual life, and this applies irrespective of “membership” in one religious community or another; it is a tradition that helps to define what it means to be Vietnamese, and acts as a base for the family and society. Without understanding it, you cannot understand Vietnam.
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travelling between life and death

This post is the first in a series on Vietnamese customs relating to death, from a personal and a Baha’i perspective.

Arriving in Da Nang on September 6th, i was just about two weeks too late to say goodbye to my father-in-law. I had only a vague idea of what had happened, pieced together from brief phone calls as the nightmare unfolded. Upon arriving, the family had me offer incense at his shrine—a traditional gesture that would become very familiar to me in the following six weeks. This gesture is performed at every funeral in Vietnam—and during the six weeks I was there following Ba’s passing, no fewer than three close friends and family members also passed away. You bet I got a lot of practice. (More about offering incense later—lots more, I promise.)

Vietnamese funeral customs are based on a mix of Buddhism and indigenous spirit beliefs that date back several millennia. An extensive set of rites and customs govern every aspect of death, before and after it takes place, even extending years into the future. The process of grieving itself involves not only whole families, but whole communities, with entire neighbourhoods gathering to help mourn a loss.
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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)!

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.