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.

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.

first day in beijing

from emails sent on march 15th.

we are in our nice and simple accommodations at the hutong inn in beijing. it’s not very fancy but it is very interesting. needless to say it is enough for the time being. it’s cold here – there’s even snow covering the ground, and the roofs. Quynh is not impressed because we also have “white sand” in Da Nang. 😛

the train ride up from Guangzhou was long, but comfortable; we both managed to get a good sleep, despite our doorless, six-up bunk bed accommodations. the landscape was bleak and industrial for most of the time—not quite the China we’ve been accustomed to seeing in pictures.

[… later …]

First day in Beijing is done; we went out to a hot pot restaurant, which Quynh recognized from having been to one in Malacca. It was pretty amazing. I thought it was filling, but Quynh insisted on going to pick up instant noodles afterwards. She jokes that she’s pregnant but I think she’s just Malaysian. […]

We spent some time walking around through the hutongs (alleys) in the area of our hotel; it really is a neat place. We walked down one that was much like a pedestrian mall, lined with chic, eclectic cafés and shops, and they weren’t (all) pretentious. […we explored] a Tibet-themed shop, much like the “3 Trees” shop on Main St. back in Ottawa. In a strange coincidence, we stopped in a place called Three Trees Coffee—we found out from their wifi. Most people can’t speak much English here, but we end up communicating well enough with our few words of broken Mandarin and the new Chinese-English dictionary on my iPhone.

We signed up for a trip to the Great Wall at Simatai tomorrow, so we’ll be gone the whole day. Simatai is the “Old West” of the Great Wall, although it’s to the northeast of Beijing. It’s billed as one of the most “unspoiled” parts of the Wall, probably because next to none of it has been restored or reconstructed. I don’t think “unspoiled” means “free from hawkers selling overpriced goods” though, since we were warned by our tour guide to stock up on cheap water and snacks here in Beijing before going. It’ll be a whole day trip, with a three-hour bus ride there and back. We leave at 6:20 AM from our hotel and return at around 5:30 PM. Phew. The rest of our stay here we’ll probably be visiting on our own, via the subway—which goes just about everywhere, except, oddly enough, for the train station we arrived from…