a new baha’i generation

growing up baha’i, April 17, 2007

Not long ago, a Baha’i friend of mine had the idea to start a “virtues playgroup” aimed at very young children, say between 0 to 3 years of age. Our son was about that old, so we often brought him there to give him a chance to spend time with other kids in a positive, enriching environment. There was maybe fifteen minutes’ worth of circle time, during which they moved about, sang songs, played simple games, and listened to stories, each one having something to do with a virtue of the week: Love, patience, courtesy, truthfulness, helpfulness, joyfulness, and so on. After the circle time, there was time for crafts, snacks, and free play. The playgroup started to become a little less regular after about a year and a half, but it came at just the right time for our boy: Some of the other kids from that group are now his best friends, and the language of virtues and spiritual qualities is now a part of his everyday life.

We didn’t have a virtues playgroup when I was a kid, but I remember attending children’s classes. Don’t ask me what I learned, because I don’t remember a lot of specifics. I do remember the surroundings being pretty, and I remember a few of my Bahá’í friends from that era. (Although when I entered university, a bunch of the Bahá’ís in my year started saying they hadn’t seen me since we were in children’s classes, at which point I stared at them blankly.) I also vaguely remember a few things, like artistic activities and stories that were related to the history of the Faith. Learning about Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb in children’s classes may not stand out in my memory now that I’m older, but it definitely laid the foundation for me to accept the message of Bahá’u’lláh and formally declare my faith in Him later on in life.

I remember a lot more about attending 19-day Feasts. We were part of a small community that was a mixed bag of Persian and Canadian families, and there were plenty of kids. Even though there was never a formal program for us at Feasts, it generally seemed to be enough to be able to hang out with other Bahá’í kids, and it was always a highlight of the gatherings for me when I was younger. Apart from the social aspect, the atmosphere at Feast was always so welcoming and special, and that’s always stuck with me:

Pleasant, restful music playing as the friends entered, prayer books in small piles on a coffee table, candles lit and softly flickering throughout… High-topped dressers filled with books like God Passes By and Lights of Guidance, with curios and mementoes, and here and there you’d see an engraving with the ringstone symbol on it, or, up on the highest shelf, you’d see a beautifully framed reproduction of the Greatest Name of God. You’d see art from many cultures along the walls, and you’d smell perfume in the air—perhaps rose or jasmine. And then, when it was time to eat, you’d get up and walk (don’t run!) to the table at the back where the hosts would lay out platters of persian rice with tahdig (or “tahdeeg” or whatever), kookoo sabziadas polobaghali polo, chicken drumsticks, and so on.

Quỳnh’s experience was different from mine, but similar in some ways. One big difference was that she grew up in post-war Vietnam, at a time when many families struggled in poverty, including hers. On top of that, the Bahá’í Faith had been officially proscribed by the communist government after the war, meaning that large, organized gatherings—such as city-wide Feasts or children’s classes—were generally impossible. Still, the Bahá’ís managed to visit each other, and sometimes they would be able to observe the 19-day Feast in small groups, perhaps one or two families at a time. Like in my case, there was never a formal children’s program, and just having other Bahá’í kids to play with was enough. The food was a big draw, too—in her case, because having anything more than a simple meal was unusual enough. I’m imagining big bowls of Mi Quảng noodles for everyone, but she’ll probably correct me on that. In either case—hers or mine—there was enough there in our childhood to give us the beginnings of a Bahá’í identity. Perhaps that was enough for us; in any case, it was what we had.

But time has flown by since our earliest days; a new generation is rising, and our children are beginning to benefit from the progress our Bahá’í communities have made from one generation to the next: Playgroups based on practicing virtues and spiritual qualities. A field-tested, ever-evolving set of lessons for children’s classes used worldwide, and an ever-strengthening training institute process to ensure that teachers are always available. A simple, yet profound program for the spiritual empowerment of junior youth, to help young people at this unique stage in their lives to develop their powers of expression, their spiritual perception and their capacity to serve humanity. When I first saw the junior youth spiritual empowerment program in action, I thought to myself what a shame it was that there wasn’t something like this for me when I was that age. Oh well. It’s here for my children, that’s what’s important.

“E is for earth. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens…”

I sit in my office, typing words into my blog, listening to Quỳnh read the kids a Baha’i alphabet book, A Feast of ABCs. “F is for fund. Franco has saved money to give to the Baha’i fund… G is for God. Saying prayers and reading from the holy books helps Golda feel close to God…” Through the speakers at my computer, I hear Red Grammer singing to me about teaching peace all the world around, in every city and every town. And in the next song in the shuffle, I hear Ali Youssefi asking God to unite and bind together the hearts, to join in accord all the souls. When his book is done, our eldest asks to watch his Bobo & Kipi DVD—”the one where Bobo shows his perseverance”. Next week, he’ll be joining his friends from the virtues playgroup at a birthday party—and there’s a children’s devotional gathering coming up the following weekend. And I think Quỳnh and I have never been happier, or more hopeful for the future.

The original post, growing up baha’i, is one of the most popular posts on doberman pizza. Second photo courtesy of the Bahá’í Community of Vietnam.

on impending parenthood

tômThe inevitable has happened! No, not world peace, not just yet. No, I mean Quynh and I are expecting a baby. A baby boy, at that. Congratulations are flowing in from all sides, with hugs and pats on the back from all. No cigars yet, thankfully.

The feeling of impending parenthood is at once joyous and portentous. Sort of like the feeling of having a nice, fresh bun in the oven, and knowing that when the bun’s done baking, it’ll spend months—nay, years—making strange noises nonstop, spilling dough all over your kitchen, and swapping the scent of baked bread for the less delicate fragrance of poo. OK, I know, that’s not all there is to parenthood. I guess I’m just trying to get psyched by reminding myself that the next chapter in our lives will be quite intense.

Pregnancy is its own little roller coaster ride. From the initial lift after discovering “the second stripe”, we descended into the Valley of Nausea, with stops at Morning Sickness, Afternoon-and-Evening Sickness, Overdosed-on-Orange-Juice Sickness, and so on, before rising again to the top of Mt. First-Ultrasound, where we caught a first glimpse of little Tôm (Vietnamese for “shrimp”, since that’s what he looked like at our first meeting). Once past the peak, we careened into the Learning Curve, which was quite steep, and into the 1,000-Decision Corkscrew, before rising again onto the Found-a-Great-Midwife Plateau and Mt. Perfect-Test-Results. At the moment, we’re sailing into ever more ups and downs, including the Heavy-Belly Slide, the Feeling-the-Baby-Kick Lift, the Backache Drop, the Prenatal-Class and Ever-More-Frequent-Checkup Loops—with more to come. And come November, it’ll be a whole new ride—one that lasts a whole new, shared lifetime.

They say that having kids is a transformative experience. For almost ten years now I’ve been aware that educating children is “among the most meritorious acts of humankind”, and I’ve expended a lot of effort in learning how it works through organizing and teaching neighbourhood children’s classes. Becoming a parent, though, is a whole new ball game for sure, and will require a constancy, strength and perseverance that’s never really been required of me before. I’d like to think I feel ready—but who’s ever really ready to become a parent? All I know for now is that I’m willing to learn, and to grow. Perhaps God doesn’t ask much more than that?

a day at a vietnamese kindergarten

My sister-in-law, Quyên, runs a kindergarten out of her home in Danang, Vietnam. She and her husband had to take a trip to Huế this weekend, so Quỳnh and I came over to help out. Here’s how the day went.

classClass starts early in the day. It’s 7:30 AM, and a table’s worth of children, aged around 4-5 years old, have already arrived and have started studying, dotting their i’s, crossing their t’s, and hooking their ơ’s. Quyên teaches handwriting, which is a bit advanced for kindergarten, but appeals to many Vietnamese parents who want their children to be well-prepared when they get to primary school. That’s her specialty, but it’s not all she teaches. Children learn reading, writing and arithmetic, sing songs and listen to stories. This year, Quỳnh’s brother Nu (who studied architecture in Ho Chi Minh City) has also started teaching art classes after hours, to which parents can send their children separately (although the classes happen in the same place).

Some children start studying as they arrive. Some of them have signed up to have breakfast in the morning, so they sit at the table and eat first. Some of them are playing together in another room, using building blocks to make and break fanciful contraptions. A few others sit and watch children’s programming on television—although they’re restricted to short, intermittent periods of screen time, until the next activity starts. All together, it gives the schoolhouse—Quyên’s home—a playful, varied ambience, as a kindergarten should have.

I get a lot of amazed looks from the kids due to my height (nearly 6″). One of the children gazes at me and mutters quietly, “cao quá… (so tall…)” Another asks why I’m so tall, and one of the teachers insists it’s because I ate all my vegetables when I was young. (I did, too.) I try to kneel down and squat a little more to make them feel a little more comfortable with me. After a while, the children get used to my presence, but I get a lot of attention. Many of them may never have seen another foreigner in their lives, so I try to leave as good an impression as I can. That I can use my (still broken, but sufficient) Vietnamese to communicate with them helps a lot.

classThe morning rolls on, and around 10:30 it’s time for the children to eat. Lunch is served in the dining room, between the classroom and the kitchen; it’s a typical meal of rice, vegetables, and various bits of seafood, all served in the same bowl. When they finish eating, children sit back against the classroom wall to rest and digest, and prepare for what comes next: the several-hours-long naptime that’s common to almost every Vietnamese work day. Wooden pallets are laid out, and upon them, woven bamboo mats. After taking their potty breaks and washing their hands, the children settle in with their pillows, the curtains are drawn, and massive mosquito nets are strung up. Naptime lasts from around 11:30 to 2:30 PM—a bigger lunchtime break than any Canadian worker (barring CEOs) could ever dream of. During the break, the teachers and helpers—five of us in total—hang out in the dining room, watching over the children and having our lunch of bún cá, or fish with rice noodles. Something doesn’t quite sit right in my stomach, though, so I go home to pop some antacids and take a nap myself, returning around 3:00.

The afternoon proceeds much like the morning. Children continue to copy down letter forms in their books, in neat little rows, while others play. They repeat sounds out loud as they write down different combinations of letters, to help them learn proper Vietnamese pronunciation. A few younger children—siblings of the older students—have arrived too. A couple of three-year olds tag along after me, shouting to get my attention and offering me cups. I thank them, pretending to take a drink, and they move away. Then they come back again, offering the same deal. And so it continues for the next half-hour, every twenty seconds or so (I timed them). As in all cases with very young children, you gotta adapt, so we gradually turn it into an opportunity for them to practice addressing their elders politely: “Chú ơi (Uncle)! Please have some water!” instead of shouting. They eventually get sidetracked by other things, and I manage to go back to the classroom where I assist Quyên’s boys, who are off to the side learning English. What’s a table? What’s a chair? What’s an eraser? And how do you spell it? The silent e’s in “make a circle” cause no end of confusion. Oh, English. You crazy, haphazard patchwork of a language. How exactly did you become so universal? Don’t answer that.

classThe afternoon is drawing to a close, and parents will soon come to take their children home. The benches are rearranged to form rows, and Lâm (Quỳnh’s mother) takes center stage for game time. The game is some sort of traffic police game: someone acts as a traffic cop, and the rest are all sitting on their benches, riding motorbikes. As far as I could tell, the traffic cop gives directions (like “turn left”, “stop”, and so on) and the rest of the players have to follow the directions. If the traffic cop catches anyone who misses a command, they have to come up and pay a fine(?), which amounts to singing a song. I’ll have to inquire further to see if we could use this game in our children’s class back home. Anyway, little by little, parents drop in to drive their children home. One by one, boys and girls graciously go to each of their teachers to announce their departure—“thưa bà, con về”, “thưa cô, con về”—as the Vietnamese culture of respect for elders demands. Eventually, only Quyên’s boys remain, along with one more girl whose parents let us know that they would be at work late. We sit down for dinner—bánh canh cua, or thick noodles with crab. By the time I Ieave the schoolhouse, it’s past 6:30 PM, for a work day of eleven hours.

classEleven hours and sometimes more, six days a week. And yet Quyên doesn’t complain. Not only because she enjoys teaching, but because it supports her family quite well. Teachers are generally well-respected and well-paid in Vietnam, but Quyên is particularly respected by parents for her teaching skill, her sense of discipline and her trustworthiness. People simply know she does a good job, and they’re proud to send her their children.

Trustworthiness, I’m coming to believe, is one of the keys to sustaining prosperity. Since the turn of the 21st century, we’ve seen ample evidence of the opposite—untrustworthiness—everywhere around the world, from Enrons and Worldcoms through Fannie Maes and Freddie Macs. How long do you think economies, which are fundamentally based on trust, can keep going when the people and institutions that make up those economies are not worthy of that trust? The alternative, says Bahá’u’lláh, is to “be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor”. This, He says, is “the supreme instrument for the prosperity of the world”, and “the greatest portal leading unto the tranquillity and security of the people”. Beyond her teaching skills, her smiling face, and her beautiful handwriting, that’s what impresses me about Quyên—how trustworthy she is, and the effect that has on the people around her. She may only teach kindergarten, but the whole world has a lot to learn from people like her.

iran to baha’is: convert or stay out of our schools

Once again, Iran’s campaign of persecution towards its Baha’i minority finds its way into the halls of academe; one more year in a row, prospective Baha’i students have been barred from applying for higher education. No, there are no armed guards keeping them from the examination halls; just a row of boxes on paper. Here’s the story from the Baha’i World News Service:

NEW YORK, 31 July 2007 (BWNS) — Iranian Baha’is seeking to enter Iran’s technical and vocational institutes have been effectively barred from admission for the coming academic year, since the application to sit for the entrance examinations leaves them with no option but to deny their faith, which Baha’is refuse to be coerced into doing.

The Baha’i International Community learned recently that the 2007 form for the entrance examination for undergraduate courses under the technical and vocational education system indicates that only one box may be marked for religion.

The applicant is given three choices – Zoroastrian, Jewish, or Christian – and if none of the boxes is marked, the form explains, the applicant will be considered Muslim. This is unacceptable to Baha’is.

“Under this system, Baha’is cannot fill out the application without a de facto denial of their faith, which is against their religious principles,” said Bani Dugal, the Baha’i International Community’s principal representative to the United Nations.

“Accordingly, Iranian Baha’is will not be able to take this entrance examination, and so they are effectively blocked this year from obtaining technical and vocational education in Iran.

Read the whole article.

writing for the right to education: baha’is in the charlatan

As a follow-up to the Fulcrum article on the same topic, The Charlatan, Carleton University’s student newspaper, ran an article about the denial of higher education to Baha’is in Iran and the greater campaign by Iran’s government to destroy the Iranian Baha’i community [1][2][3][4][5]. The article quotes Sam Benoit as chair of the Carleton CABS and Tahirih Naylor as a representative for the office of governmental relations for the Bahá’í Community of Canada. Both describe the restrictions on higher education for Bahá’ís in Iran – including the Iranian government’s numerous attempts to shut down the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education, an “Open University” organized by the Bahá’ís of Iran.

Learn more about Iran’s campaign to deny higher education to Baha’is.

Visit the University of Ottawa CABS website for more resources, including photos from Dr. Payam Akhavan’s Nov. 17th talk on the situation of the Baha’is of Iran.