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?

grief and the value of community

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

neighbours gatherIt’s been several months since Quynh’s father Hai passed away, and the one hundred days—the “tốt khốc” (“end of tears”), marking a resumption of “normal” life after a loved one’s passing—have elapsed long since. Being surrounded by family has helped Quynh’s mother Lam cope with the tragic loss greatly. Quynh commented on her mother’s evident sense of joy at the large turnout for the 100th-day commemoration—sixty people or more arrived to pay their respects and to be with the family, if I recall correctly.

Vietnamese people are tightly interconnected with those around them. When I first came to Vietnam, I often mused about how little “personal space” I enjoyed, chalking it up to a case of high population density. Vietnam’s a small country, right? Long but thin. It must be hard to fit 85 million+ people in here. But more than that, the Vietnamese people aren’t afraid to be close as a community. Since returning from my first trip, I began to note how woefully separate, isolated I felt in Canada—as if every trip back home was like shutting myself into a cell. In Vietnam, there are no such barriers isolating people—or at the very least, they’re much less apparent than in the “developed” West. Sure, it means that people can pop in unannounced for a visit at all hours of the day, but hey, is ten minutes’ worth of tea and chatter so much to ask? Or are those ten minutes really better spent holed up watching TV? (Full disclosure: I tend to hole myself up with my laptop, which isn’t much better. And yes, I reproach myself for it.)
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say a little prayer

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

family shrineOn these, the coldest winter mornings when the roads are covered in snow and ice, I roll groggily out of my bed to get ready for work. Shower, brush teeth, shave. Get dressed in long johns, spiffy tailored pants and shirt from Da Nang. Lumber downstairs and feed the cat. Then pull a little piece of black plastic out of my pocket and pin it above my breast pocket, and walk quietly into the den, where the shrine awaits. Gaze with love at the portrait that stands there, and take three sticks of incense, applying a flame until they smoulder. Then holding them before me, I utter a quiet prayer, and bow three times, repeating the Greatest Name of God. Planting the sticks in the handmade ceramic pot in the centre of this small, humble shrine, I bow once more and turn away to start my day.

I used to burn incense, but only because it seemed cool and exotic. It didn’t occur to me that I could ever use it to pray.

Well, not pray. I can’t really use a stick of incense to pray, or can I? Maybe worship is a better word. I’m still not sure where that line is, or if there even is a line. I know how Baha’is pray, and I know the way we were taught to pray in Catholic schools. I know the Lord’s Prayer by heart, and I’m doing my darndest to memorize the Tablet of Ahmad. I even know what Muslim prayers look and sound like. But I still wonder whenever I see people offering incense at shrines, temples and pagodas: What exactly are you thinking? Not in a “wondering about your sanity” way, of course, but genuinely wondering what goes through the minds of the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Koreans and Japanese when they offer incense. How exactly do you pray?
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the life of a vietnamese son-in-law

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

plot maintenanceApart from the family memorial gatherings and the weekly devotional gatherings for Quynh’s father Hai, my time in Vietnam was rather quiet and uneventful. It rained heavily for a good part of my stay, which left me stuck inside most of the time. In my free time I did some tele-work for my employer in Ottawa, using a remote access provider to debug CSS and code up ASP.NET controls from the comfort of my chair in Da Nang. Yes, that was my free time. Whenever we weren’t visiting Hai’s resting place south of Da Nang—replacing flowers, planting rows of incense, refilling oil lamps—I mainly puttered around the house, taking care of chores. As I mentioned before, I spent a lot of time figuring out how to be a good son-in-law (in Vietnamese, con rể), hoping to learn the ropes, as it were, of Vietnamese family life. It turned out that my main task was, well, to stay in the house and wait for things to happen.

I eventually got into a routine that involved taking care of a few daily chores: preparing rice for lunch, taking out garbage, and fetching cola and other small items from nearby shops. Another big part of that routine was to take care of the family shrine—meaning, offer rice and keep the incense burning at all times. At every mealtime, we would take some of our rice (or noodles, or whatever) and place it in a little bowl on the shrine. Quynh explained to me that while she and her mother, being Baha’is, didn’t necessarily believe that her father’s spirit would “consume” the food—or that his spirit would even need such sustenance—the act of offering food to the deceased was mainly for the family, to help them grieve. Offering incense, she said, carried the same significance.
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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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