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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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 ceremony overview

just marriedWhen Quynh and I broadcasted our engagement ceremony over the internet, we neglected to provide an explanation (or translation!) of what was happening, and most people felt a little lost watching the ceremony take place. “What are they doing? They’ve got rings… is this a wedding? I thought it was an engagement.” “There’s a lot of talking, and I can’t understand what they’re saying… when are they married?” To avoid that this time, here’s a brief overview of what we expect to happen during the wedding ceremony, that’ll be broadcast live as it happens, right here on doberman pizza (be sure to find your local time for the event so you don’t miss it—it’ll be 9 PM Eastern Time on March 5th, which is 9 AM on March 6th in Vietnam time).

Wedding programme

  1. Introduction of the wedding ceremony’s program.

“Cultural” Vietnamese ceremony

  1. Introduction of the two families.
  2. A representative from the groom’s family presents gifts to the bride’s family.—These gifts, colloquially referred to as “red boxes”, contain traditional items—such as candles, tea, betel nuts, and so on—given to the bride’s family as a bride price, a long-standing custom in many Asian cultures.
  3. A representative from the bride’s family receives and accepts the red boxes.—A running joke during our engagement was that the bride’s family had the option to refuse the gifts, meaning the groom would have to leave and come back another time with better gifts before he could receive his future bride.
  4. The groom and bride present their two families.
  5. The groom gives the bride the wedding bouquet.
  6. Praying for ancestors.—Ancestor worship is a strongly rooted custom in many Asian cultures. In the Vietnamese custom, this includes burning candles and incense, offering fruit and flowers, and displays of veneration and respect such as bowing towards the altar, which is decorated with photos of the deceased. In a Baha’i ceremony, prayers are also offered.

Baha’i ceremony

  1. Reading the opening prayer.
  2. The groom offers a prayer and recites the Baha’i wedding vow.
  3. The bride offers a prayer and recites the Baha’i wedding vow.—The Baha’i wedding vow is a verse revealed by Baha’u’llah: “We will all, verily, abide by the Will of God.”
  4. The bride and groom exchange wedding rings.
  5. An excerpt from the guidance of ‘Abdu’l-Baha on marriage is read.
  6. A representative from the groom’s family confirms their acceptance of the bride as their daughter-in-law.
  7. A representative from the bride’s family confirms their acceptance of the groom as their son-in-law.
  8. The Chairman of the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Hải Châu, Da Nang, confirms the marriage.—A Baha’i marriage must be accepted as valid by the local Spiritual Assembly.
  9. Gifts from the two families, relatives and friends are offered.—Gifts (usually red envelopes) are given to the new couple at this point by those assembled.
  10. Either the bride or groom thanks those assembled.
  11. Reading the closing prayer.
  12. Break; the bride’s family gets ready to send the bride off.

travelling travelling

stranded in torontosometimes you read the news, and sometimes you live it. like for example the latest news about air travel over Christmas! Last night was the first time I actually got stuck anywhere because of air traffic; on our way to Moncton, my family and I got stuck in Canada’s busiest airport after our 8:00 flight was delayed, then cancelled, leaving us to wait for a flight at 11PM. I’ve got nothing to complain about, really; all we did was hang around at Pearson airport for a little while—I caught up on emails and my mom and sister strolled around doing a little shopping in the duty-free section. Some others didn’t have it quite so easy: others had been waiting in Toronto for up to three or four days waiting for a flight out. Many of the people sitting around us on the flight (once it finally came) had been waiting upwards of seven hours for a plane. I’m just glad I wasn’t trying to get to Vancouver or Halifax; it seems like both airports have been effectively shut down for the past week. Things were crazy enough, though, to have Westjet lose a piece of my mom’s luggage—chock full of Christmas presents, of course—during our transfer in Toronto; thankfully, they just called up to announce that they were able to track it down, and it should be arriving in Moncton overnight, for us to pick up in the morning. I have to say that, for a relatively inexpensive airline, I’ve been pretty happy with Westjet’s service. I’d recommend it for anyone who wants to try flying within Canada for sure.

OK, dinnertime now. No more time for travel stories. It’s time for turkey :3

oh wow

conf2009 been a while hasn’t it? well apart from all the usual trouble I get up to in between blog posts, I finished up some work implementing the design of the official website of the Toronto and Vancouver Baha’i regional conferences—which, coincidentally, are coming up in just a few short weeks. (There should still be time to register if you haven’t yet.) After plenty of civilized discussion (lol) with friend and fellow webservant Martin (warning: link is hopelessly out of date), we ended up putting up a simple little WordPress installation to house the whole thing, and adapted an existing theme to use an already-developed and -approved visual design; the bulk of the work happened in about 24 hours after a few frantic phone calls. Maybe not the most rewarding thing I’ve done in the last while (the recent redesign of the Conference Board of Canada’s home page takes that cake), but I can assure that the adrenaline rush of meeting the challenge and ensuing success did in fact kick it high up onto the list. not that I make a policy of working on extremely short-notice web projects, but something else has been flung my way just tonight that I expect to be working on in the next week, before I head off with family for a (well-deserved?) Christmas vacation visiting my extended family in the Maritime provinces (Moncton and area, mostly). Sounds fun huh?

oh and look at me using all these parentheses!

early morning post

banh xeohahaha i love my new macbook pro. not only can I do just about anything with it super easily—like manage photos, create songs, remix video, run IM and IRC clients—I can also carry it around wherever I go and jot down things when they pop into my head. suddenly i feel like my life is a lot more organized. i’m sure this is something of a honeymoon period, but it’s a nice one %)

things are going well. work is set to be busy this month, with a rather challenging deadline at the end of October, but that’s nothing I haven’t seen and dealt with before. I’ve been going to the gym fairly regularly for the past two months or so and I seem to be losing some weight now; several people have commented already about that. I love getting the exercise, it keeps my mood on the up-and-up too. children’s classes have started up and are having a rather rough start, probably because I’ve been dividing my attention between preparing the lessons and working out logistics—calling the parents, trying to find a new co-teacher, etc. such is service sometimes. also, i am hard at work hatching some dastardly plans, but those are still under wraps. you’ll just have to sit and wait for now. other than that, the past few days have been pretty good. went to Louis’ Pizza with Nathan (new Baha’i in our neighbourhood) last night and then mosied over to starbucks for a little while; we also got to have a brief visit (and introductions) with Jay & Diana, who are our long-standing Baha’i neighbours. on Sunday, I went to visit my parents; my dad was busy digging up the front lawn, so I joined him with that and we ended up busting the pipe for their sump pump (whoops). after that, I helped dig up potatoes from my mom’s garden, and we all enjoyed a dinner of turkey pot pie and apple crumble. yum! looking forward to thanksgiving next weekend. it should be a wonderful family affair. ok, it’s getting late and I need to go to work. more soon!