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.

flowers and forecasts

Here’s an excerpt from a post that I started writing a while back in Da Nang, in October 2010, and never finished—probably because it was time to take out the garbage.

nine yellow roses

it’s flower arrangement day at hotel Hai Lam (aka, Quynh’s family home). apparently, prevailing conditions allowed for the buildup of flower purchases in our vicinity, which favoured the formation of an active flower system leading straight to our door. Government florists describe the system as cyclical, although this particular system is considered to be stronger than usual for this time of year.

So anyway yeah. Lots of flowers in the house, for Quynh who just came home from a Baha’i Institute training in Malaysia, and for the family shrine too. Pink, red, white, yellow flowers, roses, lilies and (??). I met Quynh at the airport with red roses—and a bouquet of nine roses when she got home. We even got a new set of bed sheets with roses on them!

Rollin’ like the mack, indeed. You can tell the effect it had on the love of my life:

more flowers?

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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