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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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.

together in guangzhou

Quynh and I checked in to Hotel Elan in Guangzhou around an hour ago, after paying a quick visit to a friend at work. We’ll be going out for dinner soon—supposedly to a nice noodle place (“yellow noodles”, to be precise) somewhere. The hotel is nice, small, and cute. A bit salty around the edges, but for the (low) price we’re paying, it’s actually quite a good place. We left Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) at 8:20 in the morning and got in to Guangzhou’s Baiyun airport at around 12:00 local time, for roughly 2h30 worth of flight time. Arriving was a bit confusing, what with very little English posted anywhere, but thanks to my previous experience coming to Guangzhou, we boarded a shuttle bus to the Guangzhou West railway station for only 16 yuan apiece and walked (with only light luggage) the rest of the way to our destination, saving us about 70-80 yuan over taking a taxi from the airport.

China’s cold, compared to Ho Chi Minh City. And it’ll only get colder in Beijing. Quynh is complaining about this but she’s very happy to be in a city with so many shoes. More on that later, of course. Now we’re off to dinner. 回头见。

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.

that next step

i’ve felt so tired these past few weeks—probably a combination of work, planning for the wedding in Vietnam (including scrambling around trying to collect documents and ferry them from one office to the next, like one of those bad video games), participating in the latest cycle of the Baha’i community’s intensive program of growth, and uhhhh being too lazy to go to the gym and get some exercise like I should be. Less than one month remain now before I fly back to Vietnam to be married—a story some of you may remember reading a few months ago. Planning a wedding is definitely serious business, and it seems like it’s a strong test of a couple’s ability to work together—which, so far, Quynh and I seem to be doing quite well. Although strongly aware of the cultural and temperamental differences between us, we’ve been getting along in a constructive spirit of unity and fellowship. I love it, and I’m really looking forward to experiencing the joy and the challenge of married life, of building that “fortress for well-being”. It definitely feels like leaving a certain phase of my life behind—that phase where I felt I only had to consider myself and what I wanted to do—and beginning a new phase of life which, while it closes some doors, opens up so many more possibilities.

OK I’m hungry now. off to dinner. Please leave wise comments if you wish.