death and life in vietnam

dawn reflections in da nangmy recent trip to Vietnam to visit family after my father-in-law’s passing afforded me a lot of time to think. Even while I was still there, I knew I wanted to share with the world reflections on the experience of losing a loved one across cultures, from a personal and a Baha’i perspective. as it turns out, I’ve actually got a lot of notes, so much so that it’d probably take way more effort than I can give at the moment to put it all into one big essay-type format. So I figure I’ll split it into a few posts, covering a few different—but very related—topics. These may change, but I figured people might like to know what I’m planning.

As noted, I expect these posts will come out every 3–4 days, as I have time to work on each of them (that said, the dates noted here are approximate).

Edit: All posts are now up (finally)!

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.

autumn (untitled)

this morning, an eerie quiet invaded the tunnel, supplanting the commute’s normal din with nothing, glorious nothing. not even the noise wanted to get out of bed. after glancing about and taking stock of the reds, the yellows and oranges suddenly strewn about the cityscape, i turned back to my lap and continued typing away, tapping out messages to friends and family.

evening came early tonight. as the air chilled, the squirrels came out in little black troops to gather up seeds and acorns, bounding across the grass littered with fallen leaves. the bold and deep greens of a month ago have begun to yellow or redden, depending on where one’s glance falls, as autumn begins to rear its beautiful head.

warmth

back in Ottawa. the wind is colder here, and I have to bundle up in layers of clothes instead of spending all my time in t-shirts and shorts. it’s cloudy today, but the drab grey of the sky is set against vivid reds, oranges and yellows on the trees. Vietnam is more colourful, hands down, but it’s nice to see that Canada still puts up a fight in the beauty department. “like flowers of one garden”.

i’m seeing what’s around me with different eyes, hearing with different ears. now I can tell when someone around me is speaking Vietnamese, and I can actually understand some of what they say. I can read the signs in Chinatown (even some of the Chinese ones). I’ve taken to picking up dinner at the Thai place at the mall, because Subway just seems unappealing now. plus, of course, it reminds me of the real thing. my favourite Vietnamese restaurant (next to the Baha’i centre, no less) closed up shop, which annoyed me to no end. but there’s a new Thai place there now, so I figure I’ll go check it out next time I’m in the neighbourhood.

still adapting to being back in Canada, and more than just because of the cold weather. it’s about being plunged back into the culture of the West, a very palpably immoderate culture, a culture shaken loose of its moral basis and bereft of direction. a “lost” culture, I suppose. I fear it, because I fear becoming lost in it. being in Vietnam did me a lot of good, i think; especially in helping me discover my limitations and rely on my strengths to compensate for my weaknesses. Canada’s cool and detached (albeit friendly) social climate hasn’t done me much good, I think. despite my sociable manners in everyday life, I find I have trouble opening up to social relationships, so, left to my own, I tend not to seek out the company of others. Family-centred Vietnam, with its deeply and strongly woven fabric of social support networks, seems to have helped me stay on the outside of that self-centred bubble that the individualist Westerner blows up for himself.

sitting at home in front of a gas fire now. thank goodness it’s not cold in Vietnam. they don’t have to close their doors to stay warm.

economic crisis: it’s about ethics

“The economy is in crisis”, the televisions at the gym blared. “you may no longer be able to afford that SUV.” “Due to the economic crisis,” read the printed signs at the fast food restaurant, “our sub sandwich supreme has doubled in price. We regret any inconvenience this may cause.” “Because of the economic crisis,” burbled the talking heads wearing corporate-looking suits, “we have had to reduce our workforce by half.” We all remember, right? Whose idea was it to have an economic crisis, anyway? It may be a better question than you think. Who plans ahead for misery? We all do, it turns out—when our actions are driven by a “concept of self-centered materialism”, as recently stated by members of the European Baha’i Business Forum.

Any response to the world economic crisis must address ethics, given that the crisis is “fundamentally one of trust and integrity,” the European Baha’i Business Forum said in a statement published last week. Furthermore, the situation requires an ethical response “at all levels” – from individuals, from corporations, and from governments and regulatory entities, said the statement, released as some 400 representatives from dozens of countries and organizations gathered in Geneva for a two-day Global Ethics Forum.

“We need to replace the concept of self-centered materialism with that of service to humanity,” the EBBF said. Cooperation must replace competition, the statement continued; ethical behavior must replace corruption, gender balance must replace sexism, world unity must replace protectionism, justice must replace injustice.

I remember having a talk with my boss at the Conference Board—one of Canada’s powerhouses in the business of economic research—during the time the fearful words “economic crisis” first hit the news screens, as we walked into work in the morning. The conversation revolved around what makes, or causes, an economic crisis. The conclusion was pretty similar to the one reached above by the EBBF in their statement: it’s about ethics. When people get into the habit of doing business unethically—by selling products (like mortgages, loans, etc) with exploitive terms, or otherwise cheating their clients—the system they put together will end up failing. When this situation arises in a business that relies so strongly on trust as the financial industry, the impact of that failure will naturally be much bigger. People do more business with people they think they can trust; if that trust is then broken, the chaos created as those people pull back out will naturally seem like a “crisis”. In contrast with most of the Western world, Canada’s economic system emerged into the first quarter of 2009 relatively unscathed—because Canadian banks, unlike their American counterparts, had long observed a policy of conservative lending that precluded the sort of unethical lending rampant in the American banks. Honesty is like a magnet: observe it and you will create a strong and stable network around you; disregard it and everything you build will crumble.

Read the Baha’i World News story.

politeness and hospitality

waitingI love how spambots are finding my blog posts about travel and leaving non-sequitur comments like “I wish I could go there!!! I wonder how I can find cheap tickets!???!1/” and leaving URLs like ez-cheap-asia-tickets-for-real.com thinking that I won’t catch them and delete them. from now on, whenever I get comments like that, I’m going to edit the author name to something awesome like Funky George Washington or Blazing Mushroom Jets and add my own comments to what they write (read: autogenerate), for the benefit and amusement of my (actual, i.e. human) readers.

I’m in Hanoi right now. I think I’m taking about the same time getting used to it as it took in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, but Hanoi definitely has a rougher edge than the others. Dirtier, less glossy, more polluted, and definitely as noisy and chaotic as Ho Chi Minh City. At the same time, Hanoi has a lot of beautiful landmarks, like the Ho Chi Minh Museum and Mausoleum (yes, they really love Ho Chi Minh here), Hoan Kiem lake, and so on. There are a lot of trees lining the streets here, much like Da Nang. Inexplicably, I haven’t tasted the pho here yet—which is supposed to be the best in Vietnam. Actually, the fact that I haven’t tried it yet may be mainly due to the incredible hospitality of those families hosting me, meaning that just about every meal I eat is homemade Vietnamese cooking (which is more varied than I ever could have expected).

the Vietnamese—especially from the North, I think—seem to have the same concept of politeness as Persian tarof; whatever the case, they must provide hospitality to those they meet, even if it hurts. that is, if you show up unexpected to someone’s door, be prepared to be treated like a king and offered tea and sweets and fruits several times, but also be aware that you may be eating your hosts’ dinner for the night. The reverse is true: if you’re invited to dinner and you’re really not hungry, you’ll have to expect to be invited many times in succession even if you refuse each time. If you do go to dinner, you’ll have to expect your hosts to keep offering you more and more food, even if you’re full. The general rule of thumb is: if you seriously want to say “no”, you have to say it at least three times. If you refuse an invitation three times, they’ll generally understand that no, you don’t want anymore squid/tofu/water spinach/corn/fish/weird pickled things. Thankfully, having grown up in a Baha’i community full of Persian friends, I managed to get a bit of the inside scoop on tarof—institutional politeness.

If you’re staying with Vietnamese friends, understand that they will probably refuse having you pay for yourself, i.e. when it comes to helping with the food, electricity, internet, laundry, whatever bills. You’ll have to insist (again, probably at least three times) if you seriously want to contribute for the impact of your stay. However, that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t appreciate the help; they’re just very polite. Some sort of gift during or at the end of your stay is well appreciated; gifts for a family’s children are especially well received. Something that relates to your country of origin is also a good gift idea.

Since this post is largely about politeness, maybe I should write a bit about the proper use of Vietnamese pronouns, since the way you address someone here plays a huge role in politeness. Unlike the English language, which uses only the words “you” and “I/me” as second- and first-person pronouns, Vietnamese pronouns are myriad and change depending on a person’s age, your relation to them, the formality of the occasion, and so on. For example, the most common pronouns I use in addressing someone of my parents’ age (~45-65) are “chu” (uncle) and “cô” (auntie). When speaking with them, I’m required to refer to myself as “con” or “châu” (child). Since I’m almost 30, I can probably get away with addressing people of my brother and sister’s age (~31-40) as “anh” (older brother) and “chi” (older sister), and I would refer to myself as “em” (younger brother/sister). I can call anyone younger than myself “em” as well—they would call me “anh”—and I can refer to myself as “chu” to children or junior youth—they would refer to themselves as “con” or “châu”. Confused? I sure was. I’m still getting used to it. Every time I found out about a new pronoun, I buried my face in my palms in despair.

Perhaps one of the reasons I tend to be a little more introverted is that I don’t adapt too well to formality, or, at least, it makes me uncomfortable. I’d much rather refer to everybody as “dude” and address them with a simple “yo”. But, to quote the guidebook I left behind in Saigon, when you’re in Nam, do as the Viets. One of the challenges of living as a visitor in a different place is learning to be humble and to show respect to the local culture and its customs. Isn’t respect one of the signs of love?