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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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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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)!

3rd baha’i national convention, vietnam

A little behind, but as I mentioned a little while back, here’s an English translation of a Vietnamese news article on the third National Baha’i Convention in Can Tho, Vietnam, on May 2, 2010. I’ve added my own explanatory footnotes below. The article is a little off on a few facts, but overall it’s pretty good. This translation should at least give you a good idea of the general state of the Faith in Vietnam, and how it’s viewed by the institutions of society; in my opinion, it also offers an intriguing view of the perspective of modern Vietnam on religion in general. Thanks to Quynh and Google Translate for help with the translation.

On the morning of May 2nd, nearly 300 followers of the Baha’i Community in Vietnam attended the third annual National Convention of the Baha’i Community in Vietnam in Can Tho city.

The convention elected nine members of the religious council of the Baha’is of Vietnam for the 2010-2011 term and set out key tasks, following the motto “Sống tốt đời, đẹp đạo” (“Living well, in one’s life and in one’s faith”), aiming to improve the lives  of their brethren and benefit their country, to work effectively and mobilize their numbers to promote unity within the nation and solidarity with other religions.

Speaking at the conference, Mr. Đặng Tài Tính, Director of International Cooperation for the National Committee for Religious Department, stressed that the Government of Vietnam always implements a consistent policy to respect and ensure the freedom of belief and religion of the people, but that the people also have to comply with Vietnamese laws.

The charter of the Baha’i Community in Vietnam confirms in its principles and objectives that “activities shall be held in compliance with the laws of Vietnam, and shall uphold the spirit of harmony and unity of the nation and of religion, for the socio-economic development of the country…”, a crucial principle which serves to orient believers and grassroots organizations following the doctrine and laws of the Baha’i religion and the laws of Vietnam.

At the meeting, representatives of the Board of Counsellors[1] for Asia stated their appreciation to the Government of Vietnam’s facilitation for its help in facilitating the implementation of the activities of the Baha’i Community in Vietnam.

Mr. Nguyen Thuc, head of the interim board of representatives[2] of the Baha’i (religious) Community of Vietnam, said that since the recognition of its legal status, the entire community has entered a period of development and has achieved outstanding large-scale growth in individual religious practice, religious education, Holy day gatherings, the formation of committees and work groups and other administrative functioning.

In whichever locality Baha’i believers live and practice their religion, they largely have good relationships with government at all levels, allowing their activities to flourish in accordance with the Government’s policies on belief and religion and the provisions of law.

The Baha’i Faith came to Vietnam in 1954. The Baha’i religious community in Vietnam has almost 7,000 followers, faith activities in 43 provinces and cities, mainly concentrated in the central and southern regions.

The Baha’i community of Vietnam officially obtained its Certificate of Operation Registration[3] with the Government’s Committee for Religious Affairs on February 28th, 2007.

After nearly a year of operation, in July 2008, the Government’s Committee for Religious Affairs decided to recognize the religious organizations of the Baha’i religious community of Vietnam.

Up to now, the Baha’i Community of Vietnam has nearly 80 representatives of the Provisional Committee in the local level.

Footnotes:

The article mentions the rule of law many times over. I didn’t see the point of this until I started to read up on the history of religious groups in Vietnam, most of which seem to have had the unfortunate historical tendency to not only quarrel amongst themselves but try to overthrow governments. Some religious communities still display these tendencies, hence the constant reminders in modern government speech. Baha’is, though, are already enjoined by the core teachings of their Faith to show obedience and loyalty to their government, as the next paragraph states—a fact which apparently inspires some shock and awe in Vietnamese officials.

The term “Baha’i Community” is rendered consistently as “Baha’i religious community” in the original Vietnamese, but I’ve translated it as simply “Baha’i Community” for English readability.

1: The Continental Board of Counsellors, a high-level, non-clerical institution, purely advisory in character, with counterparts throughout the world; rendered as “Continental Advisory Committee” in the Vietnamese text.

2: The term translated here as “board of representatives” refers to the National Spiritual Assembly, a national body elected by the believers in a country to oversee the administrative affairs and spiritual health of the community.

3: I’m not really sure how this should be translated, but basically it’s a cerficate that shows they are officially registered as a religious community with the Government, and they are authorized to operate and conduct activities as such.

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.