Chapter 3…A Change in the Air…
Mon. Nov. 3, 2003...Noise…
Since there is a huge industrial size compressor and jack-hammer pounding away just 2 feet from our front door, I can think of no other topic to write about today than noise. Noise is a constant thing here in Hanoi. In the narrow lane we live off of, they are putting a new sewer drain in and they fire up the compressor and jack-hammer at 4 AM. There is no such concept evidently, of consideration for your sleeping neighbors. These workmen have been working for the past week and they sleep and eat on the job sight. The other nite, coming home from school, as I turned into our dark lane, I saw three young workmen sleeping on a slab of plywood, without blanket, pillow or bedding. No wonder they wanted to start work early! It is very common here to see workers put up a tent and sleep on the job sight.
On Doi Can, the street our school is on and also the lane our house is off of, there is a constant stream of horn honking. Sometimes I see cars and motorbikes honking for no other reason than to make noise. At first, while I was trying to teach, this was very annoying and distracting but in time, in the classroom I hardly notice it now. It is amazing what you can adjust to when you have to.
Most people own their own roosters and hens so we hear the neighbor’s chickens, dogs, cats, televisions, and conversations all at the same time. The walls are paper thin so I can usually hear neighbors talk, play music, sneeze, blow their nose and a myriad of other activities thru the walls. Like most homes here, we share common walls with neighbors on all sides of us. Construction around us is constant as Hanoi is a city in perpetual remodeling.
In December Vietnam is hosting the 22nd SEA GAMES and many visitors will be coming to Hanoi. This is a mini-Olympics for the Southeast Asian countries and Hanoi is sprucing up and putting its best face on as there will be television crews here from all over Asia here. The homeless have been skirted off the streets and taken to “homeless villages” in the far flung provinces. Prostitution has either gone underground or disappeared altogether. The government is putting policeman out in droves to show a strong presence here before all the international visitors flood in soon. But the noise does not stop.
There are only two places in Hanoi that I’ve found solitude and quietness. The first is the campus of Hanoi University of Technology and the other is the grounds of Ho Chi Minh’s home and mausoleum. These are little islands of tranquility in a sea of cacophony. This goes to prove that there is a sense of respectful silence in some places. But not on Doi Can St.
Wedns. Nov. 5, 2003...ROOTS…
Duong (pronounced very roughly, DU WONG) is my favorite student. He is 28 and comes from a poor farming village near Da Nang in central Vietnam, about 500 miles from Hanoi. Of the 11 children in his family he is the youngest. He is very bright and got a scholarship to attend a university in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). After receiving his engineering degree 3 years ago he was hired by a joint venture company that is headquartered in Korea but has an office and plant here in Hanoi. He makes a good salary.
However, because it requires an expensive flight on the government owned airline, Vietnam Airlines, (which is, by the way, the only airline allowed to fly the forbidden skies here) AND because it would in addition require ground transportation of over 2 hours to his remote village, Duong only sees his parents about once a year. He can’t call his parents because their village does not have phone service. As Duong was relating all this to me, his eyes filled with tears. He told me he loves his parents very much. They have lived a hard life as rice farmers and encouraged him to leave the village and have a better life. He is torn between prosperity and a coveted career and being with his family. Duong’s roots go down deep into Vietnam’s family soul.
When we first meet a person, we are immediately aware of the exterior…how tall or short, how fat or thin, how attractive or unattractive that person is. We try not to get taken up with outward appearances because we know, more than anything else, that the REAL person is not on the outside but on the inside. And, so it is with any culture, especially this culture, the Vietnamese culture. The essence is hidden at first.
Now, little by little, the layers of the onion are getting peeled away and a few of the essential essences of this fascinating land are coming into focus. I am starting to see things about this society and culture that I could not possibly have seen or known three months ago when I first arrived here. I was taken up with how horrendous the traffic was, how different the people and the food were (and no, I haven’t eaten dog yet) and so many other outward trappings. Now, gradually, and primarily thru my students, I’m seeing the very roots of Vietnamese culture. Duong has been a little window into the roots of Vietnam’s heart and soul.
When you see a tree off in the distance you can’t make out much more than the shape and color of the tree. As you get closer you start to see the texture of the bark and the kind of fruit it bears. As you stand next to the tree you can see the shape of the fruit and even pay attention to individual leaves. But then, to really get to know the tree you have to dig underneath the surface to discover the root system of the tree. And what do you think is at the very core of the Vietnamese society and culture? What are the roots of this ancient land? The roots are the FAMILY.
In my wildest imagination, I could not have envisioned family ties that are as strong as those here in Vietnam. I have 5 classes here at the school and I ask my students many of the same questions…including “where do you live and how many people live in the same home with you?” In one of my classes there are 14 students and all except one lives with his parents. These are students who range in age from 15 to 44. And no, it is not the 44 year old who lives separate from the parents. It is Duong.
To buy a home in Hanoi would be impossible for a newlywed couple. Besides, the custom is that newlyweds always live with the groom’s parents…indefinitely! There are usually at least 3 generations living in every Vietnamese household; grandparents, parents, and children. Most of my students say they enjoy living with their parents and grandparents and it works out very well. Try that on for size in America and see if it fits. A little too tight and too close for comfort eh? In Vietnam it not only fits but it is the preferred family living arrangement. The Vietnamese LOVE…and I mean DEEPLY LOVE…their family members. They enjoy being together as much as possible.
Here it is rare and very improper for a young man and young woman to live together before marriage. I only have one student who admits to that living arrangement and her parents live in a distant province and village so they are not aware of it…or so she says. I asked my married students if they want to get a home of their own and move away from their parents. They look at me with a puzzled look. The concept of moving away from their parents never crosses their mind they answer. Besides, it is the duty and responsibility of at least one child to always live at home until the death of both parents. Then, that child inherits the family home.
Moving your feeble or infirm parent to a rest home is another unheard of and incomprehensible concept. People have more value to the society and to the family, the older they get in Vietnam, not less. The older you are, the more respect you gain. When I told students in my class about rest homes in America they looked at me as if I were joking. Such a thing does not exist here, nor is it likely to. Older family members are cherished and venerated. When they die they are worshipped.
Family altars exist in almost every shop and home in Vietnam. Daily, incense is burned and fruit or some favorite substance of the departed is offered to the spirit of grandpa or grandma or those more ancient. Just as a grieving widow may visit the grave of her late beloved, so too, do the Vietnamese daily keep in remembrance deceased family. Family is more precious than anything else in this culture. Family is sacred.
We in America love our family but how many of us would want our children and their mates to live with us for the rest of our lives? Or, how many people lovingly and willingly want their aged or infirm parent to live with them, to nurture and take care of them until they depart? These very concepts are undesirable to most of us, yet they are and the roots and core of Vietnamese culture. The family is the very soul of this society.
As I write these things I feel a sense of frustration because I can’t express strongly enough how important the family is to Vietnam. Everything revolves around the family. Duong wants to make enough money to buy a home and move his parents here but he knows they won’t leave their ancient village. They want him to have a better life. Duong is the only student I have that is not in daily contact with his/her parents. His roots are in his family and I can see the sorrow and grief on his face when he talks about his deep love for his home and parents.
This society is thousands of years old and the roots are in family traditions and values. We are babies. American society is about 250 years old. We are but a newly planted sapling in comparison to Vietnam which is like a 2,000 year old California Redwood. The whole concept of family here is making me rethink my own values. When we have no culture or society to compare our own to, we think ours is the only right one. More than anything else, being in Vietnam is making me miss and appreciate my own land, family and roots. In all sincerity and honesty, I can say MY TRUE ROOTS are going down deeper!!
Mon. Nov. 10, 2003...My First Vietnamese Wedding…
East is EAT and West is BEST, at least as far as weddings are concerned. I attended my first Vietnamese wedding on Sat. and I have to say, here the difference between America and Vietnam is as dinstant as Mars is from Earth. I thought our Western weddings were an endurance test but try eating your way thru one of these 3 day epic banquets.
The average Vietnamese wedding lasts for at least 3 days, longer in the villages. No, I did not participate in all 3 days of the non-stop partying and feasts. I merely attended a 3 hour mini-session, just a mere sprint in comparison of the over-all marital marathon. Next to the importance of family, there is probably nothing as different in our 2 cultures as weddings and marriage.
Let’s start from the beginning. One of the students, Binh (pronounced “Bing”), who is a young lady of undeterminable age, invited me to her wedding. Having never been to a Vietnamese wedding, I was curious. On Friday night, in an effort to prepare myself, I talked to my class about Western weddings. Much to my amazement they sat with rapt attention and their eyes grew wide as I explained our courtship, love and marriage procedures. There is NO subject that I’ve ever discussed with my classes that got as much attention and interest as this subject. The Vietnamese are spell-bound by the topic of love, romance and marriage.
After I explained in great detail the average Western marriage ceremony, I asked them to tell me about THEIR courtship, love and romance, and wedding traditions and ceremonies. Then it was MY turn to get big eyed, drop my jaw and feel stunned by what they told me. I knew by the end of class on Friday night that my experience on Sat. would be no ordinary, in-and-out wedding ceremony.
For starters, their courtships are very, very different than ours. Most couples have known each other for years, on average, 10 years! The man does not propose to the woman…merely once! No self-respecting Vietnamese woman would accept her boy friends first proposal, even after years of courting. It is bad form. And remember, this is a country where form and formality are all important as a way of life. A woman has to know how sincere a man is so he must ask again…to prove his sincerity and test his patience. And then he must ask again…and again…and again. The average number of proposals the man makes before any self respecting Vietnamese woman finally, and reluctantly says yes, according to my students, is 10-12. Whew!!! And that is just the marriage proposal!
Next the man must go to the woman’s parents and get their permission. Without parental approval, the marriage is off. The number of couples who get married without parental approval is less than 10%…and we’re not talking about teenagers here, we are talking about couples in their mid and late 20’s. According to the ministry of information, the average age for couples in the city to marry is 26. The average age in the rural villages is 22.
Next comes setting a wedding date, which is normally about 2 years from the time parental approval is granted. Next comes the week…or weeks of the actual marriage. Now this is the tricky part. The jury is out on when the couple actually become man and wife. In America, it is when the judge or minister says, “I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride.” That by the way, is the part the class just loved…and wanted me to tell over and over. Maybe the reason my Vietnamese students loved me telling that is because it is so simple, cut and dried and distinct from their culture. Vietnamese boys and girls do not hold hands or kiss in public…and since I’ve never seen them do it in private, maybe they don’t do it at all for all I know. It is culturally taboo to show affection of any kind in public. In fact, none in my class admitted to ever having seen their mothers and fathers ever having kissed, even in private. Somewhere along the way, their parents had to have some form of physical contact folks, as I hate to tell my 25 year old students that I’ve known since 7th grade that storks don’t bring babies anymore.
I’m sorry. I’ve digressed. So, when do they actually become man and wife? According to the government, it is when they take the first legal step…and that is when both man and woman go to the government clerk to sign the marriage certificate…which is usually about 2 weeks before the actual day…or rather, days, of the wedding ceremony. Here is where the class had differing opinions. In the villages it is different than the city. Among the rich it is different than with the poor. From family to family it varies but most students said that the average city wedding ceremony lasted 3 days. The first day, nominal friends and acquaintances are invited to a feast. That is what I partook of on Sat. There you see the bride in her wedding dress and the groom in his finery. You meet the parents and the best friends. You eat. And eat. And eat…and finally scream ENOUGH ALREADY! I’M FULL!!!
The second day only family and relatives and closest friends are invited and that feast takes place at the groom’s home, where the bride and groom will soon live. The third day the groom comes calling for his bride at her parent’s home. This will be her last day under her parent’s roof, unless the groom’s parents are too poor or too crowded for the couple to live there. Then, and only then, would a groom move in with his mother-in-law. Yes, they have THAT tradition also in Vietnam. So, definitely, by the third day, when the groom takes the bride from her parents and literally carries her into his parents home, they are man and wife! Whew! Got all that? It is really complicated! However, as the younger population comes of age, they are opting more and more for one day Western style marriages. 70% of the population here is under 30 so there is a gradual shift from traditional ways to Western ways.
The average newlywed couple in Vietnam rarely have more than 2 children. Families over the last 15 years have become smaller. And, perhaps the most astounding statistic of all is their incredible low divorce rate. Less than 3% of the couples in Vietnam ever get divorced…probably because no man in his right mind would ever want to propose 12 times and go thru a 3 day wedding ceremony again!
Saturday, Nov. 15, 2003...Chi and Huong at Bat Thang and the Incredible Day!An incredible day! What wonderful friends I have in Chi and Huong! What goodfortune! What good blessing! Today was one of those rare and marvelous dayswhere everything went right! In fact, it more than went right, it was fullof serendipity! It all started when I left the house at 7:30 to meet Chi andHuong , 2 of my students, and they took me to Bat Thang, a village 30 kmsoutside of Hanoi where all the shops specialize in making pottery.I had assumed that they each would have motorbikes and I would ride on theback of one of their motorbikes. However, while I was standing waiting forthem on Doi Can,(our street) a xe om (motorbike taxi pronounced, SAY OHM)pulled up to me. I told him I did not need a xe om. A few seconds laterHuong pulled up on her motorbike with Chi on the back. Then I realized thexe om was for me. However, after I thanked the girls for getting the xe omfor me, they said, no, they didn't know who this guy was. What wonderfulgood luck! I needed a xe om and here he was. Furthermore, he not only agreedto take me to Bat Thang but the girls negotiated a very good price, about $3for his all day services.So we 4 were off to Bat Thang. The ride took about 45 minutes and we crossedthe Red River, which is the largest river in Vietnam and reminds me of themighty Mississippi. Down a bumpy, dusty road we went into the heart of ruralVietnam. The village of Bat Thang is precious and mostly devoid of tourists.I only saw 3 white-skinned foreigners. Every shop in the village isdedicated exclusively to pottery.We watched every phase of pottery making: turning vessels on a wheel,pouring slip into moulds, cleaning, priming, painting, firing, glazing andshipping. We even got to paint some pottery and once it is fired and glazedwe'll go back to Bat Thang and pick it up. One pottery shop owner not onlylet us paint our own pottery but he invited us to his table for tea. I havepictures to prove it. While in one pottery shop I bought my grand-daughterMacy a tea set and the girls bought Caden some ceramic cats. After spendingabout 4 hours in various pottery shops we went to another village for anoutdoor lunch of catfish cooked at our table with all the trimmings. Thefood in Vietnam is so delicious and healthy. I continue to lose weight!While over a leisurely lunch we exchanged cultural customs and traditions ofour respective lands. The girls told me that they hoped Vietnam would becomemore like America. I told them that I hoped America would become more likeVietnam! This country is so rich in love, kindness, respect, graciousnessand friendliness. Oh that our great land could become more like this. I'vereceived more smiles in the 2 months I've been here than in 2 years inCalif.In America, we refer to Vietnam as a 3rd world country. What does that meananyway? According to whose standards is this a 3rd world country? And whatis a 2nd world country? And what determines a 1st world country?. Can someoneplease tell me? In my humble opinion, a country should be classified, not byits economy but by the character of its people. I feel that the people inVietnam are 1st world citizens. They are the kind of citizens we should allbe. Thoughtful, sensitive, friendly, and kind. I have come to really lovethis country and these gentle souls.Every teacher craves a close relationship with his students. Here that dreamis a reality. The students here can't do enough for you. When they take meout to lunch or dinner I try to pay but they won't hear of it. On average, Ieat out with some of my students about 4 times a week.
Each year, on November 20th, Vietnam celebrates National Teacher’s Day…rather than tell you what it is, I’ll share the exact words of one of my pre-intermediate students, Thu Nga: here is her account:
...I will tell you about our Teacher's day. It's one of the most important holidays in Vietnam (the National Day, Tet Nguyen Dan, Teacher's day and May Day). In this day, students go to their teacher's house to wish them with best wishes, to give them the most beautiful flowers. Students go to school not to study, but to celebrate the anniversary with many anthems. In their class, they pitch flowers on vase all week. The Speaker of the National Assembly makes a speech to congratulate all the teachers working in Vietnam.In short, students must respect their teachers (old teachers and new teachers). It's one of our human moralities. If a student isn't grateful and respect their teachers, he won't be respect in society.We have a famous saying: You are my teacher a day, you will be my father all life. (translate word by word)...Thu Nga
I plan on taking a little vacation this week to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) I hope to leave on Tues. Nov. 18 and come back Monday Nov. 24th so I won’t be here to celebrate teacher’s day with my students. One of my students, my dearest one, Duong, (if you can have pets,) wants me to meet his family in southern Vietnam so I am traveling with him there.
Sun. Nov. 23, 2003...Ho Chi Minh City... I am writing you from the dank, dark, humid skies of Ho Chi Minh City, some 1,000 miles apart. These 2 cities are an entire world apart. HMC (formerly Saigon) is a much bigger, busier city than Hanoi...almost 3 times the size. HCM is over 8 million with 4 million motorbikes. The traffic is much heavier here than in Hanoi...and here I didn't think that was possible. Hanoi has a small town atmosphere in comparison. I can walk from the center of Hanoi to our school on the NW outskirts in 45 minutes. Here, from the center to the outskirts would take weeks if you didn't get run over by a taxi or motorbike first.There have been many highlights since coming here a week ago. Perhaps none so great as having my picture taken with one of my Vietnamese students, Duong, in front of the USS Vandegrift in port here in HCM. That is USS as in United States Ship! This week marked the first time in 30 years that a US ship docked at port in Vietnam. US sailors were everywhere in this metropolitan, modern city and there were times I had to remind myself I wasn't in San Diego. The implications of this occasion are monumental...especially in light that Washington DC was receiving the Vietnamese Minister of Defense just a few weeks before. It gives real hope to a solid friendship between the US and VN after 30 years of no diplomatic relations. I am not into politics but I am into friendships and this is one I am very anxious to see deepened and extended.Sat. nite a few of us English teachers had dinner in downtown HCM and it was hard to decide on WHICH Western restaurant to choose from. Wanda is from Texas, JP is from Korea, and I come from the restaurant capital of the world, The SF Bay Area. So, we opted for a Medditeranean restaurant that had a varied menu and soft jazz in the background. There's never been a time in my 3 months in Vietnam that I felt an experience was more "unvietnamese." In fact, most of HCM is very unlike Hanoi. This city has a very strong US resemblance...like a first cousin.They do not celebrate Christmas in Vietnam...er, so I thought until I came here. The other day we went in one of the skyscapers here for coffee and on the 6th floor there was a bowling alley with a huge Christmas tree and Christmas carols blaring in English. No, you wouldn't find a Christmas tree in all of Hanoi. I actually am anxious to get back home to Hanoi. I like the small town atmosphere...for a city of 3 million. I am having "inner culture shock..." finding a culture within a culture.There are many ethnic minorities in Vietnam and I think HCM is one of them...but in a very urban way. Hanoi is the Vietnam that I've come to know and love and feel comfortable and familiar with. Had I come here first, I'd likely find this to be my comfort zone. We have no skyscrapers in Hanoi. Here there are many.One day this week Duong and I went up to the 33rd floor to have lunch on top of the Prudential Building, one of the tallest buildings in HCM. Again, a Christmas tree adorned the center but this time it was the Carpenters singing, "Yesterday Once More" from the sound system. Every restaurant you go to there is music playing. One thing most Vietnamese feel uncomfortable with is quietness. I crave quietness. The only "sound of silence" here is coming thru the sound system by Simon and Garfunkel.There is something the Vietnamese dread more than silence. When giving a 10 question quiz, I asked my students, "What are you the most afraid of?" I expected them to say snakes and spiders, as most of my American students did. However, I was stunned to read their answers, "Being alone!" Being alone and lonely is the greatest fear most citizens of the city have. I don't know about the village dwellers...perhaps it is different as I haven't gone into many rural villages yet. That will come next. Tomorrow Duong and I are going to meet his parents at a village 2 hours bus ride from here, Mi Lai.