Don’t worry! This story has a happy ending.
I’ve just come back to Vietnam from a sad event in Australia – the passing away of my mother. At least she went peacefully enough and quickly in the end. It took just over two weeks.
I’d been teaching a student at his house and his street was blocked by a huge funeral with the works – a brass band, lots of mourners and dozens of motorbikes really to follow the decreased to the cemetery. And I wondered about how my mum was doing back in Australia...
I’d left in a hurry, cancelling classes and letting the bills pile up while I was away so it was a mad rush to get everything ready for school again.
I do think the Vietnamese and many other non-Western cultures have the right idea about death by not hiding it and preserving a means of remembering their ancestors by placing small shrines in the house.
Also the prominent visual displays outside Vietnamese homes for the ceremonies of death – as noisy as they are – help some part of the process of coming to terms with the loss of a loved one. We don’t weep and wail that much in Western culture, keeping many emotions suppressed that it might be better to let out.
Unlike births and weddings, death tends to put our lives on hold as we pay our last respects, say what we want while we have the chance and think about both our loved one’s life and our own.
I’m not talking about bucket lists, a middle-aged crisis or being desperately unhappy with life. I’m fairly fortunate that I’m mostly content with my life with no great need to measure my achievements by the number of possessions I’ve accumulated, nor fame or a fancy job.
Yet I do wonder what I truly want to do next as I’m going to be 57 years old this year with a decade of life in Vietnam.
For most people fortunate enough to be generating a good income and maybe with a family, the answers are simple – just keep doing what you’re doing. If it isn’t broken – don’t fix it. Luckily most people are not in the status race.
I love what I do in Vietnam – teaching, writing and occasionally drawing. It’s far better than the rule-bound tightrope I often walked in Australia with the constant worries about money and bills. Vietnam has helped me lighten up quite a bit.
The trouble is something has shifted in my world now. I’m somehow less willing to accept things as they are. My comfortable complacency has been shaken and I’m more aggressive in the last few days. Whether this is part of dealing with death or the signs of a more impatient me is yet to become clear.
Particularly I’ve confronted one person already for failing to keep to a deal regarding my teaching in Da Nang and unlike before, I have no more qualms about the consequences of this confrontation.
The Vietnamese can sometimes see things more clearly and straightforward than myself. As my best friend in Vietnam has counseled after hearing all my problems when I returned to Hoi An after the funeral, ‘Tomorrow you start again.’ Time to start fixing up stuff that was left undone for a very long time...
I remember one of my neighbors, whose grandparent had died, decided to repaint his house, buy a sofa he had always wanted and took a long overdue trip to visit his relatives who live far away in the south of the country.
I’ve often felt that it’s one of the magical ingredients of Vietnam that you can start again and again. It allows you to try one new project after another or re-visit some old interest or skill that you left behind the turmoil of working life in the West. At least problems here can have some interesting solutions!
My neighbors and friends frequently make mistakes in business or pursuing their ambitions and dreams but people are generally not judged too harshly in Vietnam for this, although privately inside the families the criticisms can be pretty frequent. Another neighbor has tried growing fruit, raising pigs and now finally has a profitable sideline in mushrooms – he’s a carpenter by trade.
So now if it goes wrong and my school fails or my other projects collapse – at least I’ll remember my mum’s gift for telling me to find another way, not give up, and the Vietnamese way of starting something new time after time.
No matter what the heartbreak, tomorrow we start again and I’m sure my mum will be smiling about.