Yellow and Gold in Spiritual Vietnam

Today as Vietnam observes Reunification Day, this post is excerpted from my recent sermon as a guest speaker at a church service in the US.
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You think “Yellow”, I Say “Gold”

You may not think of Vietnam as a spiritual place.  My purpose today is to change that.  Vietnam inspires me.  I love its people — their culture; their optimism; their patience; their celebrations; their sense of balance; their intuitive nature; their humor; their energy; and their spirituality.

top_site_international_businessMany people are skeptical.  Vietnam is deeply imbedded in American hearts and minds — and not in a pleasant way.  This week the Vietnamese celebrate reunification, the outcome of war.  If you Google Vietnam images, one of the first pictures that comes up on your screen is that of a frightened child running naked down a street in her village during an air raid.  You have seen the movies and heard the music.  One of America’s most popular songs ever is Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen:  I got in a little hometown jam, So they put a rifle in my hands, Sent me off to Vietnam, To go and kill the yellow man.

Vietnamese singer Pham Quyen Anh invites us to take a closer look:  “You think yellow, I say Gold; it’s the color of my real skin.”  It’s a good thing the song is in English.  It doesn’t make sense in Vietnamese.  In Vietnam, the language integrates humans with their surroundings.  Asian people and gold, the precious metal, both have skin – and the color of that skin is gold.  So yellow and gold are the same color.  The literal translation of the Vietnamese word for blue is “the skin of the sky.”  And green is “the color of leaves”.  The words convey spiritual connectedness in a way western culture does not.

Maybe this is not very significant.  Maybe it is.  Think about race relations.  In the 1970s American culture was forced to consider the connotation of black and white, and we made progress when black pride emerged.  What about yellow pride?  It’s a problem because our dominant culture associates yellow with caution — and cowardice.

As with color, Vietnam turns some of our ideas upside down.  Let me tell you about the day I arrived in Hanoi a decade ago.  After I checked into the hotel, I decided to walk to the lake in the heart of the ancient city.  A beautiful public park surrounded the lake, and surrounding the park was a wide boulevard.  The boulevard was like a race track that ran counterclockwise.  It was an endless stream of speeding motorbikes, and there were no traffic lights or crosswalks.  There didn’t seem to be any rules.  There no four-wheeled vehicles – just a river of two-wheelers – some packed with produce, chickens, appliances or entire families.  I stood on the curb wondering how I was going to get to the other side.  Then I watched a woman next to me; she was heavily laden with a yoke with two baskets filled with fruit and vegetables, and she, too, wanted to cross the boulevard.  So she did.  She stepped into the oncoming traffic and step-by-step made her way to the other side.   Following her lead, I stepped into the river of traffic.  And like any river, it just kept on flowing.   Nobody stopped.  Nobody slowed down.  The motorbike drivers didn’t seem to even notice me.  But an amazing thing happened. I didn’t get run over.  My fellow human beings just drove around me until I arrived at the park.

Crossing the street in Vietnam forces you to accept the Vietnamese idea that the universe is basically a safe place.  And Vietnamese traffic is a metaphor for a more universal concept than that.  It is emblematic of the Gaia hypothesis – which postulates that the planet earth is not what we think it is – a giant ball with billions of human inhabitants and quadrillions of other living things; instead, the earth is but a single living organism and each of us is to the earth what each of our cells is to us.

What I like about the Gaia hypothesis is it forces us to face our interconnectedness.  If we are part of a larger living entity, it makes it more difficult to segregate and isolate ourselves.  Maybe we are special and virtuous — but, really, how different are we from our misguided neighbors?

If we accept the Gaia hypothesis, then our inter-connectedness – our collective unconscious — becomes more meaningful.  Perhaps we humans unknowingly synchronize our thoughts and actions, just as the cells do in our body.  We like to think of ourselves as rugged individualists, but what if in fact we work together in ways we don’t understand?  If so, maybe that helps explain why a river of motorbike drivers acts like a tiny capillary on our body, each blood cell behaving independently, but at the same time flowing in harmony.  Consider a giant school of fish or a flock of birds:  They function like the motorbike drivers in Hanoi, each making independent decisions – without running into objects or pedestrians.

Of course, the Vietnamese way of thinking and driving comes in part from the country’s Buddhist and other ancient spiritual traditions, and it is counterintuitive in our culture of “trust but verify.”  We learned to watch out for traffic, and that is why Hanoi’s visitors from the west are afraid to cross the street even though the traffic is really like gentle stream.

Balance and harmony are other Vietnamese values.  Work hard, celebrate holidays like there’s no tomorrow, and say yes even if you mean no to preserve harmonious relationships.  Don’t judge others, and take a nap at noon on the floor of your workplace, wherever it is and whether you are a laborer or the CEO or a farmer.

There are tens of millions of farmers in Vietnam, and all of them place enormous value on family.  Respect your parents, and their parents.

One day when I was in Saigon more than two years ago, I bought a bottle of water at a tiny convenience store about a block from my hotel.  As I paid for the water, I noticed behind the counter there was a very old woman on a bed and children playing elsewhere in the room.  A year later, staying at the same hotel, I walked by the convenience store again, and there was the same family, the same children a year older, the same old woman in the same bed and seemingly in the same position.

This is the Vietnamese system of elder care.  And it raises a question worth pondering:  When you are on your death bed — as this woman seemed to be –would you rather be in a nursing home a mile or a thousand miles from your family — as might be the case in America — or in the same room with your great grandchildren where you could watch the activity on a busy street?

Last fall, I visited again, and this time the old woman was gone.  It is likely her great-grandchildren were in the room when she died, and because of that the children learned more about the cycle of life and connections of the generations – and perhaps of the universe as a whole — than most of American children will.   And earlier this year the old woman observed the feast of Tet along with the rest of the family because her living relatives most likely believe her spirit remains in the household.

Who are we to question such beliefs, and, more importantly, why would we want to?  The writer Bruce Weigl, a Vietnam Vet, is wistful about Vietnam giving up its culture to be more western.  In his book — The Circle of Hanh — he writes about a return visit:

 As our car made its way through the crowded streets (of Hanoi), I could see that the slower pace encouraged by the wide sidewalks and narrow streets of the past was changing before me.  I don’t know what we lose when we move too quickly through our lives, but I know that loss is great.  

The loss is great – because Vietnam is a spiritual place with lessons lurking in daily life.  In my case, these lessons all came together one afternoon when I was sitting on a park bench at the lake in Hanoi.  A young man walked up and asked if he could practice his English.  I invited him to sit down, and we talked.  His name was Hoang, and he told me his story.  It was similar to the story I have heard many times.  He grew up on a rice farm in the north of Vietnam, his family was very poor, and he came to Hanoi to get an education.  His university was about a mile away and sometimes he came to the city’s old quarter to get an odd job working for a shop or a restaurant in the tourist area so he could earn a little money for food and incidentals.

As we were talking, an elderly woman in rags limped up to us and held out her hand for money.  I barely noticed her, but Hoang gave her his complete attention.  He asked her a couple of questions in Vietnamese.  And then he pulled out his wallet and opened it to reveal that is contained only a single note of Vietnamese currency that was worth a little over a dollar.  Then he handed the money to the woman.  As she moved on, I asked him why he gave her his only money, and he said:  “Because she needs it more than I do.”

Hoang and I talked some more, and I told him I had to get to an appointment, and he thanked me for helping him improve his English skills.  As we were about to part, I took out my wallet and handed Huan Vietnamese currency worth about $3.  I told him I wanted him to have a good meal tonight.  He seemed wounded and angry by my gesture, and he said:  “I cannot accept that.”

I said: “Why not?  You need it more than I do.”  And he said, “My father taught me never to accept money that I did not earn.”

How different this encounter might have gone in America.  We are so wealthy, but how many of us are able to achieve the success of Hoang’s father – a man who most likely works harder than I ever have and may earn $1 a day or less.

Hoang showed courage and confidence approaching me to practice his English.  His encounter with the woman was striking because he has been taught to treat   people who are older, poor and handicapped with great respect.  Where I saw  yellow, he saw gold.

The message from Hoang’s father about self-reliance – never accept something you didn’t earn — seems anachronistic in our culture of entitlements,  but remains important.  And perhaps the greatest of the father’s gifts to his son was the trust that allowed Hoang walk off into the dark streets of Hanoi with an      empty wallet but with his integrity — and trust that the universe would take care of him.

Vietnam seems comfortable embracing a universal trust that springs from centuries of spiritual traditions in one of the world’s oldest civilizations.  It’s that trust that led the woman with the basket of produce into the oncoming traffic in Hanoi.

Perhaps you recall four years ago when President Obama gave his first inaugural address.  In the speech, he honored American war veterans and mentioned four famous battles – Concord, Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sanh.  Khe Sanh is a village in Vietnam.  Today near that village is a modest memorial to the marines who fought there, but for the most part nature and farmers have reclaimed Khe Sanh.  Much of the old air strip there is now part of a coffee plantation.  Coffee beans have replaced artillery shells in Khe Sanh, and in this way coffee has become a metaphor for the dreams of Vietnam – and maybe even the dreams of all of us.

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