11. Coming Home
(Reposting from my LinkedIn Account)
I sincerely believe that the character of a child is built since his young days in the family. I think Vietnamese people rarely have psychical problems because they always “reset” from the shock of external inputs by the presence of family members or friends around them. At least, that was what I got from my personal experience. Here is a short note I wrote about family in 2013, during my trip to Dalat, my hometown.
BTSO – A Very Special Day
During the last 9 months, I had the opportunity to come back to my home country and carry out my dearest dream: sharing my good fortune to my countrymen who are less fortunate.
I had a vague idea on sharing at the beginning of my journey back home. In my Buddhist upbringing, and as a Confucian girl, we were taught about compassion since our childhood days. Having to share everything we have got to our brothers and sisters, then to our extended families – close relatives and in-laws – and also neighbours and friends. My parents used to let our guest who come from far away to share their bed, my father would sleep with the male guest, and my mother with the female guest, as so did we as children. As my home is in Dalat, a beautiful town with very mild climate, we used to have guests all year round to visit the city, and spend summer with us, sometimes up to 3 months, some of them even come on a yearly visit.
It was natural that when those guests come from far away, they would bring some gifts to us, for example, fruits from their garden, or things they manufacture. My auntie, who lived in Bao Loc, and had a tea plantation and an orchard, would bring a jack fruit that weighed about 8 to 10 kg, or dozens of avocado fruits, or huge bags of tea. In return, we would welcome them to stay sometimes for several weeks, with free lodging and meals. As the eldest girl in the family, my role was to guide them around town, showing the beautiful sightseeing spots, taking them to the market, and sometimes accompanying them to their school or jobs. My younger sister’s role would be to take care of all chores which a boy would do, such as riding them around on her motorbikes, climbing trees to pick up fruits from our garden, slaughtering the chicken for our dinners, or even checking out for all security matters such locking all doors at night, taking care of bringing the candle light when there is a black-out, or running to warn my parents at their shop downtown in case of emergencies, as there was no telephone nor taxis. My other younger sister would take care of all domestic matters: cleaning, dishwashing and any other chores at home.
My parents used to come home quite late after their official job, and tending the shop after office hours, and although we used to have maids at home, these girls would leave the house in the evening to meet their boyfriends in secret, and left us home alone. As the eldest sister, I had to make sure that my sisters go to bed early and sing lullabies to them, and invented some kind of games such as playing as radio-speakerine or paraphrasing my teachers at school. Later, with the war escalating, finding maids from the countryside became difficult, so the household was reduced to a few apprentices who came to learn my parents business and would act as playmates to us. Slowly my parents reduced furthermore these playmates, and it seemed to me that by the end of the war, we were left to do the chores ourselves. Nevertheless, my childhood memories were filled with activities in the company of my playmates and maids.
Apart from my immediate entourage, we used to have other playmates with my neighbours’ children and also my cousins, borne by my auntie, my mother’s younger sister.
It is quite funny how two sisters would develop in two different directions, although born from the same parents. My mother, who was educated in Hué’s best girl school – Dong Khanh – received a French education and a very strict Confucian education. She passed on her interest in education to me and my siblings. The result was that all five of us – my brother who is three years older than me, my three sisters respectively two, three and ten years younger than me – we all came out as graduates from foreign private schools, which are the best education we could get.
My auntie, having spent her childhood days in the plantation in the company of her mother – the second wife of my grand-father – ended up having a very acute sense of commerce, and did not finish her schooling by the end of the war. Unlike my mother, who practiced family planning very smartly and successfully, and thus only got five children – which is the average size of a normal Vietnamese family – my auntie also practiced various family planning methods, but she ended up with 14 children, instead of five. I recalled their conversation – between my mother and her – every time that she missed out one planning, and the way she nick-named her children – the first ones got called by the names they are known at school, but from the 6 child onwards, the nickname showed her intention of stopping her child-bearing process, so the first one was named little baby girl (bé), then came another baby girl, also another “bé”, so the first one became “BIG Bé”, then the second, “SMALL Bé”, but then another baby girl came out, so the series of nicknames continued with “Na”, “Ni”, and “No” etc…
I recalled my pleasure while on visit at their place. These cousins were about 10-15 years younger than me, and were equally big in size, with the typical split-eyed features which was characteristic of my uncle-in-law family. On my side, which is the side of my mother, we all have round or almond-shaped with double-lid eyes, although we do inherit the big “peasant” feet of my father’s line, but in general, we have the “standard” look of Vietnamese children, whereas my cousins all have some kind of “Chinese-looking” features with their split eyes. But as children, they looked very cute, with their red cheeks and big smiles.
I loved to sit and looked at them playing together. It was kind of relaxing entertainment for me. What struck me was their sense of solidarity, as their standard of living did not allow them to have a nanny for each of the child, so the bigger sister became the nanny of the next one, and in turn the younger ones took care of even younger ones. When my auntie died at age 53 – just like her mother did – she left 14 orphans in the hands of the father who was a bus chauffeur between two cities. So you can imagine how hard life must have been for the poor children. Luckily, his mother was a very caring grandmother, so she took care of the whole family but the responsibility of earning money was given to the elder children, among whom was the 6 child (the famous “BIG Bé”) who now is the mother of my two nieces.
Coming back to Dalat, my hometown, some 40 years later, I do not find much change as when I left it at age 18. I had vaguely in mind that I should bring some kind of help to my auntie’s family, but was not sure HOW. After my lightning visit in June, following which my niece came to join me at the MBA class, I understood that the best way to help them is to help this girl succeed, as she, in turn, would be bringing help to her own mother, and also her sister, which I just got acquainted some days ago.
To my surprise, both girls are extremely well raised to be a perfect wife, just as I used to be when I was a teen. Both of them took very good care of the household, although small and poor, but neat and clean. My cousin, who left school at age 16 to take care of her ten younger siblings, had been doing multiple jobs, from raising chicken and pigs – without much success – to cooking and tending to the small shop to make ends meet. She used to wake up at 3.00 a.m to prepare the meals that she was selling at her shop and spent most of her last pennies to make ends meet besides the meager salary which her husband brought home, if he ever did.
Although the official school fees are very low, about two US Dollars a month, all children were encouraged by their teachers to take up private tuition which were actually the REAL school programme. So children by age eighteen, preparing their final high school exams, would spend their whole days schooling, first at the official school, then by their private tutor’s house. They normally come home late by eight p.m or so, and had no time to play outside their school hours.
Entering university is the biggest challenge to any parent who wishes that their children pursue a higher education. Entrance examination only allows the best top 10 ten per cent, but with the ongoing practice of corruption, the chance of getting in these public universities are slim. So most parents spend their time bringing children to school on their motorcycles, wait for them to transfer to the private tuition classes at many places, then bring them home to sit with them for their homework, then they would bring them to extra English classes at night, or sometimes at weekends. Parenting is really tough, and on top of that one parent must make sure to get enough money to pay for the extra tuition fees.
Just as most parents dreams, my cousin’s wish is that both children get a good education and get out of misery by that way rather than arrange for a good marriage as in old days. But dreams are not realities, and the realities which I witness tell me a different story.
Visiting my other cousins’ household, I learned some other developments which are more common in Vietnam nowadays.
Most of my cousins have accepted the new life in a little town like Dalat, with not much perspective for development. However, with the economy picking up during the last 15 years, they have all managed to get a small business going, and some even managed to get beautiful houses for their family. I was surprised to be invited to one of my cousin – the “LITTLE Bé” – who has now become a mid-forty successful business woman. Her house looks like a palace, and I felt a real complex of inferiority when I compared with my 30-year overseas experience. The little “Na”, has now become a bank expert in housing loan, and is non-stop on her phone on deals. Even the youngest “Ni” is now also a Branch Manager, and manages both her business and her household very well, sending her children to English evening classes and driving her car around, which is still a sign of luxury in this very small town.
Being a special guest everywhere, with all my cousins rushing to welcome me home, I felt a lot of warmth looking at how a big family can hold hands together during tough years, to go through the upheavals of life. Hand-in-hand, they have been helping each other, the bigger ones guiding the small ones through the necessary steps up the social ladder.
The improvised lunch which I had 2 days ago taught me a lesson. My grand-auntie, now 98 years old, whose eyesight has declined a lot with age, but who still keep a very sharp mind, proudly took me to visit her 13 grand-daughter brand new house. Most of all, she proudly showed me the bathroom, with a lot of space, for showers and washbasin. Born in 1912, she would have never thought that with her only child – my uncle-in-law, who is now 75 years old – would generate a big family with nine out of the fourteen grandchildren borne by my auntie, and that these, in turn, by their marriage, would bring in five sons-in-law, two daughters-in-law, eighteen grand-children, two great-grand-children and a multitude of cousins and extended families who keep her days filled with laughter and happiness. What an achievement for a lifetime. She told me: “My principle in life, is that I NEVER owe anybody ONE CENT, and my greatest achievement in life is to see my family grow and be together.”
I begin to have THAT sense of family being among my cousins. For the first time of my life, I feel like COMING HOME…to a NEW FAMILY, MY GREATER FAMILY.
Dalat, 2013 New Year’s Eve
I love to read the Dalai Lama teachings. Here is one of them:
“Human affection is the foundation of proper development”
Have a good day,
Read my other postings on ‘perception’, ‘love’, impermanence of life’, ‘encounters’, at http://sbitrainingsolutions.blogspot.ch/p/blog-on-linkedin-back-to-square-one-new.html