An American woman’s spiritual bond with Vietnam

Monday, 2018-03-26 09:20:22
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Carolyn is wearing a Vietnamese conical hat.
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NDO - Carolyn White from Michigan, United States, had never imagined that people from a remote country half the world away, Vietnam, would one day be part of her life until she found solace in the teachings of a Vietnamese Zen master.

A blue stamp

In her stamp collection, Carolyn is particularly interested in a small Vietnamese stamp that depicts a blue dragon on a red background. At 12 years old, the little girl asked her father “Where in the world is Vietnam?” She was too young to figure out the location of the country but for some unknown reason, Carolyn had “a good feeling about Vietnam”.

In 1967 when she was a third-year student at the State University of New York, Carolyn was allowed to choose to study in any country she wanted over the course of the next two years. She chose France and it was the first opportunity for her to learn more about Vietnam.

“I thought Vietnamese students were the best. My French teachers also said the same. Any educated American knows that Vietnamese students are very smart. It is one of the things, other than the war, that Americans know about Vietnam.”

At that time, America was in the middle of the war in Vietnam and the Vietnamese students in France wanted to express their strong attitude against the war. They held discussions about the war and wanted Carolyn to join because she was one of the American students fluent in French.

Later she began to read more about Vietnam. A few friends gave her some books, which were significant to her. One book told the story of the young Americans who served and were killed in Vietnam.

Until then Carolyn only knew about Vietnam as a war like most of her compatriots. But then to her Vietnam was a small and weird country where “America’s first war did not end in victory”. Carolyn never once thought that one day she would know and understand Vietnam more than that.

A wonderful rendezvous…

After two years in France, she returned home and got married. Her husband is a college professor whom she travelled around the world with as a part of his teaching profession.

In around 1986, she went into a serious state of depression while she was in Berlin. “All I wanted was to go home”, Carolyn recalled, her eyes filled with tears. Her elder brother in America immediately flew to Germany and took her home.

Later she happened to read a book by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness, which transformed her views about her own life and what she was facing. Thanks to the book, she was able to overcome the depression. She also found a compassionate and altruistic heart in Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh whom she addresses affectionately as Thay, the Vietnamese word for teacher.

Knowing her story, a friend asked her why she still had not visited him. Carolyn began to look for information and knew that the Vietnamese Zen master was living in a small village in France and came up with the idea of going there.

Coincidentally in 1987, Thich Nhat Hanh held a mindfulness meditation retreat in New York. On hearing the news, she rushed to America’s biggest city.

“Can you believe it? There were around 1,200 Americans attending the retreat. It was wonderful,” Carolyn said in excitement. She was put in the same group with those from Michigan and practised mindfulness meditation for five days.

Back in her home city, Carolyn and her friends participated in different meditation practice groups organised by Thais and Chinese. But she was still unable to find people that shared her aspiration.

One day on the way home, unhappy because they could not find a suitable mediation group, Carolyn and her four American friends realised that they were already a group. That was how her own meditation group was formed.

Several years later, she became aware of the Vietnamese community in Michigan. She and her friends thought that if they spoke Vietnamese it could help her mediation group. With a little apprehension, she dialled Mr Loi, the head of the Vietnamese community in Michigan. A block away, the man spoke at a slow pace on the phone: “I have been waiting for this call for years.” And since 1999, Carolyn and her group have been offered a dedicated mediation space in a Vietnamese Buddhist temple.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh brought Carolyn to Buddhism and brought her closer to the Vietnamese people and culture. She likes the Tale of Kieu. Carolyn said the Tale of Kieu mentioned a lot about destiny and she and Vietnam also seemed destined to meet each other. She did not understand every verse in the epic poem but she has a strong passion for Nguyen Du’s most famous work. She liked the way the poem was written in alternating six and eight-syllable verses and began to write her own poems in that format. Carolyn smiled with interest when reading the verses describing Kieu and Van and when learning about So Khanh. To her, everything about the Tale of Kieu is amazing. She hopes that one day she will be able to interpret the Tale of Kieu in her own way in English.

A house for the mind

Carolyn likes visiting Buddhist temples more than churches. In a church, the pastor preaches and the faithful Christians listen in silence. But in a Vietnamese temple, people go around and talk to each other. Carolyn is a Jew and within the temple ground, she feels a sense of familiarity as if she was able to encounter a part of her original community.

Carolyn had never thought that she could be so close with the Vietnamese people. When her mother died, she was told by her Vietnamese friends to take a portrait of her mother to the temple, where the monks would chant sutra for her for 49 days. During those 49 days, both Vietnamese and Americans participated in prayer. They chanted the Buddhist scripture in different ways.

Carolyn only understood two words in the prayer: her name and her mother’s name. If someone visits a small Buddhist temple in Michigan today, they will see on the altar a portrait of an American woman that is Carolyn’s mother. The temple has gradually become her own world.

During the days when Carolyn was still feeling mentally unstable, a Vietnamese nun cooked for her and Carolyn loved the food very much. She also taught Carolyn Vietnamese. The nun couldn’t speak English but could teach her Vietnamese. Carolyn has learned a total of 25 Vietnamese words.

Although Carolyn knew a lot about Vietnam, it was not until 2001 that she visited Vietnam for the first time when she travelled to Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, Da Nang, Hanoi and Ha Long. To her, the traffic in Ho Chi Minh City was crazy but she was able to cross the street safely without any help. Ha Long was the place she liked most, which she described as extraordinary and distinct from all other places.

In her little house, there are many souvenirs that she bought while in Vietnam. An embroidery painting of rural Vietnam hangs in her husband’s work space. It is also the place where Carolyn keeps all her beautiful memories of her childhood, globe-trotting years and deceased husband. The painting gives a sense of tranquillity: a young herdsman flying a kite in an afternoon as the sunlight was dimming. Carolyn bought the painting from a disabled vendor on a street in Hanoi.

Carolyn never leaves her home without a hat. On her first trip to Vietnam, she went into a shop, took off the hat on her head and pointed at the broad-brimmed hats on sale and told the shop owner to give her three hats.

Carolyn also has a Vietnamese palm-leaf conical hat and a pair of green gloves to use in the sun. “I have never worn this pair of gloves. But this summer I’m going to try wearing the broad-brimmed hat and green gloves when riding my bike. Wow, I will look like a real Vietnamese woman”, Carolyn laughed heartily.


***

Carolyn is constantly surprised by how she is connected with Vietnam. She has also never been able to define the word Vietnam in her heart.

Each time the Vu Lan Festival comes, like every other Vietnamese, Carolyn visits a temple and offers incense to her mother. Carolyn is particularly impressed by the image of monks and nuns teaching how to make banh chung on the temple grounds ahead of the Lunar New Year.

That night she and others sat together by the flickering flames of the banh chung cooker. She was told the story on the origin of banh chung and now she can write the story from her memory. She called it the earth cake. This year, Carolyn and her friends in the meditation group sat together to celebrate Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.