Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Our Tells

When we meet Vietnamese people who have returned to Vietnam after living in the States or in Europe for a period of time, we immediately recognize a strangeness in them. Sometimes it is their manner of speaking or the clothes they wear. Other times it is the way they carry themselves, the obvious fear they manifest when crossing streets, or squeamishness about eating street food. Like in a poker game, these returned Vietnamese have their own unique give-aways. Whatever their "tell" we know instantly that they have lived elsewhere.

I was reflecting on this recently and began to wonder what our "tells" will be when we return to the States next summer. Will we march out in front of traffic expecting cars and trucks to weave around us? Will we slurp our noodles and eat with our bowls to our chins? Will we speak softly, lace our conversation with gentle humor, hold a friend's upper arm to express affection, or nod our heads to say hello and goodbye?

Some of Caleb's tells are already apparent. Yesterday we were playing with his cars, and I was explaining to him that in the United States we will have a car of our own. I pointed to the various seats and said, "Daddy will drive, and Caleb and Nathan will sit in back." Caleb pointed to the trunk of a Matchbox sedan and said, "And the driver can sleep in here."

"No," I replied, "In America we won't go in taxis, so we won't need a driver."

Caleb was perplexed. A few minutes later he came up with a solution, "We can get a red van for Daddy and a white taxi for the driver." My parents have offered to loan us their red mini-van, and the taxis we normally take in Vietnam are white and green, so this suggestion had its merits. In any case, Caleb seemed so relieved to find a good use for the taxi driver, that I decided to let it go. No need to point out that there won't be a fleet of unemployed drivers traveling back with us. He'll figure these things out in time.

Photo: Caleb with his cars, June 2007

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Madame Zebedee

Surely I am not the only parent who feels pressured to ensure that my boys achieve their maximum potential. According to the books and websites, this can be accomplished by reading stacks of the best children's literature, playing specially orchestrated classical music, buying only the safest and most age-appropriate toys, measuring the boys' development regularly according to averages and standards, removing the television to the darkest and most heavily cobwebbed corner of the house, fitting them with fifty-dollar walking shoes, feeding them organic this and fortified that, filling every moment with something edifying, etc., etc., etc. It seems that I must do all of this to give my kids the best chance at the best future.

I imagine the ideal home looking something like Mr. Roger's house except that there would be elaborate schedules on the wall for one child's dance and art classes and another child's soccer practice and karate lessons. The rooms would all be bright and colorful with an array of comprehensible input displayed thoughtfully on the walls (think phonetic charts and alphabet posters). The house would be filled with Montessori-style stations equipped with all sorts of hands-on learning activities. Poor Mr. Roger's would not be there at all because he is, of course, from television. Every young parent knows that television is anathema. An exception is made in the case of Baby Einstein products or other such developmental tools, but only when the parent is participating in the experience and enthusiastically labeling every object on the screen. "Junior, that is an apple." "Look, see the train!" "Ohhh, the baby is sleeping." And on, and on.

Contrast this with our home. We are squashed in the back of a dirty alley in a two bedroom Vietnamese-style house. For outdoor activities, we have a postage stamp garden and an algae-choked fish pond. We did have an inflatable wading pool for the boys, but the alley cats clawed holes in it and urinated on it. I grew weary of patching and cleaning the thing and stealthily disposed of it when the boys weren't looking. Thanks to loving grandparents willing to pay dearly at the post office, we have lots of toys and books, but the t.v. is still central in our house. Art projects are sparse. Caleb tolerates coloring but only as long as I let him pick all the paper off the crayons and leave little waxy bits all over the floor. Painting is better, but it requires a full shower afterward--for both of us.

All excuses aside, I do sometimes feel insecure and inadequate as a parent. We made a decision years ago to pursue a life that isn't likely to result in the perfect house or private lessons for our boys. We are reasonably comfortable, but we live simply and without many of the "perks" we would have in the States--libraries, playgrounds, sports, play groups, and so on. Occasionally, I regret not having these things but for the most part I'm okay with it. Because I am generally content with our life, I was blindsided recently by fears that we are not providing enough for our boys. I suddenly found myself asking and not being able to answer the question, "Have we put them at a disadvantage by choosing the path we've chosen?"

I was still asking myself this question when I happened upon the story of Madame Zebedee in Mathew chapter 20. You probably remember the conscientious mother of the apostles, James and John. In the passage, she worked up the muster to ask Jesus a favor. Her seemingly simple request was that her sons would be allowed to sit on either side of Jesus when he came into power. Surely her baby boys were worth such an honor. She must have imagined a life of influence, prestige, and rich reward for them. She may have even thought this a just request since she knew following Jesus in the short-term hadn't amounted to much. Their sacrifices would earn them the position. Little did she understand what she was really asking.

Jesus' response to Madame Zebedee and later to his squabbling disciples was that whoever desires greatness must become a servant and whoever aims to be first should be a slave. He turns our natural ambitions on their head. We want our children to lead the pack, to be successful, to achieve their full potential. Jesus, in effect, says, "Teach your child to go last, to serve, to love others more than he loves himself."

This only makes sense when we believe (and continually remind ourselves) that there is more to life than the 70 or 80-plus years we hope to spend on earth. Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus says that a seed must fall into the ground and die to bear fruit. A man must lose his life to find it. Knowing that the bulk of life is yet to come, frees us from the impulse to get all we can out of this short time.

I remember going through a salad bar once in Bangkok and having to fight the impulse to stare as a woman filled her bowl. She carefully picked unbroken lettuce leaves from the garnish and layered them around the inside of her dish to expand its capacity. Then she skillfully scooped and ladled and piled creating a wobbly mountain of salad. She arranged cubes of red Jello on top of potato salad which was already balancing on a stack of watermelon slices and poured Ranch dressing over it all. She maneuvered the concoction back to her table and dug in. I made my way back to our own table and tried not to gawk over Daniel's shoulder. In places where people have long made do with too little, the tendency is to take whatever one can get. It's a human thing. We grasp at what we fear losing or what we think we need. The gospel liberates us from this. Wealth, power, and prestige become salad toppings in light of eternity.

Upon first reading Matthew 20, I was comforted. Teaching our children to be humble, to work hard for the benefit of others, to love, and to serve is not contingent upon having the perfect home with a large back yard, library access, or the best educational toys. It is not necessarily learned in groups or classes or private lessons. We are not at a disadvantage by living at the back of a dirty alley on the other side of the world.

I was ready to let one long sigh of relief until I read the passage again, and then one more time. How are such things taught? If there is no curriculum, no early development class, no group, or tutor to pass these things on, how do we teach them? How do we help our children to become genuinely humble and not just insecure, concerned for the good of others and not just their good opinion, passionate about Christ's kingdom and undeterred by lesser visions of success. I'm not sure I've fully answered this, but the most obvious solution seems to be that we must live it. We must put ourselves last and others first. We must give the best of what we have and not the excess. We must model for our children humility and service and love.

Scratch that sigh of relief. This is a tall order! Like Madame Zebedee, I find myself going to Jesus. Instead of a pair of thrones, however, I think I will ask for grace--grace to love God and love others in full view of my children. This is enough.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Here are a couple favorite stories as retold by Caleb.

The Story of Joseph: Genesis 37-47

Me: "Caleb, what happened to Joseph?"

Caleb: "Jo-FUS brothers gave him to the camels."

Me: "Why did they do that? Were they jealous?"

Caleb: "Yea. Cuz Jo-FUS had a red, fast truck and he drived really fast."

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton

Caleb: "Mulligan digged the dirt and dumped the dirt."

Me: "Then what did Mike Mulligan do?"

Caleb: "Mulligan digged, "BING, BANG, CRASH, SLAAAM!" The dust settled in just one day."

Me: "What happened when Mike Mulligan was finished?"

Caleb: "Mulligan ran to his house and the horse shouted, 'Come back, Mulligan! Come back!' He opened the door and the fire engine and the garbage truck were in his house. The fire engine was REALLY BIG!"

(Two weeks ago, Caleb saw a boy at the grocery store buying a foot-long fire engine. He has been begging for one since and uses every opportunity to propagandize.)

Joseph clip art courtesy of
Mike Mulligan cover image courtesy of

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Many Faces

It has been a while since I last posted photos. These are a few of my latest favorites.

Chocolate Monster

Caleb is a boy after my own heart. He LOVES chocolate! This morning we spread leftover frosting on digestive crackers and sprinkled the tops with colored candy stars. I'm sure that sounds awful, but digestive crackers are the closest thing we can find in Vietnam to graham crackers. They really aren't too bad, especially with fudge frosting.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Valentine for Sarah Pierrepont

Believe it or not, I like some of my college textbooks enough that I dragged them all the way to Vietnam, reserving for them precious space in the four suitcases we carried with us. One of these books is an anthology of early American literature. I was flipping through it recently and happened upon a scrap of paper tucked between the pages. On the paper I had written the name of a bridal shop, a phone number, address, and appointment time. My curiosity was piqued. What was I reading nearly a decade ago on the eve of marriage? What was worth marking for posterity with a Post-It?

I glanced down the page to the section break. The essay I had marked was a tribute to a young lady written by Jonathan Edwards in 1723. It was found scratched on a blank page in a book. Apparently even the venerable Edwards got distracted from his reading once in a while. The young lady who had captured his attention was Miss Sarah Pierrepont. Five years later she became Mrs. Jonathan Edwards. This is what Edwards had to say in praise of Sarah:
...if you present all the world before her, with the richest of its treasures, she disregards it and cares not for it, and is unmindful of any pain or affliction. She has a strange sweetness in her mind, and singular purity in her affections; is most just and conscientious in all her conduct... She is of a wonderful sweetness, calmness, and universal benevolence of mind; especially after this Great God has manifested Himself to her mind. (from Sarah Pierrepont by Jonathan Edwards, Norton's Anthology of American Literature, vol. 1, page 452)
Imagine what it would feel like to know someone had written this about you--written it never to be read on a random page of a random book just because he couldn't get you off his mind. As I read it again this evening, I was struck by the absence of any reference to Sarah's appearance or education or social position. Edwards was captivated by her character. He valued what was most valuable and what would only gain worth with age and maturity.

This left me wondering... If I were to scribble a description of Daniel on a blank leaf of a book, what would I write? What endears him to me? A blog is a far cry from a hidden page in a bedside book, so I will not make any lists here. It's worth pondering, though. What do we value in our loved ones? What makes them dear to us? Do we treasure the things that are truly of great worth? It's a question worth asking.

Photo: Christmas ornament in afternoon light, January 2009

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Watch Out for the Boy!

We sent Daniel's uncle some pictures a while back and he found it interesting that vehicles in Vietnam travel on the right side of the road...except when they don't. More often than not a handful of adventurous (or impatient) people disregard traffic law and drive anywhere they can wedge a motorbike--on sidewalks, between houses, against traffic, through parks, and over curbs. When you add sneaky motorbikes to the mix of sidewalk vendors, street kids, gawking tourists, and other random pedestrians, there isn't much space left to get from point A to point B. We try to take the boys out for walks, but it is a chore. We are forever grabbing Caleb's arm, picking him up, or shouting at him to watch out for the motorbikes. Lately, Daniel has been taking Caleb for walks in the alleys near our house and teaching him how to step out of the way when motorbikes drive by. "Watch out for the motorbike" is becoming something of a mantra in our family.

A couple evenings ago we decided to take the boys out for hamburgers and fries at a local restaurant called "Texas BBQ." (I know, Tex-mex in Vietnam?!? We live in a small and strange world.) After dinner we walked from the restaurant to a nearby grocery store to buy bread. A block or two from the restaurant, Caleb decided to race Daniel. They ran/jogged along the broken sidewalks dodging pedestrians and motorbikes. At some point Caleb decided he was tired of giving up the right of way. As he ran he shouted "Watch out for the boy! Watch out for the boy!" It was a good idea, but not very effective.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Blog Design

Thanks for your patience as I've fiddled with the design of my blog. I'm still learning how blogging works and have been trying to find ways to make my blog more accessible and interesting. I have just finished the last face lift for a while. I've added a list of topics so you can skip to the parts that most interest you. For instance, if you came looking for cute stories about the boys or recent pictures of them, just click on "kids" under the list of topics. If you want to wade through my reactions to whatever I've been reading, click "literature." For more about Vietnam, click "Vietnam." You get the idea.

I've also added a list of blogs that I like to read and a link to a blogging network called "High Calling Blogs." If you are interested in reading more from people who love Christ and try to glorify him through their writing, feel free to click on the box. Thanks again for bearing with me. I think I'm finished tinkering for a while.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Random Reflections: Altars and Ancestors

I usually try to have a point to my posts even if they are just anecdotes about the boys (then the point is just that they are cute or funny). Sometimes, though, I start to muse about life in Vietnam and never find my way to a point. I would like to say something profound that pulls the experiences into perspective, but I haven't gotten there yet. All this to say that if a post is titled "Random Reflections" it is really just that. Read it as if you were flipping through a newly developed pile of photos. I haven't put them in order yet, or even taken out the ones that are out-of-focus or unflattering. I thought I'd let you look over my shoulder while I'm still sorting.


We have a room in our house for dead relatives. It is dusty and stacked with boxes. The altar is functioning temporarily as a storage shelf. It is a pleasant room with windows on both ends. One even overlooks the alley and the comings and goings of the neighborhood. In the event that we need to house some dead relatives, they will not be bored. There is always much to see.

Some houses keep a light on at night in their dead relatives room. I can see the red bulbs glowing here and there from the window in our upper stairwell. At holidays and death anniversary days our neighbors burn supplies. Fake U.S. dollar bills, paper shirts and ties, cardboard houses and motorbikes all go up in smoke. The economy in the afterlife depends heavily on prosperity in the present. It is a tidy circle. Each keeps the other fat and happy.

Some say ancestor worship is just an expression of loyalty, duty, love--like putting flowers at a grave. "Worshiping ancestors" is a misnomer. It is more like honoring them. Others take the practice more seriously, more superstitiously. They believe that dead relatives determine whether one is prosperous or poor, happy or discontent, healthy or unhealthy. In either case, reverence for ancestors is woven deeply into the fabric that is Vietnam. A teacher told us once that a person can not be Vietnamese without keeping an ancestor altar at home. Catholics, she insisted, simply place their shelf for Mary a few inches above their shelf for dead relatives. Voila! Dilemma solved. A Vietnamese colleague once speculated that if Protestants would just loosen their proverbial top button and let people keep their incense and altars and fake sacrifices, the religion would explode. After all, Jesus was a nice enough guy. Why must one forsake father and mother to follow him.

These assumptions and questions are hard for us, but they are even harder for our Vietnamese Christian friends. For them it is all more than observation. These are the things that their faith confronts. It leaves me wondering what in my own culture clashes with following Christ. Is it obvious and odious to me or do I shrug and dismiss it as just a normal part of being American? This is somehow harder to answer.