Family Values : Growing Old in Vietnam

01/02/2018 09:24 pm ET
Jim Laurie Saigon Vietnam

Saigon January 3, 2018 . Up until a month ago, a “worship table” stood at the top of the stairs at a four story house in the Tan Binh district of Saigon. With incense burner at center, the table honored in their after life parents and two children.

The household altar is part of an ancient Vietnamese tradition where the teachings of Confucius seem to be taken more seriously than in China - the land of his birth more than 2,500 years ago. In Hanoi recently I was struck by the Văn Miếu Temple, a site dedicated to Confucian learning. Its reverential setting seemed a touch above that in the birthplace of the sage in Qufu China.

Among other things, Confucius taught family values. In the words of one scholar, he sought “to cultivate kinship values like filial piety, family loyalty and continuity of family lineage.”

The disappearance of the table from the home I know, may not be an isolated case. It may represent change in society. I see in Vietnam today a race for material gain which promotes a new selfishness; a selfishness that discards tradition and leaves the poor, weak and indeed the dead left behind.

I have written several times about the family I married into in 1991. My father-in-law died in 2005. In May that year, I wrote about “Grandfather Vo” or “Ong Ngoai” as he was known to our children in a feature for the Wall Street Journal. Five years later my mother-in-law passed away. Both were in their early 90’s. Parents of nine children, they led rich lives.

When I visited them on their death beds, I was amazed by the extraordinary care they received; impressed too by the continued family duty in honoring their memory in the years that followed.

Both passed away peacefully at home surrounded by a large and caring family. “Mẹ” (Mother) and Ong Ngoai were attended to night and day by children, nieces and nephews. Other family members who grew ill were similarly care for.

The Vo family reflects the modern history of Vietnam.

Ong Nguoi saw it all. Born on Vietnam’s central coast near Qui Nhon, he joined the Vietminh in the 1930’s to help expel the French from Indochina. Colonialism he said “was something we could all agree on fighting.”

When the French were gone, he refused to join resistance to the Americans. He was disillusioned with the communists. He wanted to provide a good life for a growing family. He developed a thriving timber business and exported wood products to Japan.

As the nation itself, his family developed divisions. A brother-in-law joined the National Liberation Front (what became known as the Vietcong.) In the late 1960’s he was captured and thrown into prison on an island known as Côn Sơn. (A friend of mine – Don Luce - exposed the harsh conditions of the “Tiger Cages” of Côn Sơn to a U.S. Congressional delegation in 1970.)

Ong Ngoai’s brother-in-law eventually made it to Hanoi where he climbed the ranks of the Communist Party. He later helped nephews who had served the American backed Saigon Army escape long sentences at “Re-education Camps” after the 1975 Communist victory.

As the nation, the family suffered. Two children, a daughter and a son died young from cancer. The family believes their illness was induced by exposure to a dioxin, “Agent Orange,” the chemical defoliant used widely by the American Air Force.

A third child died alone at an unattended refugee encampment in Indonesia in 1988. She was one of hundreds of thousands of “Boat People” who fled Vietnam; many perishing in their attempt to escape.

Today a family crisis pits younger members against the old. I see it as part of Vietnam’s headlong push for modernity and wealth. Vietnam, says the World Bank, is engaged in a rapid transformation “from one of the world’s poorest nations to a lower middle income country.” A new urban middle class had developed. As the young seek financial well-being, cohesion in a family born in war and hardship breaks down.

One of Ong Ngoai’s middle daughters is now nearly seventy. She never married, never worked. “Di Te” as she is known suffers a disability. She needs family care. Some of the family members regard her as a burden. Younger ones have shunned her - suggesting she be institutionalized. “Outrageous,” say “Di Te’s” surviving sister and two surviving brothers. Families are meant to care for its members at home, not in institutions.

A front page story in the “VietNam News” on November 1, 2017, sounded an alarm. Many families no longer care for the weak and old at home. The paper reported Vietnam ill prepared. “Ho Chi Minh City lacks elderly care facilities. An ageing population poses a mounting healthcare challenge as people struggle to provide traditional care in a modern milieu.”

Currently people over 65 account for 10 percent of the population. By 2030, the “News” reported “16.5 million elderly people will be in need of care.” The largest home for the old in Saigon now accommodates only 300.

The Vo family is deeply divided on how to care for “Di Te.” The debate will likely result in a caring arrangement, but it won’t be easy.

Obligations to the living are linked to those to the departed.

Younger family members chose to expel the “worship table” to a Buddhist Temple in Tân Hòa 30 miles south of Saigon. Damn Confucian traditions, too much space was being taken up in a crowded house. Again an outrage for the traditionalists.

And so it goes. A nation modernizes. A family in turmoil.

“Ong Ngoai” I suspect would take this debate philosophically. In addition to being a Viet Minh activist turned business man, he loved to write poetry. As most aspiring poets here, he found inspiration in Nguyễn Du, the 19th century author of the epic poem Kim Vân Kiều.

Những điều trông thấy mà đau đớn lòng.

Lạ gì bỉ sắc tư phong,

Trời xanh quen thói má hồng đánh ghen.

The sights observed must wrench one's heart 'Tis no surprise to find the bad and good in pairs. So a maiden blessed by beauty is likewise cursed by envy.

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Contact Jim Laurie and follow him on Twitter @Focusasia

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