Phaeacians were the mythic people who listened to the war veteran Odysseus on his way home from war. After 10 years of war and 10 years of thwarted homecoming it was the Phaeacians who finally helped Odysseus return home. This blog records notes from my ongoing study of modern day Phaeacians - civilians who make a point of listening deeply to the narratives of war veterans. It explores an old idea - that there is an important and necessary relationship between warriors and the communities of people that send them to war. The project asks, what happens or how are we changed (if at all) by listening to military and war veterans? It includes my observations and interviews with modern day Phaeacians and my own experience of listening to war veterans.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Hospitality and friends

As we continue our trip north the American veterans continue to comment about the welcome they are receiving. In contrast to old memories and imaginations of how the Vietnamese might want to treat them they continue to be surprised by hospitality, warmth and friendship. I too continue to be amazed at the kindness and friendship shown by the Vietnamese. I've only been here a week and already have many new Vietnamese friends.

Currently we are in Hoi An, a beautiful coastal city south of Da Nang near China Beach.
Making friends, finding connection and demonstrating hospitality is clearly a priority here. When I hired a motor scooter driver to show me around I expected a hustle, but instead he stayed with me for hours and then invited me to his home to meet his family.

Hoi An, an ancient port located on the South China Sea, has a long history of hospitality.

Following the donation of cows (mentioned in the previous blog) we were invited to lunch at the home of a cousin of Song, our guide. The cousin lives in a rural hamlet and is a farmer as well as government worker. As we walked the lane to the cousin's house Song explained that the hamlet and farm had been the site of fierce fighting during the war. As we neared the house he pointed out a bomb crater that is now a duck pond and then pointed out the spot where the cousin's father, a VietCong soldier, had been crushed to death by a U.S. tank.

Bomb crater made into duck pond

But the cousin had not invited the American veterans to his home to tell about his loss or get sympathy. He wanted to befriend us. This all came out during lunch when we offered an apology to the cousin for the loss of his father and took responsibility for the actions of our government. While the apology was clearly meaningful to the man and his family he wanted us to know that he saw us as friends and part of his family and encouraged us to let go of the war and be happy that we are no longer enemies. He was not looking for reparations or for anything from us. He simply wanted to show us that everything is okay - that there are ducks in the bomb craters, that his sow has just had a large litter of piglets and that his family members are all doing well and happy. The Vietnamese have this amazing ability to see beyond themselves and individual struggles to the larger collective.

Song's cousin and family

Yesterday, Song, invited us to his home in Da Nang to celebrate the eve of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. On New Year's eve the Vietnamese family ancestors are invited back home for the celebration. Inviting a dozen Americans into a small Vietnamese house is no small thing, yet Song graciously opened his home and explained his family alter, the rituals involved and then invited us to participate in the ritual. After welcoming the ancestors we were fed another great Vietnamese meal and experienced more wonderful hospitality.

Song conducts a ritual at an altar just outside the doorway that welcomes the souls of his ancestors back home and also provides food for wandering souls that may come by.

Last evening Ed Tick (our group leader) and I went to a Buddhist temple at midnight for the big ritual and celebration welcoming the New Year. As midnight struck a cacophony of sounds filled the night -- monks chanting, drums, cymbals and fireworks. Once again we were welcomed and befriend. People showed us where to stand and when to kneel. And when the ritual was over they talked with us and invited us to visit them in their homes. Our jaded western perspective doesn't know what to do with such hospitality. We're always looking for the catch.

On one of our free days, while sightseeing, I stumbled into a Vietnamese funeral. Suddenly I found people explaining that this was a funeral for a old woman and grandmother and that I was welcome to honor her with them. They took my hand and pulled me into the crowd and quickly made me part of what seemed like more festival then sad funeral. There were costumed officiants, loud music, shouting, singing and an elaborate teak and gold casket. With great ritual the casket was loaded into a wildly decorated hearse and then surrounded by family members who piled in around the casket. The whole time I was pulled along, included and encouraged to take pictures.

Officiant at funeral

Loading the casket

Vietnamese hearse carries casket and family members to burial

Today some of us were invited to the home of Son, a local sculpturer and Ed's friend. Son is a brilliant artist and brilliant scholar. He has taught himself english and has read deeply in history, philosophy and literature. His knowledge of geography and American history is stunning. When we visited his house, he too invited us to honor his ancestors at the family altar and then wanted to show us his humble study. As we left Son's house one of the veterans and I wondered if we have lost an important connection to each other in our pursuit of individual rights in America. In Vietnam people don't seem obsessed with what is theirs. While the streets are crowded no one is raging for their spot on the road and people clearly love being with each other. It seems that the Vietnamese could teach us all something about living better.

Son's study and books are located on the second floor
of his humble home because the first floor often floods.

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