Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Funeral: Family

(PICTURE: Men wearing headbands at a funeral.)

Just when I started to think that I understood Vietnamese culture pretty well, I realized once again that I'm totally a foreigner. Two days after Huyen's Great Grandmother passed away, we went back to her village for the funeral. As I packed to go I deliberately left my camera on my desk. Usually my camera goes everywhere with me but my Western instincts told me it would be rude to take pictures at the funeral -- boy was I wrong. As soon as I arrived at the house, I was asked by multiple relatives if I had brought my camera (After taking pictures at many family events and printing an album for Huyen's parents I'm now associated with my camera). When I told them I didn't have my camera I could tell they were a little disappointed. Apparently taking pictures is the thing to do at funerals. Luckily Huyen's family wasn't counting on me to be the documentarian because they hired a videographer and a photographer to capture the event.

At first I thought this was odd but it soon started to make sense to me. A funeral, more so than any other event including a wedding, brings out the whole family. I would estimate that there were roughly one hundred relatives who showed up for the funeral. At a wedding you get a bunch of relatives but you mostly get friends and coworkers. Maybe you're asking yourself, "How do you know people were family and not friends?" Well, it's easy to tell who is who at a funeral because family all wear headbands and shrouds. At a funeral, like many things in Vietnam, there is a hierarchy and distinction between ages:

Immediate Family (children, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives) wear white shrouds and headbands.

Second Generation Family (grandchildren) wear white headbands.

Third Generation (great grandchildren like Huyen) wear gold headbands.

Fourth Generation (great great grandchildren like Huyen's nephew) wear red headbands.

One of the things that was really interesting to me is the age differential between people wearing the same colored headbands. Sometimes people who were 40 years apart in age were wearing the same colored headband. The reason is pretty simple: before most people had only two children in Vietnam, families would have lots and lots of children. Huyen's grandparents for example had 8 kids. Someone else I met had 12 children. Sometimes the oldest child would have their first child before their mother was finished having her last child. This means that sometimes in one generation a nephew is older than his/her uncle or aunt. Its one thing to wrap your head around that in theory, but it's another thing when Huyen is calling someone just ten years older than me the title of "Grandpa." It is even weirder when Huyen's father has to address this same person who is twenty years young than him as "Anh" which men say to another man older than them.

It didn't take long for Huyen to turn to me and say, "Don't ask me who people are because I have no idea who they are." I would say half the funeral people spent introducing themselves and figuring out how they were related and what title they should call one another. The point is though, nearly the whole family came out for the funeral.