(PICTURE: Huyen and her Great Grandma.)
Being white and a half a foot taller then everyone usually gets me a lot of attention when I leave Hanoi for the countryside. To be honest, I usually like this attention. However, at Huyen's Great Grandmother's funeral the last thing I wanted to be was a distraction.
Before the funeral I got lots of puzzled looks from the older generations that gathered at the house. I can say with 99% certainty that I'm probably the first foreigner to come to this village since the American P.O.W. that Huyen's Grandmother told me about in September (that story is here: http://ahoyhanoi.blogspot.com/2009/08/war.html). A couple of people waved me over to drink tea with them but besides that everyone let me blend in. Although there was one funny moment when Huyen's Uncle -- who her Great Grandmother had lived with -- turned to me and said, "My Grandmother [the deceased] told me that she's happy you came today." Everyone around us got a good laugh.
After the funeral, it was another story. It was as if a light switch had turned on and the sadness temporarily ended. The women who were wailing stopped shedding tears and the men quickly replaced the tea with wine. Everyone sat around eating food prepared by the neighbors, catching up and having a good time. For those who had been paying little attention to me it was as if all of a sudden this giant awkward foreigner had materialized in order to cheer everyone up. With my one-year-old Vietnamese child's vocabulary in hand, I proceeded to smile a lot and play my role as a special guest. Everyone wanted to have a drink with me and hear me use my limited vocabulary. After a couple of hours of eating, drinking and shaking hands, people went back to their homes and started their days at work.
When I think about it, a Vietnamese funeral has many similarities to a Western funeral: Family and friends gather, they make their way to the cemetery and afterwards gather at the grieving family's home and try and temporarily alleviate the sadness with food and family stories. It's moments and experiences like this that remind me how similar human beings are everywhere in the world. We may do some things a little bit differently but when you scratch the surface we all care about our families and hurt to see someone leave us.