Being present

It wasn’t exactly a soft landing in Vietnam; from the airport, I headed straight to my grandmother’s 80th birthday at a fancy hotel. I was actually picked up by my uncle (who I know from back home) and it was great to see a familiar face and catch up. We don’t regularly see each other but he used to live with us when he first moved to Australia and that early intimacy is still with us, despite time and distance.

My grandmother
My grandmother

But seeing my grandmother was pretty awkward, for both of us. I was sitting less than a metre from her but we barely spoke all night. I tried to make a little small talk and she asked me whether I was living in Thailand but it didn’t go beyond that. We have never had a strong connection and she’s quite a distant figure in some ways; plus there’s the added complication of my mother and her not speaking for most of the past decade. The last time I saw my grandmother was over five years ago. So the party itself wasn’t a huge highlight for me, and in all honesty, I mostly just felt like a fish out of water.

Suckling pig!
Suckling pig!

However, after a few days there, I really felt that my whirlwind trip to Vietnam was a success, if ‘success’ is the right word to use. I reconnected with my grandmother and it became more natural between us after that first night; spent time with my aunt and uncle (from Sydney) who I also hadn’t seen in a few years; hung out with my youngest aunt who I am already quite close to but hadn’t seen since I left Sydney; saw my family in Vietnam again; met a cousin of my mum’s; and, unexpectedly, became buddies with two of my young cousins from home.

Dominic and Damien
Dominic and Damien

The two ten year old boys — Damien, who I see regularly, and Dominic, who I haven’t seen since he was a five-year-old — really clung to me. It broke my heart when they said that they wished I could stay longer! I think it was a nice change for them to be with someone who was patient enough to listen to their stories and concerns and thoughts, and teach them card games (though I’m not sure their parents would approve of me teaching them how to play blackjack!). I particularly felt that Dominic was someone I should really involve myself with and that, in fact, I was a missing presence in his life. I’ll make a big effort with him when I go home.

And speaking of ‘presence’…there’s a long and complicated back-story about my fractured family that I won’t go into here, but when I was there on the weekend I realised that with my relatives, and especially with my grandmother, the main thing I need to do is just be present. I just need to physically be there in order to have a relationship with them all. It’s not like many other relationships I have in my life which are based on shared interests and an ability to talk at length and disclose to each other via phone, email, etc.

I know this might sound strange but actually, I feel absolutely no guilt about the fact that I haven’t had much to do with my extended family for a while; it has taken so much work to get my immediate family relationships in shape, as well as my own relationships, that it’s only now they’re finally in a state I feel good about. Given that the onus is also completely on me to maintain the relationships with my extended family, it’s only now that I feel like I can give everyone else the attention they deserve.

Family trip to Vung Tau
Family trip to Vung Tau

In some ways, it is very uncomplicated for me to be with them. Given that I have already lived most of my life without their input and approval, they now seem to have no real problem just taking me at face value. I found that I was very quiet around them all but it was nice to just listen and absorb conversations and impressions. Besides which, I’m in a funny position. I feel like a child around my family, rather than a woman of the world, so was more than happy to wander off with my young cousins at different times; but I’m also an adult and understand Vietnamese well enough that I could laugh at all the dirty jokes that were told. My aunt in Vietnam is a very funny woman actually, and so are all her employees who came along on our trip to Vung Tau, a seaside town not too far from Saigon.

We got up at the crack of dawn on Saturday to go to Vung Tau the morning after the party. It’s popular with Vietnamese locals and tourists, whereas international visitors tend to flock to fashionable Nha Trang. It was really pleasant to be there with my family and all the other people who came along (16 in total!). I actually had a great time. I’ve known about Vung Tau since I was a kid, so it was nice to finally visit. It’s not a patch on the average Australian beach, but it has a totally different feel about it so it’s hard to compare.

My uncle and two of my cousins at one of the beaches in Vung Tau
My uncle and two of my cousins at one of the beaches in Vung Tau
Banh khot for dinner - my favourite Vietnamese dish these days!
Banh khot for dinner – my favourite Vietnamese dish these days!
Sitting next to my grandmother
Sitting next to my grandmother

We also went up a couple of the mountains around Vung Tau on the two days we were there. From the first one, we could see the Christ of Vung Tau statue (the small white figure to the right of the pic)…

Up the mountain
Up the mountain

…followed by a night of going to the greyhound track (of all things), going up in a cable car to visit a theme park with my cousins, and having late night noodles and congee.

Greyhound racing at the Vung Tau track
Greyhound racing at the Vung Tau track
Late night indulgences
Late night indulgences

And perhaps to make up for our sinful indulgences, the next morning we climbed the 1000+ steps the next day to look for Jesus…!

A stairway to heaven, sort of
A stairway to heaven, sort of
Some of the statues on the way up
Some of the statues on the way up
Made it!
Made it!

After we got back to the city, and not long before I was due to fly back home, there was a nice moment where we were all gathered on the floor eating chicken congee (possibly the best I have ever tasted). And it just felt so cosy in my aunt’s big kitchen with everyone there. I just knew that my grandmother, a woman of few words, must have felt so happy at the moment to have us all gathered there. As for me, it was a bittersweet moment. I felt happy to be there, to be with my extended family again, and was glad to be coming back in April where I could spend more quality time with my grandmother; but I couldn’t help but feel really sad that my mother was so isolated from them all when it needn’t be that way. When I call her on the weekend, I’m going to suggest that she starts to reconnect with her family. Life’s short, and the people who really love you in the world are so few.

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