amanda rowe

Vietnam blog: More cultural reflections
May 28, 2008, 5:48 pm
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18 September 2006

As you may have inferred from the gap between my last post and this one, I have spent the last week still sick from whatever bug I picked up in Vietnam.

I began my travel blogs with a post from the Korean airport about cultural differences. I don’t think anything could have better highlighted such differences than seeking medical help in Vietnam and Korea before returning home to the U.S.

On my last day in Vietnam, the concierge of my hotel in Hanoi directed me to a clinic down the street. When I got there, the door was locked, even though the sign in the window said “open” and I could clearly see someone sitting behind a desk inside. I knocked a few times and was about to give up when the figure inside stirred, then slowly made its way to the door to let me in. The door opened, and I stepped into a shabby but clean room with a desk piled with books, two chairs, and a cabinet stacked with drug samples. The doctor was a small woman wearing a labcoat and slippers embroidered with the logo of the Daewoo hotel (where I happened to be staying). She had clearly been sleeping.

She spoke little English, so we had difficulty communicating. But her eyes lit up when I said the word “stomach,” and she said, “Okay, okay, I help.” She opened a paperback volume on her desk and ran her finger down the page until stopping, reading something, and the slamming the book shut. She then dug through the pile of samples on the cabinet and eventually found two bubble packs of pills. I paid about $4 and left with two perscriptions that I had no idea how to take. I realized as I left that she hadn’t taken my temperature.

Later, in my hotel room, I looked up the names of the perscriptions online. Both packages were in French, so it took quite a while to find information on them in English. In the process, I realized one had already expired. Online searching revealed that both were widely regarded as placebos and could cause fairly severe side effects. I decided not to take them.

I hesitate to draw conclusions based on my experience at a single clinic, but I got the overwhelming impression while there that we were acting out a scene from a bad American medical drama. The props (labcoat, drugs, manuals), characters (doctor, patient), and language (“stomach”) were all present, but were only symbolic as linguistic and cultural barriers prevented a substantive exchange.

In a cab on the way to the airport several hours later, my Vietnamese host suggested that my illness was caused by an internal imbalance between yin and yang; constant travel, unusual sleep schedules, and being away from my husband had disrupted the harmony of my body and caused illness. He made a sharp, chopping motion on my neck and back to restore balance, recounting times he had used this massage to help other visitors to Vietnam suffering a similar affliction. (Most interestingly, he had given the same massage to Emily Morrison, the daughter of Norman Morrison, the Quaker who famously set himself ablaze beneath McNamara’s window at the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam war. During Emily’s first visit to Vietnam, she became quite ill at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, but her symptoms were eased by the same massage I was receiving.)

This massage seemed no less plausible a treatment than expired French placebos, and I gladly submitted to my host’s almost painful chopping at my back and neck. I suppose I was hopeful not only that my queasiness would subside, but that I would also witness some sort of triumph of traditional Vietnamese medical practices over a Vietnamese attempt to mimic American medicine (as I thought I’d seen in the clinic). I confess I’ve become a little skeptical about American medicine lately, particularly its propensity to medicate every conceivable condition – for example, this weekend I saw a commercial for a drug to help “restless leg syndrome.”

However, by the time I landed in Seoul, I was feeling terrible. The Seoul airport has a hospital in its basement, and an airport employee kindly wrote for me in Korean on a scrap of paper, “I want to go to the hospital.” I showed this paper to every official I encountered on my way to the hospital – which, it turns out, required leaving the airport altogether – and it seemed to convince customs, passport control, and airport security that I required no special scrutiny. Once in the hospital, my experience was remarkably similar to that in Vietnam, despite the significantly more sterile environment. Once again, I was given two perscriptions that I could not read and did not know how to take. This time, frightened by the prospect of feeling sick for an entire 13 hour flight, I took both before boarding my plane to the U.S. and hoped for the best.

As much as I wished to understand Vietnamese medical beliefs, I am American, and I was relieved to finally arrive in Atlanta and visit the airport clinic. There, I could communicate in English; the doctor acted predictably aloof and technical; and the treatment, an IV, was thoroughly communicated and matter-of-factly administered. The experience lacked the novelty and personal nature of my taxicab massage in Vietnam, but it was effective and, for all its sterile detachment, comforting.

It is strange enough to step inside another culture’s concept of health and medicine, stranger still to do so without any means to communicate about that concept. So I left Vietnam much the way I entered it: reflecting on cultural assumptions and differences, this time made much more immediate and personal as my physical well-being depended on successfully negotiating those differences.

(If you are at all interested in this topic, please read Ann Fadiman’s wonderful book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, about a family of Lao Hmong refugees seeking medical attention in the U.S.)

Lying in bed all week gave me plenty of time to reflect, and now that I am feeling better (i.e., I can type without feeling nauseated), I have some final thoughts on Vietnam that I hope to type today or tomorrow.


Vietnam blog: “Embrace the darkness”
May 28, 2008, 2:22 pm
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8 September 2006

Kevin Colon is a pastor from Colorado with whom I’m traveling. Over a mango fruit shake at the City View Cafe in Hanoi, he told me that his church expects its people to see change or growth in their understanding over time. Complacency isn’t okay. Progress is expected.

My question in response was: What would you say to the person who tells you he or she has not seen any growth/change in a year; it has just been a solid year of confusion, doubt, wandering, searching, numbness, dullness, coldness, dryness, etc. (I am, unfortunately, prone to such periods myself, and might be intimidated by a church that expected otherwise.)

Kevin’s answer was, “embrace the darkness.” For that person, growth is simply hanging on, waiting for God in the dark, believing (with whatever small, dim faith is possible) that God will bring light, and resisting the temptation to couterfeit that light ourselves in the meantime.

It reminded me of a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a friend about the eucharist. She, like me, struggles with doubt – a struggle that is rarely spoken among modern evangelicals. In tears, she described a thought she often had during the ritual: “God, I don’t even know if I believe in what this represents, but I will take it from you.”

I think that’s a beautiful example of embracing the darkness. She is honest with God about her doubt, but she does not ultimately give in to doubt. She takes what God gives her and believes, barely, that light will come.

Perhaps I am romanticizing doubt because I struggle with it myself, as well as with frustration at slow, often imperceptible growth in my faith.

Why does this go in my travel blog? Besides the fact that it has been on my mind as I’ve traveled, I was also reminded of the idea in my final meeting with Vietnamese government officials two days ago. I emerged from the meeting with a healthy reality check about the incredible difficulty of implementing religion regulation in some Vietnamese provinces where protestantism is only a recent phenomenon.

The reasons for this difficulty are many: conflicts between the local culture/religion and Christianity; land rights related to family religious commitments; low education levels; depressed socioeconomic conditions; remote geographic locations; local officials who are unaccustomed to being subject to the law; etc., etc.

I was discouraged to realize that progress will be slow and messy in these areas. I can’t produce the outcomes I want in the timeline I want. It is difficult to discern what progress looks like in this muddy context. I’ll keep working, but it will sometimes feel futile and furstrating. The most important changes may be imperceptible (such as mindset changes in local officials).

But I can hang on, wait for God in the dark, and believe (with whatever small, dim faith is possible) that light will come.

Vietnam blog: Two wierd moments
May 28, 2008, 2:20 pm
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5 September 2006

Moment #1: Last week, after a long day of meetings with religious and government leaders in Buon Me Thuot, we bought a bunch of Cokes and snacks and piled into a van for the 4 hour drive to Pleiku. As the sun set, our Vietnamese host began singing Sinatra into the van’s microphone (normally used to guide tour groups). Then Binh sang an unidentifiable rock song. Roger sang Elvis. Nolen sang the Monkeys. Eventually, the Vietnamese and Americans sang one another their national anthems. It doesn’t get any weirder than baptists and communists singing karaoke together in a van driving through the middle of Vietnam.

Moment #2: Last night, we were again in a van, this time riding toward the train station in Lao Cai, where we’d catch the sleeper train back to Hanoi. Outside the train station, local residents had set up an impromptu market to sell food, flashlights, and other necessities to travelers preparing to board the train. Our van was slowly maneuvering its way through the crowds of street merchants, our windows open in the stifling heat. Oddly enough, our van had a TV inside that was showing music videos, sort of. This particular video was, in reality, an episode of Tom & Jerry overdubbed with Afropop. Strangely, the antics of the cat and mouse actually seemed to match the pulsating rhythm of the song. Someone turned the volume up until the van vibrated. So perhaps it does get wierder than baptist-communist karaoke . . . driving through a Vietnamese market in a van thumping to an Afropop-Tom & Jerry music video.

In both of these moments, the American delegates and the Vietnamese laughed uncontrollably together. This too, I think, is the stuff of relational diplomacy.

Vietnam blog: In Lao Cai province
May 28, 2008, 2:18 pm
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3 September 2006

Last night I rode my first sleeper car – a small compartment with 4 narrow bunks. This created an unavoidable situation considered downright scandalous among evangelicals – a female sleeping in the same room as 3 men. I was told that this would make an excellent, attention-grabbing introduction to any speech I ever gave for the rest of my life. “When I was 26, I slept with 3 men in Northwest Vietnam . . .”

Anyway, the night train was a cool experience. i had my best night’s sleep since I’ve been here, despite the incredible noise, stops, and jerks. When I awoke, I witnessed a pink sunrise over lush terraced mountains, tropical plants, and a dense, pure white fog. This is Lao Cai province, where I’ll be for 2 days. It is spectacularly beautiful.

Today we visited projects of Bob Roberts’ in Ta Van, a village near Sa Pa (the main tourist town here). Then we spent the afternoon riding motorbikes through the mountains to waterfalls and small markets. I finally broke down and bought an embroidered bag (the Hmong of this area sell colorful, highly detailed embroidery) for about $2 from a little girl off the street. I was immediately accosted by an older Hmong woman, who told me in a combination of her language, mine, and exuberant hand signals, that the bag I had just bought was stitched on a machine, whereas hers were hand-sewn. Of course, for the hand-sewn variety, it would cost me many thousand more Vietnamese Dong – nearly $5.

This is an enchanting town and has provided a much-needed day of rest and reflection.

Vietnam blog: Megachurch subculture
May 28, 2008, 2:16 pm
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2 September 2006

I’ve been writing a lot about cultural assumptions. I haven’t mentioned yet what have been some of the more interesting ones on this trip: those of the evangelical megachurch subculture.

Not all these pastors I’m traveling with are megachurch pastors. But all have been heavily influenced by them – Hybels, Warren, Bob Roberts, Andy Stanley, and others.

So it’s fascinating to learn from them. I was hoping to get some gossip showing the ugly underbelly of megachurch evangelicalism – stuff like, “Oh, everyone knows Rick Warren’s a hopeless micromanager”; or “You didn’t know Hybels’ secretary actually writes his sermons?”; or “That discipleship pastor got fired for leading a naked men’s retreat!”

It’s obvious that I came on this trip with some cynicism about megachurches and evangelical subculture. But then, I knew very little about it. I’m learning.

So what DO megachurch pastors talk about? Sports, books, being cheap, writing, theology, sermons, introversion, good coffee, families, and more than anything else, the pressure to be big and known, to lead a personality-centered church, to be on the cover of CT, to develop something new, catchy, innovative.

But none of these guys care about that. Or if they do, they admit it with a humble and repentant attitude. They laugh at themselves and one another a lot. I even heard one – gasp – cuss. I must say, I have grown to care about and admire each of these men, almost in spite of myself.

I indict myself when I am more willing to extend understanding to people a continent away than my coreligionists in the U.S. When it comes to American evangelicalism, I’ve got a lot of cynicism to get over.