On religion and faith
An excerpt, plus a bit of history about Vietnamese Catholicism
Since I emerged exhausted from spending the past three months writing a novel, and since Easter came and went, I thought I’d bring up the idea of faith.
To me, faith is different than religion. Faith is a belief in a higher being, that it exists. It’s knowing that sometimes you have to believe in something even when you can’t see it. It’s giving in but not necessarily giving up. It’s an internal mindset brought on by a variety of factors—mainly people and place. I think that without one, you can’t have the other. On the other hand, a religion is a synchronized system of beliefs that is propagated and maintained by a group of people. Without everyone in that group being on the same page, the religion will die out, and as a result, beliefs can subside and ultimately die.
As humans, we’re social creatures and we believe in things even when they don’t exist. We take those beliefs and pass it down from one generation to another, thereby continuing to light the flame for beliefs and systems. Perhaps that’s why many religions have lasted for as long as it did.
I grew up Catholic. I was baptized as a Catholic, and according to my mom, should always be a Catholic. I don’t believe in this, but I do believe in a higher power, in God. Far be it for me to divulge deeper into religion, I will say that religion was a big part of my life growing up. And so when I sat down to write my novel, I knew I wanted religion to be a big part of my characters’ lives as well.
One of my main characters, Linh (based on my own mother) has a strong belief system. And it’s only strong until it isn’t. Thus, I decided to give you a snippet of my book(!) below, a scene where Linh begins to question her beliefs. This was a first for her, and it felt shameful because she was, in some way, abandoning the foundation that she was brought up in.
The excerpt is my attempt to make sense of religion in Vietnamese culture, in particular Catholicism for the south Vietnamese people. Given that I’m fairly new to writing fiction, this is a slightly edited1 section that may or may not end up in the final version of the book should it ever be published. I hope you like it, but if you don’t, I welcome your comments with a grain of salt.
About the book:
In the midst of the Vietnam War, a young Vietnamese man was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, leaving behind his wife to grapple with how to survive in a country torn apart by political and social upheaval.
Inspired by my parents’ youth, it’s a 20-year family saga that begins in 1963, when the protagonist is 15 years old, and ending in 1983, when she’s in her mid-thirties. Ultimately, this is a story about resilience, survival and love. It’s also about finding one’s way and building agency in one’s life, and about finding moments of joy despite all the turbulence.
A little bit of history:
Vietnam was colonized by the Chinese for a long time. Then it was colonized by the French. The area that included Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia was called Indochina, and through a series of (political) events, the country called Vietnam was split into two in the mid-1950s at the 17th parallel. North and South Vietnam was ruled by different types of governments. The north was communist while the south was not.
In 1954, as part of the Geneva Accords, there was a period of 300 days when the borders between north and south was open for all to cross, should they wish to do so. Many Catholics living in the north came under fear that the communist regime would be unwelcoming to their religion. Thus, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese Catholics, including my own mother and her family, fled to the south where the prospect of practicing their religion seemed more acceptable.
However, Catholics were still considered a religious minority. In the south, Buddhists made up around 80% of the population. When Ngo Dinh Diem (who was Catholic) became the prime minister of south Vietnam in 1955, he began a procession of policies and acts to discriminate against the Buddhists and toward favoring the Catholics.
If you’re ever in the southern part of Vietnam, you’ll find some Buddhist temples, but a lot of Catholic churches, you’ll know why.
Here we go.
Faith had always been a part of Linh’s blood, ingrained in her from day one, when she was born into a Catholic family in the north and later baptized at six weeks old. Faith was like breathing in air. Like waking up to the sound of roosters crowing, seeing the sun rise above the horizon, and listening to the sound of people getting ready for their day.
God had always been with her and will always be. At least that was what her mother said years before she died. Linh never once questioned that belief.
She struggled to get out of bed this morning. The morning humidity suddenly engulfed her. She felt a trickle of sweat in certain crevices of her body, and it made her uncomfortable. Which didn’t help at all given that it was Easter Sunday, and she had to get ready for church.
Linh sat up in bed and rubbed her eyes. Slowly, she went to her wardrobe, opened its wooden doors and looked inside. It was a very old wardrobe, scratched and bruised like her own mind. Like her faith. The ao dai that she had made for the occasion was on the hanger, ready to be worn.
Truthfully, she was reluctant to have this dress tailored. Money was tight these days and she didn’t want to have to take the money out of her secret savings stash hidden in her cabinet. But luckily, she didn’t have to, for her sister-in-law Thanh, perhaps out of pity or sympathy, had offered to pay for the dress. It was a beautiful ao dai, made of the best silk chiffon that felt as light as a feather, a pale pink with a mandarin collar overlayed with lace matched with white pants of the same light material. Branches of embroidered chrysanthemum flowers scattered beneath her shoulders and curled all the way down to her thighs.
Linh looked at the dress with such admiration. She gently caressed the flowers, admiring its handiwork. Ba Nhung, the village tailor, had done an excellent job. The stitches of flowers were stunning and filled her mind with days in the past when she was younger and worn dresses like these. But of course, the dresses of her youth weren’t nearly as nice as this one.
In her younger days, she wore the plain ones that were a single-color linen, easy to wash. With seven children, money was always tight in Linh’s family. She didn’t know how her parents managed, but they always did somehow. And they always attributed their resourcefulness to God.
“God takes care of you,” her mother once said. “And He always will.”
Her mother was firm in this belief, as was her father. The evidence was in the fact that they were able to practice their religion with freedom, as much as one could have during this time.
The story goes that in the fall of 1954, when she was only six years old and still living in the north—a village near Lang Son—the Vietnamese Catholics came under threat as the country had been divided into two. Rumor was that the communists who ruled the north didn’t particularly like the Catholics. There was a 300-day period where the borders were free and open to all to cross. So her parents, along with all their children, took the opportunity to go south, where the possibility of practicing Catholicism was more acceptable.
They might have stayed had they been given a fair chance at land, her parents said. But Ho’s regime was too strong and was not favored towards the Catholics. Unfortunately, her maternal grandparents had a firm connection to the land they had occupied for several generations, and they couldn’t bear to leave. So they stayed behind. Shortly thereafter, they were shot in their own home, their bodies flopped over on their knees.
Shot in the head in the middle of praying. That was her grandparents’ fate.
Of course, Linh didn’t know any of this until months later, when the news traveled by way of a distant relative. She did, however, remember making a three-day trek to the south, but hardly remembered much else. She remembered that they all made it down south, alive and well.
Her mother had always attributed their successful migration to their belief in God. This belief continued for the following generations, so by the time Linh was born, being Catholic was a given. There were other religions, of course, but nothing more sacred than being Catholic.
She’d grown up believing what her parents believed—that through sheer force and strong will, coupled with a bit of luck, her mother and father had escaped persecution. Without them, she wouldn’t be here.
They’d made a life for themselves, joining the local church, going to services every Sunday and every holiday. And when Linh got older, they urged her to join the youth choir, where she sang for several years until her mother died.
After that, she could no longer sing. Her voice grew hoarse. She could barely utter a coherent sound. Any sound she did make was strange and unfamiliar and didn’t quite fit in with the rest of her group. She was suddenly out of tune.
So she went to the choir director and told him that she needed a permanent break. He nodded as if he understood.
But did he really? Did anyone? After all, how can anyone fully understand the nature of her grief unless they were in her shoes?
In case you missed it…
Question of the week:
What did you think of this post? Want more or less excerpts? Reply or click on ‘comment’ and let me know!
As always, thanks for being here and reading my (bad? okay? great?) fiction. I appreciate you!
See you in two weeks,
This basically means that I was terrified about what people would think, so I edited it a lot. The secret’s out now.