I was studying Mandarin Chinese seriously for the first time when I was living in Viet Nam during the height of that miserable war. For that reason, I was frequently in Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon, where I hung out a lot with my language teacher and his family and friends. The place was totally different from the surrounding Vietnemeseness of Saigon. I had lots of friends and acquaintances there. Most of the local residents are ethnic Chinese. In Cantonese, they are called "Wah Kieuh," and in Mandarin, "Hua Chiao." They are also called "Overseas Chinese" by English speakers. I have always loved being around these people of the Chinese diaspora, dating back to my high school days with friends like Allen Chen, Tom Leuih, and Bill Loh. (Another earlier vignette.) One significant difference in Saigon was the ever-presence of Theravada Buddhism. Unlike the freethinking, secular Wah Kieuh of Portland, Oregon, many of my newfound friends in Viet Nam believed seriously in reincarnation.
One evening, after a wonderful dinner full of laughter and jokes, we moved from the dining room table to the "sitting room." Traditional Vietnamese homes of the Colonial period, built before air conditioning, had high ceilings. Around the soffits were decorative tile openings to allow for airflow. Ceiling fans had been installed later, but had little effect on the heavy heat and humidity; so the unscreened, decoratively barred, shuttered windows stood wide-open most of the time.
During the course of our fun conversation, a huge bug flew in the open window and landed on the woven-rush rug. Without thinking, I jumped up and stepped on it. What happened next amazed me. The room went silent after the initial gasps. Suddenly, and without need for explanations, I realized that I might have crushed someone's grandmother. Mortified, I stammered my apologies for contravening their beliefs and traditions.
Actually, I was more embarrassed than genuinely apologetic, because as a true dyed-in-the-wool American Protestant Fundamentalist Christian, I felt a certain kind of contempt for anyone unlike myself, including Buddhists. I just threw Buddhists in with Hindus, Sikhs, Taoists, and Cao Dai, along with other adherents to Eastern religions. But as the years went by and I lived closer to Buddhists in daily life, my respect for them grew.
During that time in 1969, I visited Bangkok frequently on what they called TDY (which meant temporary duty) doing various photo assignments. The US military was bombing Hanoi and Hai Phong from Thailand bases like Korat and Nakhon Pathom, at the time. I had seen many photos of Thailand in magazines like National Geographic. I found the architecture fascinating. My favorite of the many famous temples in Bangkok that I first visited then was the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Although there are similarly themed temples throughout the Buddhist world, the one in Bangkok takes the cake. The massive statue is a shiny, highly polished, and lacquered image of a dreamily smiling, serene, enlightened man with enormous feet. Walking around to the side, I noticed that one could look at the bottoms of the Buddha's nearly-thirty-foot-high bare feet. The beautiful swirling patterns of inlaid mother of pearl on the soles were a great touch. I flashed back to the first time I first saw my birth certificate, complete with two little inked feet with those same swirls just like fingerprints. But bare feet exposed to the world in such a fashion have other cultural significance. In Thailand it is considered very rude to show the bottoms of one's feet to anyone. When visiting in Thai homes, or with local Buddhist people in Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Viet Nam, one should take care when crossing one's legs to make sure the dirty bottoms of the shoes are carefully facing downward.
It struck me that this must be a statement that the souls of the "Enlightened One's" feet are pure enough to show off for all to see. Of course, the first few times I visited that temple, along with the other famous shrines like Wat Arun (The Temple of the Dawn) and Wat Po, I considered it all to be simple idolatry. Later, I learned that they were not actually worshipping the statues, but that they sort of liked hanging out in a serene environment and contemplating their journey(s) through this life and the next. The incense, the bells, and other temple accouterments only really make the experience more ethereal and contemplative. In fact, I have seen whole families sitting in the grass around temples having picnics together. It is a pleasant peaceful place just to be.
As a fundamentalist Christian I felt superior to and "sorry for" people with other beliefs. As I traveled around the world, it seemed that I could always find something to criticize about every place I went. The only exception was Thailand. One time I was having a conversation with an older friend of a different denomination, who had been living in Chiang Mai in the northern part of the country for over thirty years. He was discouraged that his monotheistic "Big God in the Sky" message just wasn't playing well in the Buddhist world."You know, Tom," he said with a sigh, "I have lived here all these years, and don't know if I have ever really converted a single soul." He confided: "These people are so peaceful and content where they are and with what they have. I have never in all these years even seen a fistfight in the street, or any tendency toward violence whatsoever." As I left, I was reflective. Some months later, I heard that he had died suddenly. I wondered to myself at the time if he secretly wanted to come back in his next incarnation as a Buddhist. If so, he has to start at the bottom as a big bug perhaps. I hope he will avoid flying through open windows!