Lessons from Vietnam

The Tao of No (a bit of philosophical meandering...)

In Vietnamese, the word for the numeral zero is "khong", the exact same word as "no". It is the word used to hold place value, like zero. So I got to thinking...

Khong has value, even though it seemingly defines an empty space, or zero, or "nothing". This "no" is essential, has meaning, and our world would not function without it. In Taoism, nothing is something. There is no such thing as "wasting" time doing "nothing". The empty space and time are just as important and valuable as filled time and space. In fact, they often have more value.

In nature, the empty space (beach or shore) between land and sea keeps the ocean from overtaking the land and what is on the land; it also keeps the land from overtaking the sea. The empty space acts as a boundary, safety zone, margin, and more.

The empty spaces and rests between notes are essential to making music. Without the empty spaces, it would not be music. It would only be a nerve-racking cacophony.

Written language would be a meaningless jumble of letters and symbols if there were no empty spaces between words, after a complete sentence, or before a new paragraph.

Imagine a book with no margins on the page! This empty space helps the brain focus and process what the eye sees on the rest of the page.

Consider the number zero. We may think of zero has signifying nothing and having no value, but would you rather have $10 or $1,000,000? Yes, the zero has value; it is a place holder for the empty space.

Saying NO has value. When we say No to additional responsibilities and demands, we automatically create space in our lives, empty space that gives us room to breathe and room to grow and find our balance.

Uncluttering creates more empty space in our homes and in our lives. Empty, unfilled space relaxes the mind and spirit. Open, unfilled schedules allow the spirit to rejuvenate. Quietness - the sound of nothing - stills the mind so we can better hear "the music of the spheres", the sounds of the natural world, and perhaps, if we listen very carefully, the still, small voice of God.

More lessons from Vietnam:

 1. Compared to the average Vietnamese woman, I know very little about life, cooking, business, relationships, or much else either. That means I have a lot to learn!

2.  There are no acceptable excuses for anything. Do your very best, keep trying new things or new ways to do things. Let nothing hold you back from moving forward.

Never blame circumstances, disability, lack of talent or experience, other people, or even yourself. It's a waste of time and energy and accomplishes nothing. It doesn't even make you feel better.

3.  PAY ATTENTION or you will get hurt or deleted. Pay attention to what you are doing and what the other person is doing at all times, whether crossing the street, driving, shopping, walking (pavement is uneven, traffic is nuts, sidewalks are filled with motorbikes, cars, vendors, plastic stools and tables, people sitting around talking, etc.).

In business and personal relationships, pay attention to body language, unspoken meaning, intention, showing respect for age, etc. Neglecting to pay attention on every level will incur severe consequences, immediately and for the long-term.

4.  Honor those who have gone before you, who paved the way for you, who brought you life, who taught you. Honor your ancestors, your teachers, those who risked all to create a better life and future for you. The ancestor shrine, a part of every home and business in Vietnam, honors one's ancestors and serves to remind the inhabitants to consider how their own choices and actions will reflect on the family name. Pause and ask "what would grandpa do?" and "what would grandma think?"

5.  Live in balance.

6.  Use every part of everything. No waste. Think about the lotus: root, stem, seed, fower, leaf are all used in cooking and decor. The coconut: juice, milk, meat used for

food; husks, wood used for utensils; fronds used for weaving baskets and mats. The rice paddy: rice, snails, small crabs, etc. all sharing the same space, and used for food.

Be resourceful. Practice good stewardship.

7.  Be clear and direct in speaking, in motion, in everything. No double-talk. No mixed messages in word or action.

8. Pace yourself. Don't rush ahead. Go with the flow. Be patient. Keep at it, whatever "it" is. Slow and steady wins the race. Be a tortoise, not a hare.

9. Try learning something you think you're not good at. Of course you won't be good at it if you don't make a consistent effort! For example, Vietnamese language. It's hard.

Remember, no one learns to play a musical instrument without practice and discipline. Same goes for any foreign language.

10. Life is Sharing. Not just time or money or food, but everything. I agree in principle, but I like to decide what it is I want to share ~ and how much, how often, and when. I have much to learn from the Vietnamese. Here are a few examples of sharing,

Vietnamese style:

• Three women need store-front space to sell stuff to support their families. They are poor. The first woman sells pho early in the morning. A few hours later she leaves when the next woman comes to sell water and cigarettes. After a few hours, the last woman comes and sets up a mini-cafe when the cigarette-seller leaves. They all get to use the space, at a time when the products they are selling are most likely to be bought.

• A shoe-seller is serving a customer but doesn’t have the right size/style shoe for her. She knows the shoe store next door has it. She “borrows” the correct shoe from next door and sells it to the customer. She then lets her next-door vendor have a pair of shoes (of equal value) in exchange.

• Many families share “apartments” in the alley-ways of old tunnel houses in Hanoi's Old Quarter. Each “apartment” is just a small room that serves as a living room and sleeping quarters, which is often just a make-shift sleeping loft. In the center skywell area, all the families share a common kitchen, which is not even a kitchen ~ just a small sink or cement tub and a faucet, and perhaps a few cooking utensils but not a real stove or fridge. Dishes are washed while squatting on the floor, which may be stone or cement or cracked tile. There is no counter or eating area in this "kitchen". A single bathroom at the back of the building serves all the families.

Imagine sharing one bathroom with more than a dozen other people?! This is very common. Yet these alley-apartment dwellers still manage to look presentable and reasonably happy. Many of them work in shops and offices, and have to dress up and look good for work. It is common for them to bring their toothbrush, cosmetics and toiletries to work so they can use the facilities there to finish getting ready for work. The poorest country folk probably are better off in some ways; they at least have space and fresh air.          

11. In Viet Nam, basic new cell phones are dirt cheap and no contract is required. A new Samsung or Nokia phone can be purchased for about $15. A sim card costs around $5.

Buy a phone! You will be glad you did, even if you don't think you will need it. You will.

Texts are virtually free. A cell phone is essential for communication in Viet Nam, and communication is the key to all relationships. And that, after all, is what

LIFE is all about.

I can hardly wait to return to Vietnam, home of the most remarkable, resilient, hospitable people on earth.

By Rebecca Woodland

Born in California and raised in Canada, Rebecca Woodland settled in Hawaii in 1981. A graduate of the University of Victoria in Canada and Living Light Culinary Arts Institute in California, she has also studied intaglio print-making and creative writing in Greece, culinary arts in Vietnam, and Spanish in Mexico. She revels in learning new things in new places, considering the process more valuable than the outcome.

Author of The Blonde Vegetarian, Rebecca's writing career came about by accident following a bout with cancer. Frustrated by the lack of tasty, easy, healthy, user-friendly recipes, she developed her own and wrote a book. Rebecca also edited and co-authored Hawai'i Regional Cuisine ~ Celebrating Today's Chefs of Aloha, and has completed the text for two other books. In addition to cookbooks, Rebecca writes inspirational, often humorous stories based on her own experiences and travels.

A former school-teacher, some of Rebecca's current responsibilities include owner-manager of Hawaii Educational Resource Services, board member and volunteer for several non-profits benefitting children and women, and culinary instructor. She is passionate about writing, photography, food, and travel. Rebecca Woodland has traveled the world and her favorite place to return to is Viet Nam. 

Rebecca Woodland