Vietnamese Attitudes Toward Suicide

William Bangs (wbbangs@U.WASHINGTON.EDU)
Fri, 17 Feb 1995 18:45:06 -0800

Hi, all. I recently had a bad experience with a Vietnamese which started
out as a very happy and productive personal and working relationship.
Ordinarily I'd try to keep this sort of private affair off the net, but I
want to get my PhD in issues relating to Vietnamese socio-religious
attitudes, so it seems doubly important that I come to understand my
experience. So, for those of you who'd care to comment, a brief synopsis
of my problem -- and a couple questions -- can be found below. Thanks.

Ben Bangs
4748 19th Ave. NE. #1
Seattle, Washington 98105
(206) 526-8330


[The Problem]: Last year I volunteered in the office of a Vietnamese
American who came here in 1970. In her writings she stresses the sacred
nature of life, the importance of accepting others' views of the world
and the necessity of making peace with others and yourself (among other
things). As somebody who lived through two wars, this attitude makes
sense for her to have.

She also notes that she has taken many veterans back to Viet-Nam to help
them understand their experience -- so I thought that, since she is also
a writer, that she would be an articulate, scholarly person willing to
spend some time and effort helping people understand one-on-one, rather
than just through her writing.

I got VERY attached to this person, and when a working relationship
proved impossible, nonetheless begged her to reconsider (to be fair, she
made me an offer; it just wasn't in keeping with what I needed at the
time; in retrospect I can't blame her for anything but her subsequent
handling of the case). I ended up threatening suicide -- and meaning it
-- if she wouldn't go back (in essence) to being my principle native
informant about the Vietnaemse language and culture -- a role she had,
until then, seemingly been willing to play. I've studied a lot about
Vietnamese values before and since, and have become reasonably proficient
in the language. In response to this threat, my friend first asked me to
write her through a mutual aquaintance, then refused to read my letter
when it arrived, and hung up on me when I called her on the phone, asking
me instead (through yet another mutual aquaintance) for permission to
speak to my mother instead.

[The Question]: Now then: I am a twenty-six year old, otherwise mature
and realistic person hoping to head to graduate school in linguistic
anthropology, specializing in Viet-Nam (and the rest of mainland
southeast asia). But I have been having real trouble letting go of my
relationship to this woman. Part of it is that, through her writings at
least, she seems such a warm and loving person. When I was with her she
received a letter from a young woman also contemplating suicide; her
response was to call her long distance, talk to her and tell her not to
be sad anymore -- a marked contrast to the way she ended up treating me.
Since I always like to understand my experiences in life, I've gotten a
hold of an article in the (Austrailia-based) Journal of Vietnamese
Studies, which makes the following assertion about the Vietnamese
Buddhist approach to life:

*****In general, a [Vietnamese] Buddhist will want to avoid those people
who seem to have moved into the land of the dead, prefering to
concentrate on the living (my paraphrase. Sorry, I don't have the

My question is this: is this type of attitude characteristic of the
Vietnamese Buddhists anyone on the list knows (or knows of)? Given the
large number of words for suicide I've encountered in the Vietnamese
language I had formerly assumed that it was not frowned upon nearly as
much as in (for example) Catholic communities. I had further assumed
that, since my friend was Buddhist, not Catholic, she would be willing at
least to talk to me, if not to go back to the relationship we'd had
before. But as I look back, even most of her writing focuses on how
important it is to "nurture the sacred spark of life". Where does this
leave me? If this is just her (fairly atypical) attitude, then I can go
on about my life among my Vietnamese friends without worrying that this
is a major difference between me and them (that I see life as having to
have a PURPOSE). But if this is part of the BASIC meaning of what it
is to be Vietnamese, then I need to know now, so I can adjust my
behavior or seek out another group to be involved with. This has been a
long message, and I beg your indulgance. Obviously I shouldn't send any
more pre-suicide faxes (or even plan such a thing -- I don't anymore).
But I didn't plan on it in the first place. I've shared this with all my
other Vietnamese friends, whose attitude has overwhelmingly been to
ignore the fact that I had been planning suicide, since I obviously am
fighting for life NOW. To a one they feel that what this woman did was
cruel. Is it possible that she simply has her own beliefs about life?
Was influenced by Catholic philosophy, even though she herself remained
Buddhist? Maybe somebody is familiar with the term "Protestant Buddhism"
as Charles Keyes uses it to refer to attitudes in Thailand; could THIS be
her approach?

Any answers to these questions (even ones I might not like) will be
greatly appreciated. Ones which include citations of relevant work in
this area will be even more helpful, as I will go and read the material.
I am particularly interested in other examples of Vietnamese folk values
and their interation with high-minded Buddhism -- a world religion, after
all -- and Confucianism. As a theoretical matter, how might I best guess
which set of values any given Vietnamese has, or whether (s)he has
formulated entirely new ones? As an American I of course have some clues
in this area for other Americans, but the Vietnamese case is something I
have a scant four years of experience with. So, please feel free to tell
me anything (unless it's that I shouldn't have used the net this way; I
know. That's why I haven't given the woman's name.)

Thank you in advance