Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bác sĩ chạy--Doctor Ran Away


On our usual visits to Paw Paw (Cantonese for maternal grandmother) at the convalescent hospital today, a conversation struck up between my mom and Paw Paw about some patient. Their conversations are typically in Cantonese punctuated with occasional Vietnamese. In a solemn tone, my mom commented in Vietnamese, “Bác sĩ chy” and noted to hush hush, not to mention it.

Upon hearing this, my wandering mind tuned in to the conversation and expressed that it is not an uncommon occurrence even for doctor to switch to working at a different hospital or clinic. Little was I aware then that Doctor-Ran-Away is a euphemism of someone who suffers from terminal disease.

“They cannot heal this person anymore, so the doctor ran away and we are left with the understanding that this person is at the final stage of life,” 89-years-old Paw Paw explained.

Mom added, “In the occasion when the doctor suggests a Chinese herbalist as an alternative option and if the Chinese herbalist cannot do anything, we say, ‘Chinese-Doctor-Ran-Away-Too’ and so we know this person has one foot already stepped inside the coffin.”


In Asian cultures such as Vietnamese and Chinese, the topic of death is an unwelcome subject so euphemism is abound. A deceased person such as Gong Gong (Cantonese for maternal grandfather) would appropriately reference as “Ascended-to-Heaven 升天” or “Entered the Western Paradise World 西方極樂世界” in Chinese. Gong Gong didn’t die several decades ago.

Hidden under these euphemisms is a deep sense of fear of death and the ignorance that comes with it. So much is in these two Asian cultures on maintaining auspicious energy and driving away inauspicious energy that much cultural light can be shed from this feng shui perspective. Illness, death, funeral, and general lost are sources of negative energy and any nearness to such nullifies the force of positive energy. In a conversation with Ayya Tathaaloka, a western Theravada Buddhist nun, on this very topic, she pointed out that in Thailand, people would attend funeral of people they don’t even know because it is a meritorious deed according to the Buddha’s teachings. So what is considered inauspicious in one culture is considered auspicious in another culture. Ayya Tathaaloka offered this insight, "What is inauspicious is ignorance and what is auspicious is the Truth." Indeed.

It is always fascinating to observe how much people’s speech and action are reflections of the cultural background(s) in their mind. Not taking things personally and not clinging on to one’s ego will help reduce some suffering when cultures clash in our daily interactions.  My father emphasized to me in earnest several weeks ago, “Next time you light candles at the altar, make sure it isn’t white. We are Chinese after all.” White candle is only used in funeral and red candle is used for all auspicious occasions--wedding, birthday, and all offerings at the family altar. So we are Chinese born in Vietnam and when old age, sickness and death come along, we will be known as Doctor-Ran-Away, Chinese-Doctor-Ran-Away-Too and Ascended-to-Heaven.

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