Copyright 2004 San Jose Mercury News

For a true friend, a big lie

To ensure that a Vietnamese wedding went smoothly, some deception was in order.

By Ben Stocking

THAI BINH, Vietnam – On one of the most solemn days in the life of any Vietnamese family – the wedding of a daughter — I stood before the sprawling, earnest Vu clan and told them a big, fat lie.

The bride’s mother wanted me to do it. And under the circumstances, telling a whopper seemed like the only civilized thing to do.

”I am Benjamin’s uncle, and I’m here to represent his parents, who couldn’t be here due to illness,” I said. ”We are so proud that our two families are joining together. We wish Benjamin and Thao eternal happiness.”

The happiness part was 100 percent true. But I am not Benjamin’s uncle. I have never met his parents. And they did not send me to Vietnam as their family envoy.

I was engaging in the sort of concealment that is common in all manner of social and business settings here: a lie meant to prevent hurt feelings or embarrassment.

In Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia, where ”losing face” is the ultimate humiliation, such ”white lies” are necessary lies.

Benjamin Reich, a native of New York’s Upper West Side, and Vu Phuong Thao, who grew up in a northern Vietnamese farming village, had a real-life storybook romance. If a touch of fiction was necessary on their wedding day, I was happy to oblige.

Vietnamese weddings are heavy on ritual — and the participation of both families is essential. Failure to participate would suggest that the groom’s family doesn’t approve or is somehow suspect.

Benjamin’s parents, Chuck and Julie Reich, were deeply disappointed when Julie’s illness — severe vertigo — forced them to cancel their trip. His brother, a Ph.D. student and new father, couldn’t afford the journey.

As Benjamin’s oldest friend in Vietnam — he’s 28, I’m 45 — I was drafted to play the role of Uncle Ben. Only a handful of family members were in on the secret — Benjamin, Thao, her mother and her brother. No one else in her home village of Dong Hung, about 75 miles southeast of Hanoi, would know.

On Oct. 8, a sunny day in the rice-growing province of Thai Binh, I stood before Thao’s family, a fraud in a nicely tailored brown suit.

”Benjamin and Thao have made this momentous decision after a long period of reflection,” I said. ”My family is proud to offer them our full support.”

Before I came to Vietnam two years ago, I probably would have regarded my behavior as an outrage. A lie is a lie, I thought, and it cheapens the fool who utters it.

There are other lies my Vietnamese friends tell that still make me uncomfortable, no matter how well-intentioned. Friends who learn their mother or father has a terminal illness, for example, may hide the news from their parent — with the full participation of the doctor.

Of course, the parents may well suspect that the truth is being concealed from them. That’s another aspect of Asian fibbing etiquette that can be confusing to a Westerner — sometimes everyone is in on the ”secrets,” sharing a silent understanding that the lies help everyone avoid touchy, complicated subjects.

In a work setting, for example, a CEO who has already conceded something in a negotiation might pretend to his colleagues that he has not, even though he knows they soon will learn the truth. Denying the concession allows him to maintain the appearance of strength.

But the lie about being Benjamin’s uncle felt great.

I trotted out my fib four days before the big event, at the an hoi, or “asking ceremony” — a traditional meal where the bride and groom symbolically ask their elders for approval. The men looked genteel in their white shirts and ties, the women splendid in their brightly colored tunics and flowing pants, or ao dais.

Trinh thi Chat, Thao’s mother, was overjoyed to see me. She clasped my hands and bowed her head. ”Cam on! Cam on!” she said, thanking me over and over again.

The groom’s family and friends arrived at the bride’s house bearing gifts in lacquer boxes — betel nuts, cigarettes, tea, rice cakes and a roasted pig. Some were placed on the family altar as offerings to ancestors whose spirits are forever alive. At the center of the altar was a picture of Thao’s father, Vu Van Ly, who died three years ago.

After I delivered my speech, it was time to head off to a local restaurant, eat a small feast and wash it down with gallons of Vietnamese beer.

When Benjamin’s and Thao’s wedding day arrived, I delivered my fraudulent speech a second time. The event drew about 250 people. Benjamin and Thao led them on a procession to a restaurant for another round of eating and drinking as well as speeches and songs.

Benjamin and Thao sang a traditional song about forbidden love. Two young lovers sneak off at night to an isolated bridge and exchange their shirts — then return home and lie to their parents about their tryst.

Unlike the protagonists in the song, Benjamin and Thao didn’t hide their love from anyone.

They met in May 2000, when Thao was a university literature student and Benjamin was teaching English in Hanoi. Thao worked in a CD shop, selling music and movies. Benjamin used to check his e-mail at an Internet cafe across the street.

He had seen lots of beautiful Vietnamese girls, but he’d never seen any like Thao, who had a warm, down-to-earth quality that made him melt. ”I swear, it was like being struck by a bolt of lightning,” Benjamin said, recalling the first moment he saw her.

He suddenly felt a need to expand his CD collection. He started hanging out in Thao’s shop, where they talked about life and literature.

”I could see that he liked me,” Thao said.

She was already being swarmed by suitors, but Benjamin, the persistent New Yorker, eventually fended them off.

On their first official date, Benjamin played the gallant knight and kissed Thao’s hand. They rode home under the stars on his Honda Dream motorbike. Dressed in a blue ao dai, Thao sat sidesaddle on the back and sang romantic songs.

They had a torrid, three-month romance before Benjamin had to return to the United States. There was a tearful goodbye at the airport, followed by a year of passionate letters and poems.

And then Benjamin came back to Vietnam, with no doubts about his objective.

Thao, 26, now works as a freelance journalist. Benjamin, whose spoken Vietnamese is nearly flawless, recently won a one-year fellowship that will allow him to perfect his command of the language.

To gain official approval for their wedding, the young couple had to endure the sort of bureaucratic nightmare for which the Vietnamese government is infamous. While Thao’s family welcomed Benjamin into their own, weddings between Vietnamese and Westerners remain rare. Official suspicion of foreigners runs deep in a country that was ruled by outside invaders for much of itshistory.

Benjamin and Thao had to wade through pages of extra pre-marriage paperwork because theirs was a hon nhan co yeu to nuoc ngaoi– a wedding with a ”foreign factor.” Local officials sent them back and forth to dozens of offices, where everyone issued conflicting edicts and suggested that a small bribe would make the wheels of government spin more efficiently.

As she recounted the tale, Thao seethed with anger. But at the wedding, joy prevailed.

Thao’s mother and I visited every table, where we clinked beer glasses with all the guests. Not sure that Julie Reich’s illness sounded serious enough, Chat began telling people that the mother of the groom had been rushed to the hospital with a grave heart condition.

I have lived in Vietnam for two years now and have learned enough Vietnamese to have a friendly chat. After one toast too many, ”Uncle Ben” blew his cover and started speaking Vietnamese with the guests.

Lubricated with beer, drunk with happiness, nobody seemed to find it strange that this ostensible newcomer could speak their language. And if anyone suspected I was an impostor, they simply joined the charade.

It was the polite thing to do.