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Author’s Bio and Reflection
Elise Gurney graduated from Carleton College in 2013 with a degree in Economics. She is currently living and working in Washington, DC, but would like to return to Minnesota and visit Phat-An Temple as soon as she can.
As I drove up to Phat-An Temple for the first time, on a Friday afternoon in April 2014, I felt giddy, as though I’d happened upon an indescribably special place. I’d visited Vietnam two years ago and, since coming back, had attempted to maintain a connection to Vietnamese culture in any way that I could. Yet no amount of bún bò Huế could recreate a space of familiarity as clearly as this expansive structure, this place of such recognizable serenity and grandeur.
I initially felt less comfortable interacting with Phat-An than I had anticipated. I breathed nervously as I entered on the following Sunday, uncertain of how to begin. In Vietnam I had always felt welcomed as a visitor, a novelty in a familiar place. Yet here, in the United States, I felt as though Phat-An served as a refuge, and I was an interloper from the ever-encroaching outside world. The steady hum of Vietnamese, the purposeful motion of the kitchen, and the insular pockets of conversation left me feeling awkward and removed.
The feeling, I found, was entirely self-generated. As soon as I began talking with people, they opened up to me with a generosity of time and spirit that I had never expected. Quy in particular welcomed me in, greeting me cheerily that first day and leading me around by the arm. She invited me to subsequent events, responded to my numerous inquiries over the following months, and ended every phone call with, “I’m looking forward to seeing you, Elise.”
Nearly everyone I spoke with invited me to stay for lunch. Huong told me to bring my friends, and promised to bring us prayer bracelets the next time we showed up. (When I ran into her, two weeks later, she excitedly pulled them from her pocket.) Su, the Buddhist master, offered to hold Buddhist lessons for me if I was interested. People were eager, not just to share their stories and elements of their culture, but to get to know me in turn.
While these experiences provided me with a precious link back to Vietnam, I had to reassess the lens through which I viewed the Temple and its community. Initially, I approached the project with a basic familiarity with religious and temple life in Vietnam against which I sought to compare my experiences at Phat-An. Yet I quickly realized how limited my understandings had been, and how ill-equipped I was to make those comparisons. Instead, I tried to focus on developing an understanding of how Phat-An operated within, through, and alongside Minnesota’s Vietnamese community as an institution and structure all its own. Indeed, I’ve come to recognize Phat-An and the people I’ve met there as singular, delightful, and incomparable to anything or anyone I’ve ever encountered.