Mamma Bear

by Sara Swenson

Two rainbow--striped lottery tickets on a wooden table

Two rainbow--striped lottery tickets on a wooden table

August 7, 2018

This morning, I went swimming and ate fried chicken with a woman everyone calls “Mama Bear.” I’ve known Mama Bear for three years now. I honestly don’t understand why Mama Bear talks to me, except that she’s kind. She’s only a handful of years older than me but carries herself with a lifetime of cool. She often shows up in slouchy jeans and a tilted trucker cap, with manicured eyebrows but no pedicure, which suggests that her beauty means business. She speaks her mind like it’s the law, yet commands her kingdom graciously. She’s one of the smartest people I know but won’t say clearly whether she holds a high school diploma. It also doesn’t matter. I don’t say that so much as an academic as a girl from rural Minnesota: the world could use a lot more people like Mama Bear.

The first night I met her, Mama Bear rescued me on the street outside a tattoo parlor at 4 a.m. My Vietnamese language classmate in the U.S. heard I was studying Buddhism in Vietnam and introduced me with her tattoo artist in Saigon over Facebook. It turned out he was part of a Buddhist charity organization and invited me to join their charity event for a day. I hadn’t slept most of the night for fear of missing my alarm, and had also taken every pill in my first-aid kit to force an armistice between my running nose and leaping stomach. Instead they combined forces to make me dizzy. I stumbled out of a taxi toward a crowd and wound up under Mama Bear’s arm on a bus. She wore a red baseball cap and ironical smile. I told her that men in America order lobsters to impress their girlfriends, and fell asleep in her lap. I never read an ethnography where a trained researcher fell asleep on her informant after making symbolic generalizations about seafood. Mama Bear clearly didn’t care. She took a selfie with me drooling on her and we laughed about it later.

That day, I hadn’t asked the right questions to prepare and wasn’t carrying enough cash. Mama Bear paid for my bus ticket. She bought milk for me to give to the orphans we met at what felt like a hundred monasteries. Later I learned it was only a dozen. At one orphanage we visited, the outside vendors had sold out their milk. I didn’t know what to do or offer. She pointed to a toddler in a corner.

“Just play with that kid,” she commanded. I am critical of other Americans who show up in developing countries to play with orphans for an hour, and leave taking more than we gave. But I played with that kid.

I finished preliminary fieldwork, came back to the USA, and stayed in touch with Mama Bear over Facebook. This year, we met up again. Not much had changed. We went out a lot. Did charity. Went swimming. Ate a fair amount of Texas Chicken. She continuously lectures me about my need for a better haircut and to quit being so fatalistic about romance. If I take better care of my beauty, she says, I’ll wind up with a good man, and maybe even a rich one, she jokes. It never hurts to be practical.

As I got more comfortable with my fieldwork interview process, I kept pestering Mama Bear to let me interview her. I meet a lot of people with good salaries who do charity. They amaze and inspire me because they could very well live their lives without noticing the poor, and still decide to care. Mama Bear, however, struggles to make ends meet. Yet more than anyone else, she introduces me with other charity organizers. She sends me news about street children in the middle of the night. Many people in difficult situations sell lottery tickets on the street to make some pittance of an income. There are only two people I’ve noticed to buy lottery tickets every time they’re offered: Mama Bear and the fruit vendor across the street from my apartment. When Mama Bear buys lottery tickets, she talks to the sellers respectfully, like an equal. When the sellers approach us, she never makes it feel like an interruption to our conversation. I don’t have that kind of command of self. She does. She has drawn it from the deepest well of herself.

Today after lunch, Mama Bear announced she was coming to my house to look over my “research documents.” Honestly, to let me interview her. I had all my questions for her in heart, but not on paper. We had never set a time to interview and mostly she’d laughed at my invitation. Yet here we were on her motorbike soaring toward my apartment while she lectured me about helmets and cancer and I warned her that I still didn’t have any good coffee at home. We stopped for coffee at a place I suggested. She told me that the coffee was too Korean for her but drank it anyway. I told her I didn’t have a clue what that meant.

We went back to my home and talked for five hours. I made a sweeping show of setting a microphone on the table and opening a ready-made document of interview questions that really had nothing to do with her. I joked that I was being professional. Fancy-like. Pulling out all the stops. She didn’t wait for me to finish pulling the stops out. She only reminded me to press “record” halfway through. She just sat down and talked. She talked the way a torch burns.

Mama Bear buys lottery tickets because she once sold them. She isn’t a Buddhist, but drove to a monastery once to pray that the Bodhisattva of Compassion might kill her. She had two toddlers, a miscarriage, and was pregnant with her third child when she was driven out of her home. She had no job, no education, and nowhere to go. She sold lottery tickets at a table on the street because she was too pregnant to walk. As she described her story, she skipped over all the parts where she was alone, or how she wound up at the pagoda begging to die. Instead she concluded with a long soliloquy about love.

She said that now, she loves in order to set an example for her babies. She said she loves so that they will know what it means to love completely, with all one’s heart and energy. She wants to show them how to be a good person, so they can recognize other good people. She does charity to remind herself that some people have it even harder than she did. She doesn’t believe in karma because too often, other women talk about karma to justify the suffering they’ve come to bear. She doesn’t think about future lives, because, she says, this is the only life we know we have. We have to live it the best we can, while we can.

The light of the day fades and we slide off my couch. The ice in our takeout coffee cups melts on my floor. My interview questions go black on the computer screen. Mama Bear wraps an arm around my knees and cries on my living room floor. She doesn’t pause her story or wipe her tears. She just talks. Talks boldly. Talks the way she is. I cry when I see her crying. I suspect this is no longer an interview. There is nothing academic about it. It’s just pain. And courage.

 I don’t know how anyone goes where she’s been and returns.

Even as Mama Bear cries, and talks, and burns like a torch, she keeps asking if I understand everything she’s saying. Every word. I am honest about the words I do not know in Vietnamese. She writes them on a piece of clean white printer paper. There she is, crying and writing, still taking care of somebody else even while she’s falling to ash. I see why people call her Mama Bear.

Before I tried to be a religion scholar, I spent four months as an inner-city pastor. When I signed up, apparently nobody in power understood it was a church whose congregation was close to fifty percent homeless. The established middle-class congregation had absorbed its homeless ministry and made them family, without reporting the demographic change to anybody in leadership. When I arrived, I thought I’d be coping with the usual challenges of expanding attendance and church programming. I had no idea I’d be mopping up vomit, counseling the occasional drug addict, and joining hospital visits for homeless guys who may or may not have had both HIV and cancer.

I was a cocky 23-year-old and a perfectionist who rapidly determined I was in way over my head. I had grown up in rural Minnesota where there is no small share of poverty and violence. But it is a different thing to know a friends’ parents beat her in the silence of a country home than to pray with a man whose face has been knifed open on a public street corner, with nobody intervening. At least, I felt so at the time.

I asked authorities to relieve me of the position. They did. The church was closed within a year. I’ve always wondered if I could have done better. I started my PhD program trying to prove myself, thinking that, if anything, I could retreat among the books I’ve always loved in order to try and make the world a better place.

I retreated to my books, but found myself stepping through their back covers into an even bigger city, among new people who have suffered different kinds of hardships, but still known the same physical pains of violence and hunger. I don’t know how I keep ending up with good people who, I suspect, deserve better than I can offer. While I am no longer in a position to be a leader, counselor, or spiritual advisor, I am learning that perhaps the one thing I can do is try to amplify people’s stories. There are people like Mama Bear who have been to hell and back, and still take milk to orphanages. Her story is important.

Mama Bear buys lottery tickets. She takes her babies on vacation and buys them hamburgers even when she doesn’t know when she’ll get another paycheck. She has worked jobs where her bosses call her “it.” She has also worked for rich people who refer to her, kindly, as a guest rather than an employee. She can be foul mouthed and painfully honest and is exasperatingly picky about her coffee, but strives to recognize everyone around her as, “con nguoi,” people. She sees others as equally capable of her same depth of suffering, and therefore the same super-human love which eventually pulled her through.

Close to 9pm, we called it a day. Mama Bear went through my fridge and asked skeptically whether my milk tea bottles had gone bad yet. We went out for soup at a place that I regularly frequent. Mama Bear told me that the soup quality was terrible and then told me to watch out for taxi drivers who might try to rob me. Every time I went on a motorbike taxi, she commanded, I must send her a picture of the license plate. I told her I take motorbike taxis four times a day. Whatever, she said, send a picture. Then, as if completing the same train of thought, she described a news story about a motorbike taxi driver who had his throat cut by two passengers who wanted to steal his bike. He was only 26 she said. So young. The bike was only worth about $200. Compassion goes both ways.

It’s tempting to make Mama Bear into a hero or saint. I know that’s not my job. When I tried to describe her strength through trial to my dad, he said, “She’s a wounded healer.” Maybe that’s the term. This isn’t the kind of conversation I imagined trying to cram into a dissertation, partly because I know how much my own feelings are crowding into her story. What do you call religion when it winds its way into the darkest and brightest moment of a person’s story? The clearing of the moon from an eclipse?

I have a mounting stack of these things I’m calling “fieldnotes.” In some ways, they are a record of my time and research in Vietnam. In other ways, they are the piecemeal mementos of relationships that have come to represent so much more. I don’t know how I’ll balance the academic and personal functions of these documents someday. But I do know this: one would not be possible without the other.


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Sara Swenson