Sunday, January 18, 2009

Ancestor Souls are Coming to Town!

This is a picture of the Tet Tree at my second home, the Bum Bum Salon.*

If all of the correct tick marks were on the word "Tet" - you would pronounce it something like "Dee -yet" (but actually, nothing like "Dee-yet" at all. That's how it is with every Viet word, trust me.) Trees like this are all over the place; some are yellow dripping with red envelopes, and some are red dripping with yellow envelopes, like this one (Viet Nam's flag's colors). I love this one because it makes me think of my grandma: it's made of dyed pussy willow branches. My grandma loves them.

And, actually, it's very fitting that this Tet Tree reminds me of my grandma, because Tet, the Lunar New Year celebration that takes place for three days at the end of January, is all about family - including, most importantly, elders and ancestors. Vietnamese spirituality rests on the concept of family - the link between the living and the dead. Tet celebrates the renewal of nature and all living things. It's a celebration of culture and family values.

Perhaps you remember when I was in Dalat - our tour guide, Rot, took us back into his family's ancestor room and explained so many things I had been wondering about regarding the shrines - both the business shrine and the ancestor shrine. Everyone has an ancestor shrine. Many of them have photographs of their deceased family members, and the shrines are always filled with granfather's favorite fruit and grandmother's favorite cake and tea, and, always, incense.

He explained to us that in Viet Nam, people do not recognize birthdays as much as they recognize "death days." The anniversary of a family members' death oftentimes is cause for celebration and extended family get-togethers. I really love this concept -- what a way to honor your people. For example, my grandma's altar would have the pussy willows, tomatoes, beets, cucumber salad and homemade noodles. We would give them to her and she would give them back to us later. (Definitely the noodles, then). This reciprocation would make us all happy to think about her and her favorite things and how she has influenced our lives in such a good and loving way.

So, yeah, death strengthens the bonds of family. Ancestors play a central role in the fate of the living, because souls remain in the family altar. For two weeks before Tet, houses are decorated and altars are prepared to invite the ancestors to come in. We have seen many, many people painting their houses, or at least their house trims, getting ready for the new year. This morning, I could hardly move through the market for all of the bustle. More people are having parties in the street (including one very bad, loud karaoke party that lasted for four hours last Sunday). I guess you could compare it to the activity we experience at Christmas.

In traditional Viet families, mothers, fathers, kids, aunts, uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers all live under the same roof (like the house across from the castle where the grandfather hogs his granddaughter). If they don’t live together, Tet is the time that they reunite. On the eve of Tet, families make offerings to receive the ancestors into the home. At lunch or dinner, ancestors are invited to share tea, cake and fruit. At the end of the third or fourth day, the family holds a ceremony to bid the ancestors farewell, and their souls are filled with wishes for them in their other world, from where they will continue to watch over their families.

It's the communication between the living and the dead that gives Tet its spiritual significance. Life for Vietnamese people is ruled by the principles that have been handed down from the ancestors, which they will, in turn, hand down to their descendents.

And what do kids say about Tet? Well, I read all of the penpal letters they sent to 6th graders in Seattle last week. They have that kind of "Santa Claus is coming to town" look in their eyes. They can't wait to have the family together. They are excited to stay up all night. They love to bang pots and pans at midnight. But most of know what is in those little red or yellow envelopes? Lucky Money. Lucky Money is given to all children, and in return for Lucky Money, the children will bless their parents in the year to come. It's an exchange of money for blessings, blessings for money. Which seems good and right. And next week, I have been told that there will be flower markets all over the city. Everyone will display fresh flowers in their homes. Doesn't it sound beautiful?

I can't help but think about what I would want on my own altar (it's similar to Mexico's Day of the Dead, so I have thought about this pre-Vietnam). I would want a beet, an eggplant, a carnita taco with a homemade tortilla, a good book, and the voice of Lyle Lovett playing always.

What about you? What would you want? I know we don't talk about or celebrate death in America, but I think we should. So, again, what's on your altar?

*My Bathttub Plan is going quite well and I have not washed my own hair for two weeks. Oh, and Rita, it costs $3 to have it washed, dried and straightened. The massage is $1.80. I know I have mentioned this, but many people continue to ask... I would, too, if I heard of a place like this, my own "Merry Old Land of Oz." Hair washes: 3X per week. Massages: 2X per week.

p.s. in my last post, I added a picture of my nephews and my brother-in-law wearing Vietnam's flag shirts, and someone I don't know posted that they should be careful wearing those shirts because of the pain that it would cause Vietnamese Americans who fled Communism. Well, Tarn found the following article about that very subject, if you are interested, here it is. Very timely:,0,1933859.story

So I think she is giving good advice, and perhaps I made a bad judgment call in sending those shirts. I guess I will have to do some make-up Tet shopping that is more appropriate!

p.p.s. I have received five entries for my contest. Keep them coming (except Brian).

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