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Table set to remember mum

No 3, Vol.9 , August  - September 2015

Ancestor veneration begins at home

As a young traveller, upon seeing a strange custom in a strange land, I would always ask myself - Why do these people do this? Now, as an experienced traveller, my tendency is to ask - Why do we at home NOT do that? For two reasons, I cannot forget the anniversary of my mother's death. Firstly, she died on July the fourth, which is American Independence Day. Secondly, I have a Vietnamese family and we follow the tradition of having a memorial dinner on my daughter's grandmother's death anniversary.
‘Can't they just accept that death is the end and move on?’ was my first reaction on encountering this ritual eighteen years ago. Reared on scientific rationalism and Christianity, I found it difficult to accord any kind of presence of the dead in the here and now and the idea of ancestor worship as heresy. But firstly, man does not live by reason alone but also by feeling and emotion. I soon warmed to the idea that the essence of whom my mother was needs to be revered. As for worship, which for a Christian is for God alone, here I think most Vietnamese might agree a better word would be veneration-deep respect for those who have come before us and made us who we are-one of the ten commandments! Our family has six of us living under the same roof. We are of four faiths-Catholic and Protestant Christianity, Cao Daiism, and Buddhism. Of course, as a family, we are united and Vietnam also is united as a nation. This custom and the family shrine are two unifying factors for a diversified country.
Before we have dinner, the table is set with ample dishes before the family shrine. It is left this way for well over an hour. I let my wife officiate, although it should be the son who does. Interestingly, there is a difference between Chinese and Vietnamese ancestor veneration here. In China, only the males officiate, whilst in Vietnam, it is usually fine for females to do so. My wife lights incenses sticks and thus Mum is invited to dinner and we seek her blessings. At this point, I am drawn to the photographs on the shrine of Mum and my wife's parents. Here is Mum in her final year. In contrast, nearby on the wall, is another photograph of mother in the full bloom of youth. My daughter is by my side. She never knew her grandmother, as, sadly, she died five months before she was born. I would like to think this is some way for my daughter to connect with her grandmother. One thing we do not do at this point that many families do is to burn paper offerings in the street-perhaps because my wife is Christian. I am glad we do not, as I hate the chemical smell and it is not good for the environment.
Finally we sit down to enjoy dinner. We always invite family and friends. This year, our family members are back in their 'quê hương' (home village) but we have our most direct neighbour, Phuong Anh, present. When our daughter was small, a photograph of mother was always placed on the table. We have left off this custom in recent years. I have attended such gatherings, invited by friends, and some actually have a chair and place at table for the deceased. I like that.
It is not a sumptuous feast, but some dishes which we do not normally have at dinner time are on the table. For example, there is sticky rice and crispy French-style bread normally only seen at breakfast in our house. There is a vegetable curry, not too spicy, and a shredded chicken with fresh herb dish native to Hue, from whence my wife hails. Finally there is 'gỏi', another Vietnamese salad dish featuring papaya. This is not a solemn occasion and everyone is enjoying his or her self, but thoughts of Mum are always at the back of my mind.
Back to the introduction-why don't we English do something like this? I have not lived in England since mother died, but the most I would probably do would be to visit the grave. I think in our family, only my father does this. To tell you the truth, I might even forget the significance of the day. This, I am sure, would horrify most Vietnamese. We do have a day when we pray collectively for all departed souls. This is All Souls Day on November 1, but only a very few regular church attenders do this. Living abroad a long time, I sometimes think what strange people the English are! Moreover many English people especially now on the Internet like to draw up a family tree, which surely is a kind of veneration.
So, July 4 for me has become a day to remember Mum and venerate her. It is also a day when I become closer to my Vietnamese family and friends and educative for my daughter. My mother never set foot in Vietnam, although she spent some very happy years in Singapore and thereafter holidayed several times in Malaya. She would have understood this custom. Here she is now in Vietnam with her own special day! They will do this annual event in my honour one day. Let us hope it will not be any day soon!n

By Pip de Rouvray
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