By Nghi Doan, October 1 2023—
“The land knows you, even when you are lost”. Nine simple words as a phrase that unintentionally struck me when I read Braiding Sweetgrass. The author, an Indigenous woman, has been brought up and influenced in a way that her family wanted her to inherit the very best of this lifestyle.
I have never realized how I, as a Vietnamese person, would empathize with others when I ventured out of Việt Nam to study abroad. I am called after my country’s name before the international community. When people ask me “Where are you from?” I would never hesitate to say: ”I am from Việt Nam!”.
Historically, the 1968 Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War would be an event that most people refer to. For those who have been brought up and spent their whole life in this S-shaped country would think of delicious cuisines, graceful bouquets of flowers marked by the lightness of sunlight, seeds, lucky money and family reunion. People flock to their hometowns to gather with their loved ones. Tết, in Vietnamese or Tet Holiday as widely referred to, is indeed a special occasion when we spend time being thankful for our ancestors and for the past year even with ups and downs. In the southern regions of Việt Nam, folks even express their deepest gratitude for a successful harvest. I would say that I am lucky enough to dive into some sorts of traditional practices during Tết in my hometown, Tiền Giang, which is a small city located 70 kilometres West of Ho Chi Minh city.
We would prepare a small feast to invite our ancestors back home to spend time with us in the next three days just the night before Tết. As we base our calendar on the Moon’s cycle, our Tết usually falls at the end of January or the first half of February. Kids like me would wake up early the next morning and be prepared for a one-of-a-year ritual — lucky money.
We gather at the home of the eldest in the village and begin our journey there. Adolescence would stand in a half circle and kids go around wishing them another tremendous year with lots of luck and receive a red envelope of lucky money in exchange. The lucky money, at this point, turns out to be a carrier of all the wishings of the elder for the kids. We then go in line and wander around the village. We would stay at each home for 15 minutes to chat and drink tea alongside some flower seeds. It would be missing without a conversation — kids would rant about their studies and friends while the adolescents reflect on their business in the past year.
Cold breeze flooded my second-floor room, flavoured with the greenness and liveliness of the moment. Two days ago, I was still wandering around my grandparent’s plum garden. Now, I am sitting in a room that is 7200 miles away from my childhood’s holy grail, Tien Giang, which in fact, has encapsulated some best moments of living my life to the fullest. The application of animism has been unconsciously woven into our lives in one way or another. Animism is usually associated with the life of Indigenous. Their way of living is reflected through observation and connection with their surroundings, with Mother Earth.
However, animism has taught me how to embrace the meaning of life to be consciously aware of each and every moment in my life. I am living. I recall some footage in Spirited Away when Haku insisted on remembering Chihiro’s real name, who at that time was Sen. At last, Chihiro remembered Haku’s real name as “Kohaku”, which is originally the name of a river near Chihiro’s old residence, and they burst into tears. The body and spirit at that time were merged into each other. The physical body, which is soil, dirt and river, connects with the awareness of identity. Yubaba, the owner of the public bathroom, took away the real names of each and every person just to be able to control them easily. We become “nobody” just like “No Face”. No Face has no identity. No one knows where he comes from nor who he is. It is indeed easy to manipulate “nobody” because “nobody” knows nothing and has nothing to protect and preserve nor nothing to be proud of. Just when we are “somebody”, we acknowledge that we have “something” precious that is worth praising for.
Ceremonies, traditional rituals and practices have done their job to educate our origin. In today’s world when we are gradually leaning towards international integration, there is a small degree between keeping the cultural identity and letting foreign cultural domination dissolve our own spirit. We, the Vietnamese, have been fighting for centuries to preserve our own language and practice against the superpowers back then. Despite any attempts to assimilate the blood and body of our fathers and mothers, we struggled to pass our identity down to our heirs and younger generations. Yet there we are, Tết speaks for itself about the fierceness and courage of our own people. That Tet 2023, just a few months before I came to a brand new country, my grandfather reminded me of how precious a piece of rice is. People would think it’s just an object but my grandfather, a farmer himself, has taught me to realize each and every thing because it contains effort to be present in life, even the smallest piece of rice.
Treat the world around you, from as small as a piece of rice to as big as the sky above you, so as to understand how precious ourselves are and how wonderful life is.
This article is a part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.