In­cense and Ances­tors


I CLEANED BA’ S AL­TAR EV­ERY FULL MONTH when I was grow­ing up, sweep­ing away grey ashes from the in­cense holder, sweep­ing away last month’s pray­ers and wishes. My late dad peered through his black and white photo be­hind glass while I worked. Stand­ing on a kitchen chair so I could reach the al­tar on top of the wall unit, I dusted the two red, plas­tic can­dles, each topped with a red light bulb to sim­u­late can­dle­light. Each one stood guard on ei­ther side of his framed photo. I wiped down the red and gold in­cense holder in front of his pic­ture, ma­noeu­vring around the spot for the real in­cense to go and around the three joss sticks made of plas­tic, each com­plete with a minis­cule glow­ing bulb. I al­ways tried to clean the black singe mark on the mid­dle plas­tic joss stick, never sur­prised month af­ter month that the stain re­mained, but I al­ways tried.

Ma made of­fer­ings to Ba and to all the ances­tors. On death an­niver­saries and at Tet, the Lu­nar New Year, and ev­ery full moon, she made of­fer­ings of flow­ers and food. There was fruit if noth­ing else. She made of­fer­ings to our loved ones who had passed be­yond the land of the liv­ing. Ma lit in­cense in front of Ba’s al­tar. My mom’s palms with cracked skin pressed a fra­grant joss stick be­tween them to her heart. Pray­ers on her lips, eyes fo­cused, look­ing through the earthly ob­jects into the spirit world. She passed an in­cense stick to me, the tip a ring of red and curl­ing smoke. My turn to pray? I mim­icked as best I dared. The ances­tors knew I was a fake.

Ma never sat me down and said, this was how we prayed, this was why we prayed, this was why we made of­fer­ings to the ances­tors. I won­dered what other kids did. Did they ask ques­tions? Mommy,

why do we have a Christ­mas tree? What’s heaven? Why do we go to sy­n­a­gogue? How does God hear our pray­ers? Were there other kids like me, rooted in the rit­u­als of the be­lief sys­tem into which they were born, ques­tion­ing?

I pieced to­gether what I could. There is a con­nec­tion to those who have passed be­yond this life; a con­nec­tion that tran­scends death. Cung is the rit­ual through which we con­nect with the spirit world; by mak­ing of­fer­ings, we sym­bol­i­cally share a meal with those who are no longer alive. In do­ing so, they re­main with us. Per­haps the in­cense smoke opens the gate­way be­tween the vis­i­ble and the un­seen, where spir­its know each other with­out form. The spirit world does not be­long in a house of wor­ship. Spir­its live along­side us, wait­ing to be in­vited into our houses, to be called to our sides. This is what I grew up know­ing. Know­ing is not the same as believing.

I was in ju­nior high when I dis­cov­ered my own con­nec­tion to the spir­its of my ances­tors. My sis­ter was a part of the Saigon Pav­il­ion dur­ing Folk­lo­rama, a mul­ti­cul­tural fes­ti­val unique to Win­nipeg that high­lights cul­tures and coun­tries of the world. At com­mu­nity cen­tres, high-school gyms and other venues, cul­tural so­ci­eties and as­so­ci­a­tions in the city in­vite us to step into their worlds. In one dance, the dance of the Trung sis­ters, my sis­ter played the part of Trung Trac. Jen wore a red tu­nic and a golden head­dress like a halo sig­ni­fy­ing she was car­ry­ing out the will of heaven. Her face was firm, eyes gaz­ing be­yond the au­di­ence and ten­sion in her lips. Dur­ing the first half of the dance, she stood still on wooden steps be­hind an ele­phant con­structed of wood and con­struc­tion pa­per, one arm bent on her hip, the other arm wield­ing a sword pointed straight out in front of her. A fel­low dancer play­ing Trung Nhi stood be­hind Jen on more wooden steps be­hind a sec­ond con­structed ele­phant. The ele­phants were painted in shades of grey, tusks ivory, with colour­ful rib­bons down their back­sides. This gave the au­di­ence the im­pres­sion that Trung Trac and Trung Nhi rode on the backs of these mighty beasts. War ele­phants, ready for bat­tle.

Their sol­diers wore yel­low tu­nics, red sashes and black boots, and held shiny metal swords. In this dance, the chore­og­ra­pher Co Ly had in­structed them not to smile. For other dances, she usu­ally high­lighted the op­po­site. Smile dur­ing the fan dance. Smile dur­ing the drum dance. And smile dur­ing the um­brella dance. Those dances show­cased fem­i­nin­ity and gen­tle­ness, grace­ful steps, soft arms and long lines. A slow back­bend. Shuf­fle, shuf­fle and turn. Swoop the

arm across the chest and down to the floor. In con­trast, the dance of the Trung sis­ters had strong and swift mo­tions. Quick and con­trolled move­ments. March, march, look right, look left, sword out, bend knees, brisk turn, blade thrust for­ward and ad­vance the line. Not the move­ments of girls but the move­ments of war­riors. This was war, a bat­tle to pre­serve Viet­namese iden­tity.

Jen must have per­formed this dance more than a dozen times over the week. There were three shows a night, and the dance of the Trung sis­ters was usu­ally per­formed at each show; it was the Pav­il­ion’s most pop­u­lar dance. It seemed like ev­ery Viet­namese per­son knew the tale. When the em­cee de­scribed the up­com­ing dance, the Viet­namese in the au­di­ence nod­ded their heads, “Of course, of course, we know, get on with it.”

Long ago and far away, in the land of my ances­tors, the peo­ple of Viet­nam prayed to be free. It was a tale told time and time again through­out the ages, both in the old world and in the new world—a dis­tinct cul­ture fight­ing for in­de­pen­dence against a for­eign power. The mighty Mid­dle King­dom of China had cast its shadow upon Viet­nam in the first cen­tury BCE.

Two sis­ters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, fought back. Af­ter 2,000 years, the his­tor­i­cal truth of the sis­ters has been in­ter­twined so fully with myth, it may not be pos­si­ble to tell where truth ends and folk­lore be­gins. In the most tra­di­tional ac­count of events, they were born into a no­ble fam­ily in a prov­ince close to present day Hanoi in north­ern Viet­nam. Af­ter Trung Trac’s hus­band was ex­e­cuted for in­sur­rec­tion, Trung Trac set aside her mourn­ing clothes and took up sword and shield in 40 CE, rais­ing an army of women and men. The sis­ters led the first ma­jor re­bel­lion against their Chi­nese rulers. Trung Trac was crowned queen and es­tab­lished in­de­pen­dent rule for the first time in over 200 years. She ruled un­til their de­feat at the bat­tle of Lang Bac three years later. There are dif­fer­ent ac­counts of their deaths. The ac­count clos­est to the hearts of the Viet­namese states that the sis­ters drowned them­selves in the Hat River, keep­ing their honour.

The first time I saw the dance of the Trung sis­ters per­formed, tears welled up in my eyes and goose pim­ples dot­ted the back of my neck and my bare arms. Mighty war­rior women. Mighty Viet­namese women. I felt this story deep in my bones, res­onat­ing through my blood. This was my in­tro­duc­tion to the two sis­ters. My first glimpse into my own his­tory. The Trung sis­ters were cer­tainly not part of the cur­ricu­lum at Gen­eral Wolfe School in the West End. Grow­ing up in

Canada, I knew about Euro­pean ex­plor­ers and I knew about an­cient Egypt. And I knew very lit­tle about the his­tory of the coun­try where I was born. I was three when we emi­grated, and I had vis­ited only once be­fore en­ter­ing ju­nior high. The Viet­nam War, pho noo­dle soup, and peo­ple on mo­tor­bikes came first to mind when I thought about where I was born.

I fo­cused on Jen stand­ing sta­tion­ary on her war ele­phant. What was go­ing through her mind? She had just de­ployed her army to bat­tle the Chi­nese, a greater force. Was she fear­ful? Was she de­ter­mined to see this to the end? When did Trung Trac know she was go­ing to be de­feated? When did she de­cide to give up her mor­tal life? Trung Trac, chan­nelled through my sis­ter, reached out from the past. She il­lu­mi­nated my path through the mists of the spirit realm, high­light­ing the Viet­namese pull to the other­worldly.

Trung Trac has not faded from ex­is­tence. She is revered 2,000 years af­ter her death and she watches from the oth­er­world. Her in­flu­ence and her power burn bright. The Trung sis­ters live on as the spir­its of Viet­namese free­dom and fem­i­nism. To­day, they con­tinue their reign from the af­ter­life in Viet­nam: tem­ples, shrines, stat­ues, streets, build­ings and an an­nual fes­ti­val all bear their names. Whis­pers of their reap­pear­ance and in­ter­ven­tion in the lives of em­per­ors and or­di­nary folk alike have also been passed down for cen­turies. Through­out Viet­nam and other places in the world where Viet­namese peo­ple have put down roots, peo­ple cung to the Trung sis­ters, of­fer­ing what they have and pray­ing for what they do not have.

Cung only hap­pened once a month, but I didn’t know much about the cy­cles of the moon grow­ing up. I was ner­vous search­ing through the fridge for fruit to eat. “Ma, have the ap­ples been cunged?”

“No, don’t touch them!” she would yell.

I’d shut the door quickly and jump away from the fridge. I didn’t mean to touch them. Eat­ing un-cunged fruit felt like the ul­ti­mate sin, like I was steal­ing out of the ances­tors’ own mouths.

On cung days, Ma put­tered around the kitchen be­fore the sun came up, slam­ming draw­ers and clink­ing dishes with ex­tra vigour to en­sure her daugh­ters dared not sleep in. She was the chef and house manager and I was the server and dish­washer. Three place set­tings at Ba’s al­tar. Three place set­tings at the din­ner ta­ble. Five place set­tings at the cof­fee ta­ble. Each place set­ting had a bowl of rice, chop­sticks, tea and Coke. And condi­ments—small bowls of fish sauce or soya

sauce, some with chili, some with­out. Plat­ters of fresh ap­ples and or­anges and other fruit in sea­son. The menu would change. It could be veg­e­tar­ian or meat-friendly. Egg rolls. Fish maw soup. Chicken curry. Stir-fried noo­dles. Toma­toes stuffed with tofu and rice pa­per wraps were my favourites. And dessert of lay­ered gelatin or cas­sava cake. I brought the food from the kitchen and did my ar­range­ment. When Ma did her fi­nal in­spec­tion, she al­ways re­ar­ranged what I did. No, the curry should be next to the fish, the fruit at the head of the ta­ble.

Once she was sure the ances­tors would be pleased, she lit the joss sticks and said her pray­ers. We were al­lowed to eat only af­ter the in­cense burned away com­pletely. I sat in the kitchen won­der­ing, was the in­cense an in­vi­ta­tion to the meal? Was that how our fam­ily knew to stop their wan­der­ings and come to our house? Or were they al­ways with us and the in­cense was the ve­hi­cle through which they could con­sume the of­fer­ings? I al­ways won­dered, did kids who grew up in Filipino or In­dige­nous or Ukrainian homes in Win­nipeg have ques­tions about their rit­u­als?

I opened ev­ery win­dow and opened the front door, yet the in­cense clung to us, the air smoggy. Grey ash col­lected un­der the burn­ing joss stick. On ev­ery in­hale, I tasted the smoke at the back of my throat, bit­ter yet fra­grant, as if swal­low­ing a rose petal. I stud­ied the shapes and images in the danc­ing in­cense smoke. From the redringed tip emerged a col­umn of smoke that mor­phed into a dragon that was chased by a snake that was pur­sued by a war ele­phant from the dis­tant past, car­ry­ing Trung Trac on its back.

Ever since the sum­mer of the Saigon Pav­il­ion, Trung Trac has been nearby. She be­came my role model; I was a shy girl who loved to read and play imag­i­nary games and did not see my­self rep­re­sented in my cher­ished Lucy Maud Mont­gomery books and blonde Bar­bie dolls. She was a whis­per on the wind af­ter I closed the front door. She was a flash of light af­ter I turned off the lamp in my bed­room. She was a hero­ine from the land of my ances­tors. Pow­er­ful and proud. A thread wove its way from Trung Trac through the gen­er­a­tions to me. She was not far, she was close.

When I en­vi­sion their last stand, the Trung sis­ters ride side by side at the bat­tle of Lang Bac, each one on the back of an enor­mous ele­phant dec­o­rated with war paint and with blood­ied tusks. Both women have their swords drawn. Trac raises her sword above her head, want­ing her troops to see she is well and fears noth­ing, to

for­tify their hearts. The sun­light re­flects brightly off the sharp metal, a flash of heaven on earth. Nhi points her sword straight in front, her hand steady, sig­nalling at­tack. The en­emy is ad­vanc­ing, a shadow stretch­ing across the field, the earth shud­der­ing un­der thou­sands of foot­falls. Upon the grass­lands, sol­diers fall. Dark earth churns with hot crim­son blood. Trac and Nhi are on foot af­ter be­ing tum­bled from their ele­phants, swords tossed to the earth in haste. The rhythm of the river calls to them. Wait­ing to em­brace them for eter­nity.

“Sis­ter!” Nhi calls out to Trac, stretch­ing her arms out to her older sis­ter.

“We will be to­gether again, Sis­ter!” Trac re­sponds as she reaches the wa­ter’s edge.

The Trung sis­ters have passed from this world into the spirit world.

I fol­lowed the thread that linked me to Trung Trac. Through her, I dis­cov­ered the threads that bound me to my fam­ily, that bound me to my dad, in the realm of the spir­its.

Ba passed away be­fore I turned eight. He went into the hospi­tal and never came out. My mem­o­ries of him as bone and flesh are faded and frag­mented. And yet, af­ter his pass­ing, I saw him ev­ery day star­ing through his photo from his al­tar. We shared meals to­gether af­ter Ma cunged. I saw him when I cleaned his al­tar ev­ery month. When I en­vi­sion Ba, I see him in black and white as a young man in his mid-twen­ties from his al­tar pic­ture. Even though I never knew that man, the man from the pic­ture has been a pres­ence in my life.

The veil be­tween the liv­ing and the dead is thin. Fam­ily passes on and yet they re­main. My fam­ily swirling around me, ghosts with­out form yet true to essence. A hand at my back, a ca­ress on my cheek. Whis­per­ing to me, steady­ing my feet. Never so far from this world. Not peer­ing down from heaven but walk­ing along­side me. Slip­ping in be­tween the veil of hu­man breath and shadow ex­is­tence.

A crack in the win­dow, a door­way not quite shut, a lid slightly ajar.

Enough of an open­ing through

which light may pass,

air may flow,

wa­ter may seep,

and spirit may come.p

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