When I was six years old and living in Vietnam, I saw Mrs. Lau, the wife of our family servant, drag herself out of bed only a few hours after giving birth to bury her newborn's umbilical cord in our garden. Something in her mysterious gestures among the jasmine bushes the mumbling of prayers, the burning of joss sticks, and the offerings of mangoes and rice stirred a deep sense of awe in me. Later I found out from my mother that it was our way to ask the land to bless and protect the newborn. The incident and the knowledge of my own earthly ties made a very strong impression on me: our ways were sacred and very old.
Not long ago Vietnam was mired in agrarian-based rituals and traditions, and it was normal that people should use words like souls and ghosts and spirits, not as metaphors but as things that exist. People consulted the ouija board or fortune tellers or the I-Ching for many important decisions, and potential marriages have been known to be abandoned to bad signs. Each night, my entire family prayed to the various Buddhas and to our ancestors' spirits; we talked, that is, to ghosts. My maternal grandmother even went a step further. For years she had dreams in which our Grandfather's spirit came back and they would discuss family affairs. Once she lost a jade bracelet and Grandfather told her in her dream where to look. No one seemed surprised when she found it the next day. In a land where ties were permanent and the tradition concrete and sacred, there was a deep sense of enchantment and awe.
Then, alas, no more.
A Diaspora Two million or so Vietnamese, in an unprecedented move in Vietnam's millennia old history, fled at the end of the Vietnam war into five different continents. And for all the umbilical cords buried, for all the promises we made to our ancestors' spirits, we did the unimaginable: We left, trampling underfoot that old sentimental garden, refuting the perennial and insular agrarian-based ethos of entrenchment.