Tet @ the Coffee Shop by Tini Ngatini

Traversing Narrow Margins
PrayerThig

Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

Viet Nam has changed my relationship with coffee shops. They used to be a space where I worked and entertained my friends. Then, recently, they became a sort of anthropological space where I encountered a religious event which brought me to another level of appreciation and respect for local culture.

That local culture is called Tet. The Coffee shop where I encountered is called ABC.

The ABC coffee shop in Ha Noi, Viet Nam is a fusion of Asian and Western atmosphere. It has some Western characteristics like those found in Starbucks and some that might only be found in Viet Nam. By the former I mean comfy-soft seats, satisfying internet connection, people sitting by themselves with eyes fixated on a laptop or book with earphones on, casual outfits of course. Meanwhile, the latter characteristics are that the majority customers [mostly female] are wearing nice clothes, nice shoes and makeup on. Also, 90% of the Vietnamese customers are in a group with friends or family. The activity they engage in the coffee shop itself ranges from chatting, playing board games, holding a meeting, chilling with their lovers, napping, or eating sunflower seeds, or even just playing with their phones and smoking.

Such contrasting coffee shop features exist side by side at the ABC coffee shop. From my usual seat in the corner I can see a few European-looking customers in casual outfits. They sit quietly by themselves with eyes glued on their laptop or book and earphones on. And on the left side, just a few steps away, there are groups of three to six Vietnamese customers in lovely outfits gathered around a rather large table, lavishly chatting and laughing, or watching something on YouTube without earphones attached. You are most likely familiar with the kind of scene on the right. But, the one on left could elicit a glance or two out of curiosity. Or, it could be out of slight irritation that makes the glance more a “can you please tone it down” gesture. But, if you have been living in Viet Nam long enough, you might just be okay with it.

At lunchtimes, the whole of Viet Nam goes quiet. Between 12 and 2 pm, it’s nap time for the Vietnamese in general. Vietnamese customers who come during these hours are often by themselves, popping in to take a rest on the comfy sofa areas; or, if they don’t fancy a nap, they take a moment to rest, munching on sunflower seeds, eating food they brought or ordered from outside.

Such are the common views to be found at the ABC Coffee.  These scenes have been on my mind a lot recently, and have made me see coffee shops in a completely different light. Indeed, it all changed on the second day of Tet when, coincidently, I was at the ABC. That day not only upgraded my relationship with cafes to another level; it also helped me see the beauty inherent in the local tradition called Tet.

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Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

Tet, short for Tet Nguyen Da, is the Vietnamese Lunar New Year festival.  It is usually celebrated either in January or February, depending on when the first day of New Year in Lunar Calendar arrives. During Tet, all businesses are closed for seven to ten days, which makes it near impossible to hunt down open restaurants and coffee shops. My landlord even advised me to ‘stock up’’ on supplies before the festival began, such is the extremity of the situation!  Here in Ha Noi, People get busy preparing for Tet about a week before the actual holiday. At this time, found ubiquitously across the city are ‘new year gates’. These are banners exclaiming  the new year greeting “Chuc mung Nam Moi,” reminding locals and visitors alike that Tet is just around the corner.

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Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

Inside the cities, pavements are transformed into temporary marketplaces, selling flowers and plants associated with Tet celebration such as Cherry Blossom, Apricots, and oranges.  Shopping malls are flooded with people hunting for new clothes to be worn on the new year, ornaments to decorate their houses, and foods for Tet. It is also one of the best times for shopping, as every store offers discounts of up to 70%. With all these activities going on, the traffic becomes even more chaotic than usual. Vehicles move at a snail’s pace, Tet plants and decorations balancing precariously atop wobbling motorbikes. Take a gander around the streets during Tet and, you will spot houses, offices and other public spaces decorated with red and yellow ornaments such as lampion, flower, plants, small flags and, of course, the Viet Nam flag.

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Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

Meanwhile, inside people’s houses, families become preoccupied with cleaning the house and ancestor altars, and preparing continual offerings for the ancestors’ spirits from the last day of the year to the third day of the new year. The offerings they prepare during these times of the year are more special than the usual type of offerings people do twice a month. The offering during Tet has more flowers and fresh food every day. The women of the house are expert at preparing both these offerings and the special Tet dishes such as Bánh chưng.  Most often, the whole family also go on visits to the family members’ and ancestor’s graveyards before Tet. They go to clean the graveyard, to pour some water over it, to spread flower petals over the graveyard, or leave flowers at the feet of the tomb. And, of course they pray for them.

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Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

On the first day of the New Year itself, people gather with their family to exchange “lucky envelopes (money?)”—a Tet themed envelope with paper money in it, starting from 10,000 dong to any number you want to put.  This exchange is viewed as the most important Tet ritual because the lucky envelope represents the wish for a prosperous and lucky year ahead . A native Hanoian told me about it at length:

“That envelope represent for lucky money means you will have more money, Successful, basically it’s the same as wealth. It based on unreal story from China. Like Chinese they have a story about it, mainly to put a ring of coin to the children during new year so evil may not touch them. If you tell this original story from Chinese to any Vietnamese, they will refuse, and say that they never heard of it. And not many Vietnamese ever heard of it. [It’s] Vietnamese culture but not many people thinking as it was in Chinese in the past. We turned into our own way long time ago Vietnamese understanding. They [Vietnamese] give envelope, not because of reasons as they did in china. They [Vietnamese] give envelope to all age Not only children….”

“…. But in the past [in Viet Nam], it supposed to be coin, not paper money like nowadays Envelope. We switched to paper money 100 years ago. may be. Since I was small we did not use coin. Until I was 13, 2003 or 2004. But, they switched back to coin again. They did 1 time, but it last 2 years, people don’t like to keep it cause it heavy and not convenient. So they switch back to paper. May be 14 years ago. They produce coins for 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000, but it lasted for 1-2 years. [because] at the same time we still had 1000, 2000 paper money. People rarely use coin. So, 2 years after, government took coins back and never used them again.   The main thing about [lucky] envelope is the way Vietnamese use it is different from Chinese one [that Vietnamese give envelope not only to children]. Even now, Chinese also give envelope to all age.”

She explained that older members of the family give lucky envelopes to younger members. For instance, “my grandpa will give lucky envelopes to my mom and me and my brother. Then my mom will also give envelopes to my grandpa.” The exchange moves downward: her mom then will give lucky envelopes to their children. Similarly, older siblings in the family often the same to their young ones. This ritual also extends toward children in their neighborhood who may visit during this period.

Another important ritual people engage in the first day of Tet is buying salt. It symbolizes a hope for prosperous year ahead. “Why salt?”, I asked a Vietnamese friend of mine.

“…You know in Viet Nam we have this saying đu năm mua mui, cui năm mua vôi meaning buy salt in the beginning of the year, buy lime at the end. Vôi is lime. Like cacao, they usually use to paint the wall..it will help to erase bad things, bad spirit they believe, that’s why usually bought at the end of the year, aiming to let go all the bad things. Buying salt at the beginning of the year will bring luck to the house and help family members to be more connected, to live in harmony. and we also use it in rituals in Pagoda, salt is something you can never live without.”

On the second and third days, people put on their new clothes and go to the Pagodas to pray for a lucky year. Another Vietnamese friend of mine says, “people start going to the Pagodas to pray on the New Year Eve, usually after watching the firework displays.”   During these days people also visit friends, usually already having met their relatives at the grandparents’ house on the first day., So if you happen to be in Viet Nam on these Tet days, you would see many people in their nice clothes on the streets,  or you would see houses widely opened, showing scenes of  families chatting and enjoying the delicious Tet delicacies.

It was on the second day of Tet, at the ABC coffee shop, that I accidentally participated in such a special moment. I came there with my usual intention to grab a coffee and get some work done. As it was still Tet celebration, they opened only the first floor.

I sat at the very end of the room. There was not much going on in the coffee shop; a few customers sat at the other end of the room, playing with their phones. After a while, the owner of the ABC came in with two men. They sat at the table two chairs away from me. I saw them talk with one another; I didn’t take too much notice.  Then my eyes stumbled upon the cookies and cakes on their table. Wait a minute, I thought to myself; they are not customers. I took my eyes off my book and subtly threw intermittent glances at their direction.  The two guests spoke to the ABC owner respectfully, making a slightly bowing head movements as they talked. Finally, they shook his hands, stood up, and left. They must be either friends or relatives of the ABC owner, I concluded. And those cakes, cookies, and beverages on the table are amongst Tet food I have read online.  It then clicked in my head: This place, after all, is also where the ABC owner and his family live. And today is the second day of Tet. People are supposed to visit their relatives or friends.

As I held my gaze, observing this interaction, a palpable and yet unnamable feeling seeped in. I am participating in Tet ritual, I thought to myself. I somehow did not feel like a customer at that very moment. The fact that ABC is also the residential place for its owner suddenly became interesting to me. I think it was the familiar living room format of the coffee shop which facilitated me to have such an insider experience of that Tet’s ritual: the living room has no partition whatsoever. It put me in the same space with the guests. The proximity made the experience intimate, as if in some way I was part of the family.

Later that day, on my way home, I had a similar feeling when I saw a father and a son in their suits riding bicycles (presumably to visit their relatives or friends).  There was a certain kind of beauty that emanates from the two men in suits on their bicycles; it was a precious moment to witness I felt humbled and embarrassed at the same time just by seeing their dedication to their cultures. In the past, I’ve personally done anything I can to escape participating in similar social conventions involving family visits. I was leaning toward some of my Vietnamese friends who see Tet rituals as unpractical considering the money you spent on flowers and food, especially for offerings, that will end up at the dumpster next day.

But in this moment, I could see the social power and functions of local culture such as Tet for people who hold on to it.  In the case of Tet, its significance lies in its religious element. The religious aspect of Tet is encapsulated in the activities of praying and giving donations to the temple some people engage in, in the offerings to the ancestors’ spirits in the house, in the visits to the ancestors’ graves, and in other forms of reverence one pays to the elderly.  These are religious activities as far as they centered around the idea of Divine other in the form of spirit and its celestial virtues. One may argue that these religious gestures are what Pure Land Buddhist Shinran and Honen referred to as the ‘miscellaneous acts’. Majority Buddhists in Viet Nam are Pure Land Buddhist, after all. Within this view, the religious gestures themselves are meant to evoke good karma. They are activities which are believed to bring one closer to and/or to enter divine realm [the Pure Land]. Yet, not the one which result in the rebirth in the Pure Land.

The offerings, the flowers, foods, and money sacrifices and other forms of reverence appear to be a simple way to pray to god. It is so simple that it often deceives us into thinking of it as unintelligible, superstitious, or even devoid of reason. So, it is no surprise if some people may suggest an abandonment of traditional religious practices on this basis. This simple way to salvation seems similar to the bhakti yoga [devotion]. It exists presumably to accommodate to followers who, for one reason or another, have no access to the other two means to salvation which are claimed to be more sophisticated. The first is what the Bhagavad Gita refers to as jnana yoga, the way to know God through knowledge [philosophy in Platonic sense]. And the other is karma yoga, the knowing god through work.

I think it is safe to say that local cultures such as Tet have a certain degree of intelligibility and practicality. They may be simple and repetitive, and yet they are not devoid of reason. On the contrary, local cultures can be important assets for countries which are on the journey to become “modern”:  they can offer something that might complement modern values and other forms of progress they wish to adopt. That is so, especially because modernity may come with unexpected results such as social or spiritual alienation. It is these possible alienations which the continuing practice of local cultures might be able to answer. Last but not least, their simplicities fit modern people who have limited time for more sophisticated and intellective practices, such as meditation and philosophy related practices.

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Self-care Soup: Mars Roundhouse Kicks in the Door to the Tune of 90’s House Music

permanent fugue, Playground Rules & Physics, Self-care Soup
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Image: Peter Nevins ~ Detail of “A MONSTER IS BORN!” ~ Woodcut

Self-care Soup is a short column where Moriah Mylod and M. Perle talk about vibes in the ether and self-care strategies.

 

M. Perle: Aries season is a time when we think about our power. What it’s like, how we use it, where can it get us. We can misuse power, but let’s think about how we can…not do that. In my book rec of the month I cite an instant DIY classic: Sandhya Rani Jha’s Transforming Communities: How People Like You are Healing Their Neighborhoods. Power can mean saying, “I’m gonna just do it myself!” Mercury is in retrograde until the 15th (tomorrow!) which signals a time to reflect. After that, as SNAP! said in their seminal hit “I’ve Got the Power,” “Dinging like a cymbal, rhyme devil on the heavenly level/ Bang the bass, turn up the treble”! What if we do have the power?

Mercury Retrograde has made me revisit the role friends have had on my life path. I found myself on Instagram thinking about people who have passed through my life and felt an extreme tenderness. So I followed them. Reconsidering these formative times reveals how much others shape our lives. How many have passed through your life, shown you things about yourself, make you miss home, lead you to the home in yourself? Admit there are people around us who move us to feel, to act. Watch how you speak about others. Are you treating them harshly because of your own feelings of unworthiness?

 

Moriah M. MylodIn honor of the season of change from Old Man Winter leading us slowly into the welcoming embrace of Maiden’s Spring, we can gently invite ourselves to celebrate these shifting seasonal changes within us! As the first Crocus of buds gently greeting us and Spring Showers pouring on us, we may find ourselves to be in place of acceptance, resistance or perhaps both. Change is inevitable- it’s not necessarily a good or bad thang…it just IS, right?! It’s about how we can muster up or discover the strength through these discomforts perhaps difficulties that change has brought to our door steps. It seems easy for some of us to recognize our weaknesses before our strengths when confronted with an opportunity for transformation and that’s OK…at least we recognize! So, in the light of Aries’ Power, let’s take a look at our personal strengths and hey our weaknesses too, but most of all give recognition to the heart of who we are in our strength of strengths which is our Archetypal Hero/Warrior in our life on a day to day basis. As a matter of fact, Carl G. Jung has proclaimed to us that “only one who has risked the fight with dragon and is not overcome by it wins the hoard—“the treasure hard to attain!”” (Collected Works of C.G. Jung 14 by Gerhard Alder, par. 746)  

 

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Detail of an engraving titled “The Destruction of Leviathan” by Gustav Doré (circa 1865)

 

Recommended Reading

 

M. Perle: Sandhya Rani Jha, Transforming Communities: How People Like You Are Healing Their Neighborhoods

Moriah M. Mylod: Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, Chapter on Joy & Sorrow

 

Music to Get You Through

M. Perle: 2 Unlimited “No Limit”

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Moriah M. Mylod: “Another Night” by Real McCoy (European Version Video Clip, 1993)

 

Meditation

M. Perle: Listen to 2 Unlimited. Close your eyes and think of jabbing and grabbing all the non-human obstacles standing in your way. Now sing Sonique “It Feels So Good” to yourself and wrap your arms around yourself (hug yourself!). It’s a short meditation because: it’s Aries season! You know we don’t have time for patiently mediating!

 

ART for Mind, Body & Spirit

Moriah M. Mylod: Invitation to go outdoors to create an Earth Mandala with a special intention. Mandala mean ‘Sacred Circle’ in Sanskrit’—it is indeed circular shape in form usually created from the center of the circle outward or vise versa.  What will your reason be for creating today? What is it for? What do you need in your life right now? Think of something specific and begin picking natural objects that appear available and interesting to you (ex. flowers, leaves, sticks, stones, etcetera) thinking of line, shape, texture, and color, in mind. Once you’ve collected enough things, search the area for suiting place to set them down. Is it a dirt or rocky ground? GOOD! Feel free to crouch down to the ground or in a position that’s comfortable for you and begin placing those beauties down. Think of some patterns of how you wish to arrange them. It takes a lot of work constructing these, lots of thanks and gratitude to the trees for allowing us to pluck their leaves off or flower’s petals if we want to utilize them. Perhaps you quietly thank the Universe for your hands, your mind, your health, your happiness, your sadness, your pain and your experiences– to be able to make something beautiful out of something that wasn’t there before. Did you know you can do that? Make something beautiful out of “nothing”? How do you look at things?

 

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Understanding The Islamic Concept Inshallah Through Psychogeography by Tini Ngatini

Traversing Narrow Margins

Image by Morag Rose.

Travel has always been illuminating for me—every place I visit presents me with experiences that shed light on things I was previously unable to fully understand. That this is so, is only natural to Mrs. Trang, an urban planner from a university in Hanoi. She introduces me to Psychogeography. Psychogeography is an urban planning concept which suggests that our geographical surroundings have a psychological impact on our emotions and, hence, our behaviors. According to Mrs. Trang, when designing a city, urban planners must first know the kind of feeling(s) they wish the inhabitants to experience. Only then will the urban planner be able to determine such things as building design to the kinds of trees and flowers to be planted. All of these elements, she says, will allow a city to emanate certain vibes—“Every city has its own personality.” These vibes are designed to affect the way people think and act. Therefore, it should be no surprise if people are to some extent different whenever they change their geographical locations.

Internationale Situationniste “Naked City” by Guy DeBord

Psychogeography is also a concept that allows me to better grasp the concept of Inshallah, a religious concept central to my own personal and professional life. The term Inshallah simply means “God willing” or “If God wills.” Muslims ought to say it, instead of “I will,” whenever they agreed or “promise” to do something in the future for another party. Looking at the practice of Inshallah from Arendt’s perspective, it appears as a social transaction of advanced request for forgiveness from the party who makes a promise, and a guaranteed release of forgiveness from the party to whom the promise is made. This social transaction of forgiveness would be important when the first party, for whatever reason, is unable to keep their promise. Such failure produces certain effects such as distrust or contempt which is, to some degree, damaging to the relationship between them. However, within the Muslim community, such negative effects are likely mitigated because forgiveness (understanding) has been given upfront, i.e. when they say “Insha’Allah” (“If God allows me to do so”).  Accordingly, the practice Inshallah offers a remedy for the damage that is not even there yet.

The practice of Inshallah does offer an insight into the irreversible and unpredictable nature of human action and its redemption, as Hannah Arendt mentioned in The Human Condition. Once a certain deed is performed, the consequences exceed time and space and are unforeseeable and impossible to undo. If the consequence is negative, it prevents the related parties, especially the wrongdoers, from moving on with their lives.  The way to free them from such an imprisonment, Arendt says, is through forgiveness. That way, the wrongdoer may release the guilt and the offended party is free from grudges. Then they will be able to interact with each other again, or at least, moving on with their lives. Finally, I should also like to say that to merely use the term Inshallah without genuine efforts to meet the promises is an irresponsible act that would also be damaging to social relationships.

One of the effects of the change in location that has always troubled me was that people are more likely to fail to meet their promises. Having many encounters of just such an experience, I lost my ability to trust people and their promises.  But, after four years of psychological, religious and physical homelessness, I think the Psychgeography concept has just dissolved the grudge I have for people and promises. It helps me to see that there are many factors at play in the failure in meeting promises including pyschogeography. Thus, releasing my resentments and people I despised become a natural and personal process which does not need the presence of remorse, nor request from the offender, and, that is I think what Derrida meant by giving yourself the gift of forgiveness. Finally, pyschogeography has shown me the intelligibility of Inshallah, which is helpful in better understanding the dilemmatic religion vs. science relationship.

 

 

 

Braving the Days: It is of No Consequence by Jordannah Elizabeth

Braving the Days

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I’m sitting in Boston, holding my palms to my chest.

I pitched this column to be of the existential persuasion, which brings a slight bit of pressure for me to insinuate something deep – every month.

I tried to write this piece a couple of weeks ago, referring back to the debut essay, “Braving the days: using a few words devoid of superfluity” to pick up where I left off. Unfortunately, I realized that I cannot deliver what I promised: to follow up that essay by writing on the topic of “Giving people a loophole to demoralize you.”  I realized I didn’t want to write about that anymore because I am in an significantly better state of mind then I was in December.

I had gone through a heavy bought of holiday depression. I always go through holiday depression, but last year’s experience was different. It felt forced upon me as I have grown old enough to not internalize my sadness, but to let it go, allowing it to run its course. 2016’s holiday depression took a couple of months to run its course, moving in on me from when I returned home from an extensive tour in early November right on up until New Year’s Day. I felt helpless with this depression because I couldn’t shake it with my optimistic powers. Coupled with me dawning on my 30th year of life, I went through a “What is it all about??” phase for a little while, questioning the path I had taken in life, wondering if taking on a public career was the right decision as I was craving privacy, a quiet cabin in Aspen and the warm breath of a horse’s moist nose touching mine, breathing with me, giving me love and energy of its quiet wisdom and ancient responsibility.

I didn’t want to be Jordannah Elizabeth anymore. I had fantasies of moving to another city and changing my name and never mentioning my books, articles, travels, modeling photo shoots, Rolodex of successful musicians, publicists and artists. I fantasized about being a school teacher – and even more so, I wondered if I would be able to make friends easier and I wondered if people would treat me differently, knowing I had nothing to offer but just some simple company. I wanted people to love me for me. And it was a very scary feeling because I felt my actual life was very so far from that reality.

People say I’m “down to earth,” but where am I supposed to go? And with the power I do wield, I don’t feel it is an excuse to for me to be in any way rude or abusive to people. Being rude or abusive comes from deeper issues, not a fancy job.

On top of all that, my tour had battered my body and I came home with high blood pressure and a couple of other issues. So, the whole mortality thing was going on too, oy.

Nonetheless, I had worked through all that once New Year’s came, the weight naturally lifted off of me and I had changed my diet to essentially nothing but avocados, granola, oatmeal and almond milk for two months, so once my second’s doctor’s appointment came around, I was healthy again….

So, my deadline for this essay was January 15th and I wasn’t angry anymore. Suffice to say, I had to think about what I wanted to write about…now my deadline is 17 days late and all I have to say is that:

I went through all of that and I sit here writing, essentially the same as I was last fall. I don’t even know what all that stress and anger was for – except for my anger with Kanye West. That has waned a bit as well, and morphed into more of an understanding and even validation.

I was able to foresee his entire episode play out, right up to him taking photos with Donald Trump, sending prophetic revelations of idiocy to my editors. None of them actually wanted to admit Kanye has become a right-wing poster boy and that he is the epitome of male privilege, so maybe I’ll write my thoughts on that next month. Maybe I won’t, because next month, I’ll probably be the same person… going through some existential issue only to realize it was a waste of evaluation because we don’t change.

Our core, our purpose, our relationship with God.

It is of no consequence.

Jordannah Elizabeth is an writer, musician and educator. She’s the author of Don’t Lose Track Vol. 1: 40 Articles, Essays and Q&As.