Monday, 7 February 2011

White Tết

She has been in the kitchen for three days. When I asked her what she was doing, the only reply I got was "you'll see". Strange, exotic smells filled our apartment. I saw mysterious packages, some kind of food wrapped in banana leaves, but I could not tell what was inside. She was constantly busy cooking and preparing things.

Today is Wednesday, the last day of the Year of the Tiger. Tomorrow is Thursday, the first day of Tết, and the first day of the Year of the Cat. Yes, the Cat, that is correct. No, I am not making a mistake. For some reason, the Year of the Rabbit - as it is called in China and all other East Asian countries - is called the Year of the Cat in Vietnam. Apparently, once upon a time, Vietnamese ritual specialists misread some ancient documents, and confused the two animals. As rabbits are as rare in Vietnam as cats are ubiquitous, they naturally assumed that it must be the Year of the Cat. Perhaps they did not even know the difference between the two species - modern zoology did not yet exist, after all.

Around Tết, all overseas Vietnamese get homesick. Nostalgia and homesickness during Tết is a recurring theme in Vietnamese folk songs and literature. Everybody who possibly can travels home, so airlines and bus companies triple their prices during this period. Those who cannot make it feel regret, and long for their heimat. My dear wife is no exception.

I can understand her feelings, at least to a certain extent. I remember how last year, a week or two before Tết, the short but chilly Hanoian winter gave way to a beautiful spring. I remember how the air was suddenly filled with the smell of flowers, and I remember the peach, apricot and kumquat trees that were driven around and planted everywhere. The contrast to Norway could hardly be bigger: whereas it is not very cold anymore, we will have to wait for another two months at least before spring finally comes our way. These days, the snow that melts during the day freezes again at night, making roads and pavements dangerously slippery. I cannot wait to finally feel some solid earth beneath my feet. And although the white landscapes are very pretty, I would not mind smelling fresh grass again.

She is dealing with the situation admirably well. Her coping strategy is the best: celebration. And food, of course. She is making all sorts of traditional new year's food. It is no coincidence that the expression ăn Tết, 'to celebrate Tết', literally means 'to eat Tết'. Hence the nice smells in the kitchen.

But before we get to eat any of the food, we offer it to the deities and ancestral spirits. We put the coffee table next to the front door. We put a large plate of fresh fruit (grapes, pears, kiwis and a pineapple), fried spring rolls, mushroom soup, three bowls of rice, fish sauce and a little cup of vodka on it. Next, she opens one of the banana leave packages. It turns out to be filled with traditional savory rice cake, called bánh chưng. Finally, we light three sticks of incense, and we pray for prosperity, happiness and good health in the new year.

While we are praying, it starts snowing. Before long the sky is filled with large snowflakes, and a fresh layer of snow gradually covers the trees and roofs, which look beautiful. It is getting dark, but the snow keeps falling. A white Tết - it is a bit like a tropical Christmas, and a completely new experience, but somehow the snow fits surprisingly well.

We have invited some friends and colleagues for a small dinner party. There is plenty of food. In addition to bánh chưng, spring rolls and mushroom soup, she has made some delicious ginger candy. I contributed by making nasi goreng (fried rice) and traditional Dutch oliebollen, and friends have brought dessert, wine and even champagne. We have a very nice evening. Only the fireworks are missing, but we do not really care. Gratefully, we say goodbye to the Year of the Tiger, which has given us so many wonderful experiences. Eagerly, we welcome the Year of the Cat.

It is Thursday, the first day of the new year. Norway has a real Vietnamese Buddhist temple, and we go there in order to pray one more time. The temple is inconveniently located near Lillestrøm, a boring, nondescript suburban town, and is surrounded by apartment buildings, a supermarket and a church. It takes us more than one hour to get there, and quite a bit of money, as public transport is ridiculously expensive in this country. But the temple itself is located in a handsome new building, that looks remarkably similar to new temple buildings in Vietnam. We go inside. The building houses several statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, as well as heavenly generals and hell guardians. Most statues look Vietnamese or Chinese, but some of the smaller ones are from Nepal or Tibet, as is the beautiful mandala hanging on the wall. A bit of a mix, but not as much as I had expected.

We light incense, offer the fruit we have brought, and pray. In the middle of the temple is a table with fresh fruit, surrounded by Himalayan statues of divine beings. Next to it are two small potted trees decorated with paper flowers. New year's cards hang in the branches, the pots are filled with clementines. A monk gives me one of them. When I thank him in Vietnamese, he raises his eyebrow, looking surprised - and, it seems, somewhat disapprovingly.

We walk down, to the common room. On the wall are pictures of temple members on a trip to, apparently, Dharamsala. On one of the pictures, they pose with the Dalai Lama. It explains the mix of styles in the temple above.

A girl is selling boxes of homemade marinated tofu. We buy some, and she kindly invites us to a vegetarian lunch. It is simple but delicious. She also gives us two membership forms. We can become members for free - that is, without paying a membership fee. This has something to do with the peculiar position of religions under Norwegian law. While the country has total freedom of religion, it is not exactly secularistic. Unlike most other European countries, Norway has a state church (Lutheran), which receives quite a bit of tax money. If you join another officially registered religious organisation, however, your tax money does not go to the state church, but to that particular organisation. Thus, for religious groups in Norway, it pays to have as many registered members as possible. It is the main reason the dozens of Buddhist groups in and around Oslo are officially united in one single organisation.

We are not sure yet. Neither of us has ever been registered as member of a religion, any religion whatsoever, so it would be quite a step. Besides, with the exception of the girl selling tofu and, very briefly, the monk, we are pretty much ignored by the other people we meet, all of whom are of Vietnamese descent. I cannot help but compare the situation with a visit to, say, an Evangelical church - if you hang around after a church service, there are always people who talk to you and welcome you. If one of the reasons for joining a religious group is the social network it provides you with, the way we are ignored by most temple members is not really a pull-factor.

More importantly, we do not want to get involved with any politically subversive organisation. We are not convinced that this is not the case. The temple has three flags flying on its flagpoles: the Norwegian national flag, the multicolour Dharma flag, and the flag of the Republic of South Vietnam - the US-backed military dictatorship that ruled the southern part of Vietnam from 1955 until 1975, when it was defeated by the so-called communists from the north. My dear wife had never seen this flag before (after all, the communists did not exactly bring the south the freedom they wanted, quite the contrary - more censorship and oppression), so when I told her the meaning of the flag she initially refused to believe me. But a quick look on the internet confirmed that I was right. A yellow flag with three red stripes - representing a country that ceased to exist 35 years ago, a mere twenty years after it had come into existence. A relic, of course, little more - but a relic with a lasting, obviously political meaning.

Religion is political, of course. It always has been and it always will be. No surprise there. But this symbol is unusually explicit and provocative, so I can understand that she takes offense. Or, at least, that she does not feel represented.

But we do not need a temple. God is not a golden statue, after all. God is the snowflakes. Tiny and vulnerable, invisibly perfect, short-lived yet eternally beautiful. Divided into ten thousand small pieces, each and every one unique. God does not like flags.

We go home by bus. The clementine tastes delicious. We pass shopping malls, factories and apartment blocks. Everything is white. The new year has begun.

May it be a good one.

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