Yin and Yang
great seriousness Mrs.Ngan maneuvered the tips of three joss-sticks
into the flame of an oil lamp which was puffing forth a great deal of
smoke. The joss-sticks burst into flames and she put the flames out
by fanning them gently with her other hand. Standing in front of the
altar and holding the sticks prayerfully in front of her, she bowed
several times and then placed the sticks into the sand in the glass
she was using as an incense-burner. The food was already displayed on
the altar. Four bowls of white bean compote, the bowls chipped and
only half full of compote, had been intentionally placed far apart to
give the appearance of abundance. There were also two plates of
shredded chicken, a half of a chicken which had been sold to her on
credit by a seller she had known for several decades. She had mixed
the chicken with a lot of cabbage and half of a freshly picked banana
flower. The chicken salad looked attractive due to the nicely blended
rites to call the spirits? Yes, merely performing the rites. The
meagerness of the offerings as compared to more abundant times
brought her only a mild happiness as she organized the holy ritual
for being reunited with the dead. The smoke and the scent spreading
out within the small house reminded her of some Tet festivals in the
glorious past which now had flown away forever. In those days, when
she was a child, she had waited with impatience to show off her
brand-new clothes and had been allowed to do what was forbidden on
other days. She had felt important then, had received more attention
and had no responsibilities. Now, during that same period of time,
Tet, she had too many responsibilities and no longer anyone to pay
any attention to her. The daughter who had been by her side for so
few years, had died suddenly last year of tetanus after cutting her
hand on some scrap iron she was collecting for a school money-making
project. Her mother, due to poverty, only applied some threads of
tobacco to the cut with the hope that the wound wasn't serious. Since
she was now alone she left her house before daybreak and returned
after dark to lay down exhausted. All day long she purchased small
meals from other peddlers along the road and drank her water from the
fountain at the market. Having a good meal or a bad meal depended on
the success or failure of her peddling. Torrential downpours or
scorching sun, no matter what adversity she faced, she stood alone
and was unable to open up to anyone else.
pressed her hand on the left side of her chest and no longer felt the
softness that once had been there and caused men to look at her with
desire. Now she felt only a slight pain beneath her heart caused by
some unrevealed trouble. She held her breath waiting for the pain to
pass. "How strange," she exclaimed, "this time the
pain lasted longer than usual." It was an unwelcome announcement
of the pains presence.
before the "incense-burner" with her palms pressed
together, she prayed, "Will the souls of our ancestors and my
father come to visit and eat of this simple offering." She
hesitated for a second. "It is O.K. not to call my ancestor's
names." She remembered the names of her parents but had
forgotten totally her father-in-law's name. While she was praying she
was also remembering she had been told that the souls of one's
ancestors who died long ago and had been reincarnated could not come
back to this world to enjoy the offerings. That must be so because
how could their descendants remember all of those names to worship.
"My mother, who died over thirty years ago, giving birth to me,
is surely not still in the world of the dead." However, she
still called her mother's name as well as that of her father.
Remembering her father-in-law, she wanted to call his name but was a
little puzzled. "My husband's father died less than a year ago
so he could possibly come here. How strange that my memory has become
so bad that I cannot remember his name. Squinting her eyes in
concentration, she rummaged through her memory for her
father-in-law's name which she had only heard a few times.
I give up." She took three more incense-sticks and struck the
match to light them. The match was too short and the sulfur at the
tip was too soft, so she used three or four more and struck them
harder. There was a quick crackling sound but the fire went out
instantly. She threw those damn matches on the floor and picked up
some others. This time the matches flared up and rapidly lit the
incense-sticks. Holding the incense-sticks, she placed her palms
together and prayed, "Would the soul of my father-in-law, wise
in life and holy after death, come back to this world and partake of
the welcome meal during the Tet celebration." Again jabbing the
incense-sticks into the sand in the glass, she smiled to herself .
"Praying, O.K., I cannot do anything else because I don't
remember his name, so I don't know if his soul can come back. I am so
bowed toward the altar several times. As she did, she felt the pain
in her back at the level of her waist. The same place had been aching
for many years. The pain that torments women who have given birth
many times. "I have only had three children, which is not many,
so it is probably from later years when I was working too hard and
eating a bad diet, stuffing my stomach with any food, to fill the
emptiness. So my body and my strength are crying out to be built up."
at her thought as to the cause of her back pain, she struck several
times at the site of the pain with her fist. The outer pain made her
temporarily forget about the constant dull inner pain. "How
miserable, all the organs in my body feel like loose teeth in an
older person, wobbling and ready to decay. No part of my body stayed
in good enough condition to allow me some joy in my poor life. If one
of my organs does not have one trouble then it has another. If the
side is okay then the spine hurts; if the heart and lungs are good,
the kidneys and bladder are bad. Our ancestors, in the old days,
without any scientific knowlegde, probably said it right 'The body is
like a jar of dead fish sauce, ready to decompose!' My body is no
longer my pride but has become a load of misfortune, vexation and
looked towards the altar. Up to now the ashes had not fallen off the
sticks even though the sticks had curved over, from burning, almost
into a complete circle and yet they still looked like they were
unburnt. The sand in the glass was not covered with ashes so it still
looked unsoiled, unlike in previous anniversaries. People believe
that this is a sign of the return of the ancestors. She suddenly
began straightening her clothes to make them more presentable. "The
dead are now present in this house and are partaking of my offering.
I must not look so slovenly." She hurried to the chest to find
some small glasses, filled them with water and put them on the altar.
"Please forgive me, grandfather, grandmother, father and mother,
for not having a small amount of alcohol for this celebration, but it
is hard to find and too expensive now." She stood at attention
in front of the altar as if she were ready to serve her ancestors who
were eating. Suddenly she felt ashamed of herself for telling the
ancestors that the alcohol was too expensive for her to buy. Buying a
small amount of alcohol for the ancestors would not have been too
heavy a load. Indeed poverty restricts the ability to make wise
decisions. All the people are living under the continual hardships of
poverty, almost like they are living in a dying world. I wish my
husband would come back and see my situation now. I wish he would
complete the paperwork faster so I can fly from this place sooner. If
he had done the paperwork a few years earlier my daughter would not
have died at the first-aid station. I wish I would win the first
prize in the lottery just once. Now there is a drawing every day and
a winner for each drawing. So many times I skipped a meal to have the
money to buy almost a dozen tickets for each drawing but I never won,
not even the small prize from having the two last digits on a ticket.
seemed that there was a silhouette, or maybe two, moving swiftly from
the altar to the door then back to the altar. She concentrated ,
staring at them, but could see nothing. In the distance, she could
hear the sporadic sound of firecrackers, which sounded much duller
than in previous Tets. This may have been due to the shortage of the
powder or the bad wrapping of the paper around the firecrackers.
Outside, the sun was rising and she could hear the voices of people
and the sounds of their sandals as they walked in the street. She was
suffering from conflicting emotions. On the one hand she was pleased
that the spirits were viewing her poverty stricken situation but on
the other hand, she was frightened that the spirits were visiting
her. "Maybe the two silhouettes were real spirits and not the
result of my eyes deceiving me."
she shuddered as if a cold hand had caressed her head. She sneezed.
"I've got a cold,"she murmured, "In the days of Tet
the wind is more unhealthy than in the other days." Tet is the
mingling of the old year and the new year and also the reunion of yin
and yang or opposites. So in the wind there is much of the coldness
of the yin influence which can make a weak person become ill and even
confined to bed. She went to the inner room to get another coat to
wear. "The spirits have reproached me this way probably so I
can't enjoy the Tet celebration!" she thought to herself.
down at her threadbare sleeves she was saddened in her heart. She
looked around the room to see if she owned anything of value. Then,
she looked at the incense-sticks in the burner and again wished that
her ancestors would help her win the lottery so she could escape from
the poverty she had been living in for almost a decade.
for me, let's go together and keep each other company. If you are in
such a hurry now, why did you come out so late?"
didn't know; so I kept on waiting for more papers like before but
this time, for Tet, we were free to go. Woe is me! Nobody told me
that so I paced back and forth waiting until there were only a few
left and I understood that I could leave. I left and was pleased to
meet you here."
In hell the feeling of human solidarity is less because everybody
knows that this place is only temporary while waiting for orders to
be reincarnated up there in human or some other form. Worried about
one's own future, no one pays attention to anybody else."
Indifference to the problems of others is a human characteristic
anywhere no matter what form they are in. No worries are more
important than our own."
have a chance to eat now, you know. I knew by the scent of the
joss-sticks, that someone had invited me but I must wait until my
name is called in prayer so I will know which house to enter. That's
my daughter and your daughter-in law."
also smelled the inviting scent but I felt uneasy because nobody has
called my name."
Indeed, maybe she forgot her father-in-law's name. Up there,
forgetting the names of the dead is common. Come with me and be my
companion on the journey. During these days, in the harmony of yin
and yang, we can leave without traveling permits, provided that we
return here at dusk. They fear that at night we might stroll about
and harm humans."
so many of the spirits took the opportunity to take advantage of
their miasma to disturb the peace and order of the living world. In
normal days, even when we receive the inviting scent and hear our
names called, we can't go, can we?"
must have a traveling permit on normal days, but if our descendants
don't call our names it is even more difficult. July 15th is the only
day of the year when the spirits are free to travel when they want
to. Generally speaking, the corruption of the bureaucracy in hell is
somewhat the same as that in the living world."
they ask for my identification, I don't know how to manage. Asking a
ghost for identification- sorry, you too are a ghost - is asking that
ghost to carry around an extremely heavy tombstone to show !"
I hope that the bureaucracy that makes people suffer will soon end.
Let's go visit our daughter, Ngan."
Yes, after that I will take the time to see that bad guy, her
husband, and the children. How miserable the children are. Sometimes,
I think it is better to just forget about the living. 'Forget
everything' is the lesson we are taught every month anyway. But my
heart still hurts for them. When I was alive, I took such great care
of them, that to stop caring so abruptly, as we are taught here, is
not easy. Knowing that they are in trouble still breaks my heart."
there are a number of ghosts who can forget abruptly! They can stay
joyful even when their close relatives die and come here. They don't
give them a second thought."
number, I think, is limited. Regardless of those lessons, the longer
you live up there, the harder it is to forget your memories when you
come here. What's needed is a kind of bleach, I think, to remove
totally the remaining feelings of those who come here, like the
forgetting potion for us ghosts -sorry, again- when we reincarnate."
is certainly some kind of bleach, but they don't use it when we are
still in hell. The more sensitive the souls are, the more they suffer
their losses. The misery is from the heart and those who are still
soft-hearted only suffer more. Stopping our misery is something we
must manage for ourselves because they don't care about our
suffering. They do provide a sufficient amount of forgetting potion
when we are reincarnated. Otherwise, once reincarnated, we would go
looking for our old relatives. Then, there would be a real mess with
the old and new relationships because 'the son would be born before
his grandfather was reincarnated and thus would be older than his
grandfather,' as a Vietnamese saying goes."
the forgetting potion itself is not always efficient. In some cases
there is no results at all. Some reincarnated spirits have no need to
go through the learning process again. Those that Lao-Zi called
'Babies born with knowledge' still remember their knowledge and
skills, even when they have forgotten their relatives."
In the past in my village of Linh Xuan Thon, in the Thu Duc district,
there was a child, four years old, who had never seen a husking
factory and lived far from one; but, interestingly enough, he could
tell the owner where the husking machine was having a problem, why
there was a problem and how to fix it. "
is the case with several child prodigies. Coming to the world without
forgeting, they learn little but know much. To them it is just a
Oh! We are near where the world and hell intersect. Grasp my hand if
you need to. For about a decade I've crossed this region two or three
times a year so I know that it will take us about ten minutes . In
this region we will see nothing even if we open our eyes. A region
completely dark, to me, it seems very far, as though it has no limit.
Even though they cannot see, those who have a traveling permit can go
through this region with the wind. When the sound of the wind ceases,
you can open your eyes and see the familiar scenery of previous days
and you have arrived. Anyone without a traveling permit can only move
around and around in that ink-black region for many days until he is
arrested and thrown back into hell and put in the dark cell; the
pitch-black darkness of hell!"
is so interesting. The two worlds are separated by that ink-black
zone, so the living called this world 'the region of darkness.' That
region helps keep them from coming down here. Where is your hand?"
Here! However in some cases they do get lost. If a person faints or
goes unconscious for some reason and comes here, they are immediately
pulled back by a positive force. They know and see nothing. When they
recover consciousness they remain normal, and don't know what was
happening in that region. That region is completely dark, you know."
heard that there are some people who can go through this dark region
into hell and then can go back to their world."
that happens often. In early times, in China, there was Mr. Lam Tu Ky
who had gotten lost and passed through the dark region into hell and
was allowed to return to his world. He wrote the book 'Coming Back
From Hell' in which he told the story about the punishment there.
It is regretable that I had the opportunity to read that book when I
was alive but I didn't believe it. On the other hand, in our country
there was the case of Mr. Thu Huon. He was a land register official
during the Minh Mang dynasty who was led by one of his former
acquaintances who was living down here. Mr. Thu Huon was extremely
terrorized by what he saw so when he went back to his world, he built
a houseboat at the confluence of two rivers, at Nha Be, to provide
food and lodging for boatmen in need. Those who were poor and with
inadequate food supplies when they were unable to reach their
destination on time due to unforseen circumstances. He gave all his
property and money out of charity."
strange, two worlds totally separated with a whole region of darkness
and still someone can cross over."
In the world things don't occur the same all the time. From time to
time something very unusual will happen. There is a story about a
woman who gave birth to one hundred eggs, there is a story about gold
fish living on tree tops and there are stories about fish rain and
shrimp rain so, a story about someone lost could be true. In the
story Lost to Heaven, Mr. Tu Thuc got lost up to heaven and
met fairies. If getting lost up to heaven can be done, then why can't
you also get lost down?"
you want to speak about the stories in Lieu Trai Chi Di (Strange
I think the author Bo can understand the mysteries of the universe so
he can write about lady ghosts who get lost in the living world and
marry the men and about men who get lost in hell and marry spirits.
Getting lost or being led here, it is all the same. Ah, we arrive at
last ! Do you smell the bad odor like the smell of blood in the wind?
That is the odor of the selfishness of the human heart. Along with
that odor we also find the stench of excrements. That is the odor of
human vanity...let's open our eyes."
odd. Since I was born until last year, sixty years of life, I had
never noticed that odor. Now, after only one year, I come back and
you live amidst the odor you become accustomed to it. Like a person
in a dirty toilet, at first he notices the odor but after a while he
doesn't. Those living in the Go Vap market district cannot smell the
stench of raw fish while people coming in on a train can. Similarly,
babies fresh from the mothers' womb will cry all the time: maybe it
is because they can't stand the stink of the new world."
But why, from time to time, do we notice a slightly sweet smell
is the smell of resentment from innocent victims and of the endurance
suffered under glaring injustice."
when we sniff the air, we know what is happening around us, don't
all real ghosts can; for example the much referred to, ' house-corner
ghost,' who knows everything happening in a family. We can, at just a
glance, tell where the hidden gold is, the number for the winning
lottery ticket and who will be elected president of a country. O.K.,
let's enter our daughter's house. Do you see the incense-sticks in
the burner are burnt but the ashes have not fallen. That's the sign
of permission for us
old Nghia gave his daughter a caress on her head. She went to sit on
a cheap, poorly made chair and looked sadly out the window. She
shivered, stood up, and went to the altar and rearranged the
incense-sticks to make sure no ashes fell into the compote.
Unintentionally, her hand moved right through her father's belly. The
old Nghia looked at his friend and smiled. The old Nhan pulled his
friend aside and said, "It is not good." He looked at his
daughter-in-law and then at his friend. His friend said, "I have
become used to their touch and don't try avoiding it anymore. At
first, I paid attention to it but later I didn't care if they stepped
on my neck or my head. Sometimes, to move faster, I even went through
walls. One adjusts oneself to the circumstances."
standing before the altar, Mrs. Ngan was looking over at a table that
held a smiling photograph of her husband. The old Nhan was also
gazing toward the photograph of his son as his daughter-in-law walked
through his body. She shuddered again as she felt a stream of chills
running through her body. She lifted the photograph towards her face,
as though to kiss it and then replaced it on the table.
teardrops spilled from her eyes and rolled down either side of her
nose. She used her hand to wipe them away.
old Nghia tried to clasp his daughter's hand to lead her to the door
and show her something outside but his ghostly hand could clasp
nothing. He saw his daughter looking towards the altar so he ran
around and stood facing her. He put his forefinger into a glass of
water that was on the table and attempted to write in the air in
front of her. But she noticed nothing. Hearing the explosions of the
firecrackers, she looked outside. The old Nghia stepped next to her
and whispered something into her ear as if to give her some advice.
She still noticed nothing and stepped out to look into the street.
Once more he tried to clasp his daughter's hand and asked his friend
to clasp her other hand to help him lead her out of the house. But
she sneezed once and hurried back in. The old Nhan took out a sheet
of paper and a pen and handed them to the old Nghia. The latter
hurriedly wrote some words on the paper and held it up in front of
his daughter's face. She didn't look at the paper but just stooped to
tidy her messy clothing.
at her, the old Nghia was disappointed. He turned around but he
didn't see his friend anymore. About one minute later the old Nhan
reappeared. He whispered, "I went there and saw that lousy guy,
my son, and he was having a huge meal with another woman. I was so
angry I rapped him on the head with my knuckles. I also stirred the
alcohol, in both their glasses, with my finger. Doing so just to
relieve my annoyance because I am nothing and cannot punish him."
the two silhouettes looked around for the last time then holding
hands they dove down into the ground. On the altar, the ashes on the
incense-sticks fell simultaneously onto the sand in the
incense-burner, scattered over the compote, and dusted the chicken on
a long sigh, Mrs. Ngan picked up the bowls, blew off the ashes and
spoke softly to herself, "Worship? O.K.! Worship. Pray? O.K.!
Pray. But the ancestors certainly couldn't help me win the lottery.
Yin and Yang are truly separated so one can't communicate. Giving
blessings or calamities to one is done by other people and not by the
spirits. O.K.! Tomorrow I will stop celebrating Tet and throw myself
into any work. That's the only certain way to get some money."
had fallen outside. The firecrackers crackled more frequently. Their
small dull pops couldn't eliminate the sadness from the heart of the
woman who heard them.
from original Vietnamese version by the author)