As if anyone ever loved to attend funerals. The footsteps of the guests and the monotonous clapper cluttered my thoughts. Incense-fused air covered the guests’ faces with same bland expression as funerary music resonated through the hall. Puncturing the elegiac air, my Mom suddenly passed out without warning as my father’s coffin was cremated. I could not tell whether it was just her reaction to an exhausting day or whether he had actually “called upon her.” But it did not matter. I was arrested by her unconscious hands scratching at the tightened knot on her waist.
I suspected she just needed to loosen the knot, but such action was taboo: A widow must wear the costume until the end of ceremony. People consider loosening the knot anathema. Believers in this cherished custom would disdain anyone who dares to undo any article of clothing. They ignored Mom’s immediate need for relief. A cacophony of solicitous cries and stringent advice ensued over her expectations and responsibilities. Someone suggested that she drink hot ginger while another told her to lay her head on the floor. How could they not see that the old traditions fettered us just as fiercely as the knot that constrained her?
I rushed to untighten the knot and was met with glaring eyes from my grandmother, my uncle and other relatives. My mind froze, thinking back to that morning when Mom presented me the ceremonial costume I was to wear and said, “Hold it fast, darling!” As I tightened her knot, Mom turned to tighten mine, exchanging intangible wishes of encouragement. I knew the origin of the tradition―the knot. Just as both ends of the string were bound together, so I could feel the consanguinity between Father, tradition, and myself.
Hasn’t the knot always been tradition? It was tied for Dad’s funeral, but it binds Vietnamese women in other ways as well. In traditional Vietnamese culture every woman accepts a multitude of customary conventions that fetter them to how a woman should behave. I am totally Vietnamese, but I share a different view. The veil of tradition also belies negative restrictions on women. Rebelling against these restrictions does not necessarily mean an end to tradition but it stands for the demand for tradition to adapt. Funeral customs, like all Vietnamese traditions, were built over thousands of years to incorporate elements of Buddhism and Confucianism. But the rigidity of the traditions sometimes manifest in ways that do more harm than good, such as burdening the weaker sex. I fully embrace my Vietnamese heritage, but appreciation and criticism go hand in hand. Hence, I nurture the good and rectify the bad.
Cut in half, the knot laid dead in my hands, but I did not feel sinful. I did not believe Buddha would curse on my bloodline. Dad would not turn into a dreaded demon to haunt me. Instead, Mom’s hand told me that she felt relieved. At the time, that was all that mattered.