I thought of calling this text about my encounters and experiences with vegetarianism in Vietnam, “How I became ‘gay’ in Saigon.” Then I thought it would not work, not simply because I am not gay, but because I could just as well have titled it, “How I became Christ in Saigon” or, “How I became a Soviet in Saigon.” This is a story about naming and about crossing borders and boundaries. This is a story about moving to Vietnam and finding my way around in a rowdy workers’ neighborhood in a large, bustling metropolis, about struggling with the language and the intricacies of complex ritual and pilgrimage practices. It is about the process of forgetting faces and places, and suddenly remembering long-gone conversations and details of rituals as memories resurface in the wake of someone’s death.
In January 1999, I rented a small, two-story house next to a much larger one in the neighborhood adjoining An Dong Market, the most important wholesale textile market in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). I was embarking on eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in Saigon, and I had rented this house courtesy of one of the administrative assistants at the Institute of Social Sciences of HCMC, with which I was affiliated for my research. She acted as an intermediary for (and got a commission from) the landlady who had this small ochre house for rent. Quickly, I settled in a routine of eating lunch and dinner with the family of B., the woman who had helped me find and rent this house.
The house, nestled in the complex social world of a small urban lane, provided me an excellent position from which to begin my research on youth and debt in Saigon. The large avenue in front passed by a small park, originally built by Korean soldiers during the American War in Vietnam and renamed Peace Park after the liberation of Saigon in 1975. The view from Peace Park revealed prostitutes cruising on bicycles and scooters, nodding furtively at potential customers, and streetwalkers discreetly plying their trade in the park, discarded paper tissues marking these swift encounters.
The nearby market and massive grey concrete hull of an abandoned construction project formed the outer visual horizons of this small neighborhood, as seen from the fifth-floor rooftop terrace of my neighbors’ house. Below us, the rumor of the rushing traffic rose up from the streets, reverberating in the labyrinth of tight alleys surrounding geometric blocks of large apartment buildings. The neighborhood straddled the administrative boundaries of Districts 5, 10, and 11—the boundary between Saigon and Cho Lon, between the Vietnamese and the ethnic Chinese parts of town. A few dozen paces away, the bulky, squat concrete frame of An Dong Market rose above the rooftops. From there, the wholesale textile and clothing trade extended all the way from Saigon and Cho Lon to the deepest reaches of the Western Region (Mien Tay) and the Cambodian border on the far side of the Mekong Delta.
My ethnic Chinese neighbors live in a large multistory house. They laugh at me when I inquire about their beautiful new house. “Beautiful new house, uh?” the matriarch of the family laughs out loud, her dark, toothless, wrinkled face shrinking in laughter. “But this is our old house!” She then relates to me how their house had been seized from them after the war. “We helped the Revolution. We housed some VCs and messengers here at night. And this is how we got thanked.” Their problem was that they were a wealthy Chinese family, a dangerous combination of ethnicity and class in the dark post-war years of Saigon in the late 1970s. The house was seized from them. Only through murky negotiations involving large cash payments under the table to local officials were they able to reclaim their house in the late 1990s.
I initially spend a lot of time with “Auntie” (Bac), as she inevitably refers to herself when speaking to me, her foreign “nephew” (chau). My first name, Christophe, is basically unpronounceable for a Vietnamese. American-style, I try to shorten it to “Chris,” but that too leads to interesting semantics. I become “Christ,” or “Mr. Christ” in polite conversation, usually pronounced roughly as “Quyt”—which incidentally means “mandarin orange” in Vietnamese. Clearly, something has to be done about my name. Bac likes the fact that I speak Vietnamese and study hard. I spend a lot of time in her household, talking with her daughters, who are roughly my age. This is a very devout Buddhist family. “Auntie is addicted to reading the [Buddhist] sutras!” She laughs and pokes a bit of fun at my scholarly concern for youth drug problems and addiction.
This is how, by reference to my studies, I get a new name: Minh Tam, which means bright mind, or bright soul. Bright, here with the connotation of light (enlightened) as opposed to dark and unenlightened. Given the context of this name being given by a devout Buddhist family, I quickly realize that it is a very Buddhist name, a very peculiar one. When I begin to use this name in everyday conversation, I get teased for having a girlie name. Why? Because in the late 1990s, a well-known male pop singer named Minh Tam had been outed as gay. This is in part “how I became gay” in late-1990s Saigon, but it is not the whole story. The ambiguities of my position in the fictive kinship structure I found myself placed in mattered, among people and in a neighborhood that had no experience of Westerners or ethnographers; it also mattered that I was not married with children nor seen with a girlfriend. Additionally, my practice of vegetarianism contributed a great deal to this situation in which people often—“jokingly,” of course—assumed I was gay. Men in the neighborhood assumed I was wasting away by not eating meat, thus depleting my internal bodily heat and male sexual energy. This was compounded by the fact that, in their view, I was spending entirely too much time speaking with women. They chided me for not going out drinking with them, but the competitive displays of masculinity involved in male drinking bouts were not appealing to me. Hence, the jokes about my being gay. This was a joking reversal of the negative Vietnamese stereotype, prevalent in the 1990s, of oversexed, hard-drinking, whoring Western men—heavily propagated at the time by the Public Security police, and by television and press representations in an ongoing moral panic stemming from the “opening up” of Vietnam to foreign investment and trade.
The neighborhood where I live is one of borders and boundaries. On the first morning after moving in to the house, I go out on foot to find a place to eat breakfast. I walk alone on bustling Su Van Hanh Street. I am wearing sandals, beige slacks, and a light blue shirt. Sidewalks on both sides of the street are packed with street sellers and their displays of candy, cigarettes, lottery tickets, and soft drinks. The mobile carts of noodle-soup sellers, with circles of customers sitting on tiny blue and red plastic stools, and the folding chairs of sidewalk cafés further block the sidewalks. One cannot walk on the sidewalks in these busy workers’ neighborhoods. I make my way into the street, weaving slowly in and out of pedestrian and motorbike traffic, a few feet from the curb. The background noise is intense: motorbike engines and horns, the piercing grind of rusty brakes, music pulsing from the sidewalk cafés, calls from the food sellers, conversations and jokes fusing from all directions. I sense that I am disturbing things and attracting notice. And yet, from within this heavily layered soundscape, accompanying the noise, I also feel gazes on me, as if the street traffic opens up slowly in front of me as I pass, and, almost imperceptibly, a brief moment of surprised silence echoes, soon overcome and filled with words again. And I hear this strange word, following me, spoken in surprise by many mouths, “Lien Xo, Lien Xo!” In Vietnamese, Lien Xo means Soviet. That morning remains in my memory as the encounter in which I became Soviet.
In areas of the city where people are more used to the presence of Westerners, I often experience this strange aural phenomenon: a slow unfolding of the same repeated word in my wake, “Tay! Tay! Tay!” (Westerner) spoken by many different voices, accompanied sometimes by a nod in my direction or by a pointed finger. Children are nudged, and another wave of sounds rises up, completely strange to Vietnamese, “Hello, hello, hello!” The children laugh, unsure exactly of where their expectant greetings will lead—to silence, mostly, as I smile and walk on. This experience of the call and my inability to answer it became unnerving over time, but there was something exhilarating in having become Lien Xo. The interpretive possibilities that this opened up were almost limitless and intensely phantasmagoric. Why Soviet? Did I look and dress like a Soviet? (I certainly did not look like the tourists, who favor shorts and tee-shirts, sunglasses and small backpacks.) Had Russian engineers lived in this neighborhood? Had they built it? (The large, rectangular, communal apartment buildings in the neighborhood indeed had a Soviet feel to them.) Enchanted and slightly dizzied by the interpretive possibilities, I sit down at a café and order a bowl of beef noodle soup (pho) and a strong iced black coffee (den da). This is my first morning in the neighborhood.
Over time, as I spend more and more time with my neighbors and accompany them on their annual religious pilgrimages to Chau Doc and the Mekong Delta, my associations with Buddhism become stronger. Vegetarianism comes to occupy an important place in my experiences in the city. One peculiarity of my neighbors is their diet. Many Buddhist Vietnamese eat vegetarian (an chay) one or two days a month, on the first and the fifteenth of the ritual lunar calendar. This mild dietary form of religious penance—abstaining on those ritual days from eating meat and killing animals—marks their religious affiliation with Buddhism. My neighbors, however, are completely vegetarian and never eat meat, fish, eggs, or dairy products. This is no doubt linked to what Bac had referred to as her addiction to reading the Buddhist sutras. Her and her daughters’ devotion is indeed profound. Unlike most people in the city, they attend evening prayers at the Buddhist temple daily. Every day at dusk, they don the light blue-grey robes of the lay practitioner and walk over to the nearby temple. Every morning, I am awoken around five by the rhythmic beating of the prayer stick on a wooden shell, punctuated at intervals by the deep, loud sound of the brass prayer bell. Bac is already up, praying in the Buddhist altar room on the top floor of the house.
This is only the beginning of an early morning routine. Before seven, after having cooked breakfast for her daughters who then leave for work in the center of the city, she walks to the nearby wet market to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh tofu and soy milk. She comes back and begins cooking around ten. Lunch is eaten at eleven thirty, followed by a nap.
I love her food. It’s always crisp, clear, and clean. The dishes are extremely simple, but vary almost endlessly. In the kitchen, she waves her large knives and chopper as she cooks and jokes. I am not supposed to be there, in the kitchen with her. She and her daughters chastise me when I tell them that I’d like to learn some of these incredible dishes, the stark simplicity of which is appealing to me. They wave off my request, “This is women’s work!” End of conversation, at least in this household.
Perhaps the fact that my name—a common Buddhist name, popular for women, as well as the name of a gay pop singer—evoked images of effeminacy makes more sense when combined with popular imaginings of where strength and virility come from and manifest themselves, and how diet influences them.
In the popular Vietnamese imaginary, eating a vegetarian diet raises concerns of weakness and effeminacy, in part due to male concerns and anxieties about masculinity. Vegetarianism is associated with weakness, with deprivation. Since food and diet are still imagined in terms of humoral influences and the balance of “hot” and “cold” elements, the lack of meat is symbolically associated with femininity, coldness, and darkness—yin and yang being always already over-coded, and the feminine principle largely negative or threatening. Buddhist priests take vows of celibacy and eat vegetarian. Combined with the fact that nine-tenths of regular Buddhist practitioners are female, this leads by association to the widespread belief that vegetarianism saps strength and virility, and is thus a female realm and practice, from which men should abstain. In addition to daily prayer services, Buddhist monks are ritual specialists called upon for funerary rites and mourning practices. This furthers the association of vegetarianism with death and lack. But this is the negative and stereotypical view of those who observe cynically and from outside the practice of eating vegetarian.
Eating vegetarian in Vietnam creates another map of the city. While eating out in Hanoi or Saigon is easy and routine, and involves almost endless choices of dishes, eating vegetarian is restrictive: The restaurant choices are fewer, the range of dishes narrower. My friend Lam, who knows all the good restaurants in Hanoi, struggles to find good vegetarian restaurants. She has to think about it. She limits her choices to two places in the city, places to which she returns.
These vegetarian restaurants are different from other Vietnamese eating places. The food and the atmosphere point to a realm away from that of the food, outside of itself. In the Bamboo Grove restaurant, the atmosphere is quiet, the walls lined with beige linen, the lights soft. The small speakers hanging from the ceiling pipe in meditative Buddhist, devotional music at low volume. One notices something odd about the menu: It addresses a nonexistent English-speaking clientele. The exercise is touching more than comical: Nonsensical literal translations point to the imaginary landscape where religion meets ideas about health-crazed foreign tourists, coalescing into a wish for a larger clientele.
In the Lotus vegetarian restaurant in Saigon, on the other hand, there are many Western diners. It is located one block from the infamous “Western quarter”—the backpacker district—and it was written up in the Lonely Planet tourist guide for Vietnam. These Western tourists are comical and a great source of amusement for Vietnamese who have never seen the inept chopstick technique of Westerners, and their strange eating habits. On a Vietnamese table, dishes are arranged in the center of the table and each diner picks up food from the many dishes and deposits it in a small, individual, rice bowl, before picking it up with rice and eating it. The food that sits in the center of the table is shared. Everyone picks up morsels from every dish. Everyone brings it first to the rice bowl and then to his or her mouth—the symmetry is what is essential here, the notion that the meal is shared food and that the meal symbolizes the connection between those sitting together at the table.
By contrast, the sweaty, puffing tourists occupy a lot of room on the small chairs and at the table. They hover uncomfortably in the room, placing the dish they ordered for themselves in front of them, where a plate would go in a Western table. They miss the point that these are dishes to be shared, not individual plates of food. They place the rice bowl further out in front of them, and, reversing the order, dump rice in dishes of vegetables and tofu, diluting the clumps of rice to individual grains which are impossible to grasp with chopsticks; this compounds the trouble they will have eating it. The reason why rice is packed in a small bowl is that it can then easily be picked up with chopsticks. What is striking, watching these Westerners, is that they seem never to have looked around themselves and noticed how one eats in Vietnam; granted, the scene may be overwhelming already, with the ambient noise, the loud clatter of traffic outside, and the high decibel conversations around them in Vietnamese. The Westerners’ difficulties cause great amusement for some Vietnamese, but also curiosity. How is it possible that these people don’t know how to eat? There is a ready answer: Well, they’re Western. This doesn’t answer much, but it answers enough.
These vegetarian restaurants are strange to Lam. She says that the food there is not as good as that served in Buddhist pagodas during religious festivals. The menus in these commercial enterprises are based on “normal” dishes: one can order vegetarian “chicken” and “barbecue pork,” or “sour (fish) soup” and so forth, all prepared with tofu and gluten to mimic the look if not taste of “real” dishes. In Vietnamese, there is no phrase referring to eating “normal” food—one simply eats. The word “eating” here is unmarked, and means eating a diet that includes meat. But the language marks vegetarianism and codes it as different and potentially strange: one “eats vegetarian” (an chay). In Vietnamese colloquial speech and jokes, there is always a suggestion of lack, of something missing, of weakness, when discussing vegetarianism. This is balanced by the fact that the decision to eat vegetarian is a form of Buddhist penance and of mourning. But the penance is affirmative, not negative or inscribed in the flesh as deprivation. It is affirmative because it refrains in order to facilitate, not to mortify or punish. The idea is to refrain from killing, or as it is understood generally, to abstain from contact with death and dead matter in order to enable the safe passage of the deceased to the other world and the realm of spirits.
My mind drifts: Ten years ago, during my first period of field research in Vietnam, I lived with a Buddhist family, ate vegetarian, and had to endure jokes about “eating vegetarian” and therefore being weak, effeminate, perhaps gay. Now, I am spending the seventh lunar month eating vegetarian. The seventh month is the time in the lunar religious calendar when the souls of the dead reappear and communicate with the living. The seventh lunar month is the time when those souls imprisoned in hell are temporarily released and can be attended to by their families, and “fed” by means of prayer, incense burning, and vegetarian ritual feasts.
Lam lost her mother in late winter. It is now mid-summer in Hanoi, and hotter and drier than usual. The dust whirls in the avenues at dusk; the acrid smell of smoke hangs over the small streets of the Old Quarter. Lam wants to eat vegetarian daily to pay her respects to her mother. It is a complicated process. It starts with ritual. She explains that she began to eat vegetarian (an chay) when her mother died and during the ensuing Buddhist mourning rituals. This was not really a conscious decision on her part: “It came naturally. I was surprised that after a few days I kept eating vegetarian, and I continued for the full forty-nine days of the mourning ritual. It felt very healthy, and I lost weight.”
I ate vegetarian for forty-nine days after my mother’s death. The first forty-nine days are the most important period for the new life of the person who has passed away. They begin another life in the other world. You could say that I began to eat vegetarian when I thought that this would be good for my mother’s soul. How? First, because I missed my mother terribly and secondly, because I wanted to help her soul. According to Buddhism, in the first forty-nine days the spirit of the deceased will be inspected by the Court of Hell. If the family of the deceased behaves right during these first forty-nine days—for instance, by not eating meat and fish, not lying, not arguing, not killing sentient beings—this will help the soul of the deceased pass the tough inspection of the Court of Hell. This is the doctrine of Buddhism. I think this doctrine is very humane, because besides helping the soul of the deceased to atone for their bad deeds (since according to Buddhism everyone has done bad deeds), it also helps those who eat vegetarian to feel healthier and lighter.
Eating vegetarian here is associated with Buddhism, with the precepts and practice of monks at Buddhist temples. After her mother’s death, Lam seeks refuge and solace in temples. Racked by the guilt of the living, she seeks her mother. The presence of monks comforts her; they explain death to her; they translate it into the language and conceptual frame of Buddhism. She knew Buddhism, as everyone more or less does in Vietnam, in a distant manner: In the wake of death, it now becomes a way of making sense of what evades sense. Eating vegetarian is another form of devotion, and it affirms life, by placing itself on the side of living things, of peaceful life, of devotion and mindfulness. I am almost surprised when Lam notes that it felt healthy to eat vegetarian and that she lost weight; in the context of discussing her mother’s death, it sounds almost inappropriate. But this can be analyzed differently, as a reaffirmation of life through the idiom of “health.” For her, weight loss is an affirmation of life: It does not stem from mourning and grief but from a healthy diet. Eating vegetarian brushes off bereavement, tentatively perhaps. But placed in the context of rituals and the search for meaning amidst mourning and memories of her deceased mother, it begins to reaffirm the principle of life.
In summer 2009, Lam wants to eat vegetarian food daily because the seventh month of the lunar calendar is the period of the Vu Lan Buddhist festival, when souls of the deceased return to earth momentarily to “visit” their relatives. This is an intensely devotional period for those who have recently lost a family member, especially for those who have lost their mother, the one who nourishes. It is important at this time for Lam to follow a vegetarian diet. This is another expression of her devotion. The point of devotion here is not religious obedience, but karmic transmission of meritorious deeds: If she follows the precepts of Buddhism carefully, she will have an opportunity to help her mother in the afterlife. I accompany her to Buddhist temples, and she prays fervently. She purchases incense and spirit money, which she burns in the receptacles installed for this purpose in temple yards. When she finishes praying, she slips money in each of the large red donation boxes placed in front of the altars. She has explained to the divinities that her mother died. She names her mother, her date and place of birth, the time and place of her death, and who she, the daughter, is. The point is for this biographical information, based on precise naming and explanation of circumstances of birth and death (and hence, rebirth), to be passed on and communicated to the large protective circle of Buddhist divinities and benevolent spirits.
For Lam, who now lives in Saigon, this time spent eating vegetarian in Hanoi during the seventh lunar month is also a form of homecoming. As she crosses the city to visit Buddhist temples and eat in vegetarian restaurants, memories of her mother resurface—memories of her childhood and the life of the family in Hanoi during the difficult post-war years. Moving through the city creates memories, or brings memories back to the surface. At meals, she doesn’t talk about her mother, or Buddhism per se, but the atmosphere is suffused with the loss and with thoughts of mourning, echoed by the soft Buddhist devotional music streaming from the speakers.
She adds that until her mother’s death she had never eaten vegetarian, even on the two ritual days of the lunar month when many Buddhists abstain from eating meat. Nor had she attended Buddhist ceremonies at temples. “Life then was a shade of pink,” she says, suggesting that everything was rosy until her mother died. Clearly a bit of an overstatement, but within the context of mourning after the recent death of her mother, this also places vegetarianism in a new light. She describes the critical first forty-nine days of mourning, during which, according to both Buddhist doctrine and popular belief, past deeds of the deceased are evaluated and when the future of the soul of the deceased is being negotiated in the other world according to the laws of karma. Eating vegetarian at that moment begins a new cycle, and life itself—no longer rosy and now marked irremediably by the presence of death—begins to shift. Small actions begin to be thought in terms of their potential consequences, and meritorious deeds have a new urgency. New connections between events and their aftermath arise in the alien spaces that emerge in the wake of the silence and disappearance of the dead. Conversations begin to take place between the living and the deceased. In silence, by choosing to eat foods untainted by killing and blood, one communicates a wish for atonement to the dead in order to facilitate their passage to the next world.
After death, and with the help of Buddhist clergy and ritual specialists, the deceased find new abodes in several locations: in the tomb containing the corpse or in the urn holding the ashes of the cremated (which is kept in a ritual room in a Buddhist pagoda), and on an altar that now constitutes the focal point of the house. A photograph of the face of the deceased is now placed on the altar, to which Lam, like any dutiful daughter, prays daily. She lights an incense stick, joins her hands, and prays to the spirit of her mother. In the days leading to the lunar New Year, a time of intense ritual activity for each of the various worship practices in Vietnam—Buddhist, tutelary spirit, and ancestor worship—Lam places an additional bowl on the table. She fills it with rice and vegetables, and places chopsticks across it, ready to be picked up. This is the bowl that will feed the spirit of her mother. Then, toward the end of the meal, and after the offering has been “eaten” by the deceased, she shares the food in the bowl with those sitting at the table, who eat it. Food is shared, including with the dead. The same process takes place with the offerings of fruits, cookies, tea, alcohol, etcetera, placed on the altar of the deceased. Eventually, these offerings are removed from the altar and consumed by family members. Sharing food and drink between the living and the now deceased parent continues. It is a form of mourning in which separation from the dead is deferred. The dead occupy a place, both symbolic and real, in the house, and this place is given substance in terms of food. The symbolization of the connection between parents and children—and now between ancestor and descendants—is made real through the presence of food, including food that is offered to the dead and later consumed by the living. The pleasant fragrance of incense is another way to symbolize this connection: the rising incense smoke “feeds” the soul of the deceased, and is accompanied by prayer and evocation of the name, birthplace, death-place, and age at death of the deceased, as well as requests for their well-being.
Eating vegetarian in Vietnam focuses the mind. The Buddhist practice of full vegetarianism is not widely followed, except by Buddhist clergy. Yet many women who have lost a parent or other dear relative or friend eat vegetarian on the first and the fifteenth of the lunar month, days of ritual practice and visits to Buddhist temples. The appearance of the full moon and the alternating lunar cycles hint at different realities, both cosmic and intimate in scope. Eating vegetarian can give rise to jokes, as when, incongruously, a Western man, single and apparently celibate, is given a Vietnamese Buddhist name and lives for a time in a household of fervent Buddhist vegetarian practitioners. What is disturbing here is that this contradicts the Vietnamese stereotypical understandings of Westerners and of masculinity. Eating vegetarian enabled me to position myself seamlessly in the world of Vietnamese Buddhist ritual, pilgrimages, and funerary and mourning practices—an eminently female domain. Female lay Buddhist practitioners organize most of the logistics and day-to-day activities in temples, and during family rituals and pilgrimages, including the large vegetarian banquets associated with religious and mourning festivals. The so-called “female world” to which I was granted access, because I was curious about Buddhism, easily translated into stories and memory work. Women eagerly shared their experiences of the war and post-war years, and the current “open door” period and reemergence of a consumer society in Saigon. Eating vegetarian was an entry point into these realities: I simply asked questions and ever so gently crossed gender and cultural boundaries. Women were usually happy to answer, especially since so few men asked these questions or cared about how food arrived in their bowl.
In mourning practices, however, as in the case of Lam, eating vegetarian allows for the continued presence of the deceased, the deferred recognition of their absence and of the moment of full separation. Such full separation, “letting go,” is completely alien to Vietnamese (and Buddhist) ritual practices and conceptualizations of death. Since the living must, somehow, live on in the wake of the departure of the deceased, they can have recourse to a form of eating that includes the deceased; here the relationship to the dead person is re-inscribed into wider trajectories and a broader cosmic order. Eating vegetarian can also become a work of memory, and many women, including Lam, become momentarily vegetarian—for the first forty-nine days of the mourning period, during the seventh lunar month or on two days of the monthly ritual calendar. Some, as a form of remembrance, become vegetarian for good, as a way of continuing to “feed” the soul of the departed by refraining from eating meat, thus continuing to transfer karmic merit from the world of the living to that of the dead. And, as Lam concludes, one feels “healthier and lighter”—a pragmatic way of translating into bodily terms the peaceful feeling that she seeks, to make sense of a mourning that has darkened her world and, through intense grief, temporarily rendered it uninhabitable.
I want to thank Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi for long conversations on the politics and symbolism of vegetarianism and nonviolence, and for sharing key references with me on these topics. I thank Nguyen T.T.V. for her thoughtful discussions of vegetarianism and Buddhist rituals in Vietnam.