WHAT ARE VIETNAM ’ S INDIGENOUS RELIGIONS? .
On July 20, 2007, California Caodaists consecrated a new cathedral in Garden Grove, California, a 4,000 foot replica of the “ Vatican ” of Caodaism in Tay Ninh province, Vietnam, but one-third its size. More than 2,000 people attended the ceremony to “ lift up the image of the Left Eye of God ” and install it on top of a three-tiered pantheon depicting Buddha, Confucius, and Lao Tzu presiding over five levels of spiritual attainment, including the female Boddhisatva Guanyin at the second level, and Jesus Christ on the third level. This cathedral, planned for over ten years, now serves as a landmark for the colorful, eclectic, and ornate architecture of Vietnam ’ s largest indigenous religion: its gothic towers evoke the austerity of medieval Catholicism, but the bright yellows, reds, and turquoise reflect the shiny palette of Asian religious icons. Pastel dragons coil around pillars covered with lotus flowers, demonic figures associated with good and evil guard the entranceway, and a huge mural depicting the Chinese nationalist Sun Yat-Sen, the Vietnamese poet and prophet Trang Trinh, and the French writer Victor Hugo greet visitors as they enter a space that resonates with the sounds of drums, gongs, and finger cymbals, and that is perfumed by flowers and incense. When the building permit was finally issued, Nguoi Viet (The Vietnamese language newspaper with the largest circulation in the United 185186 Janet Hoskins States) reported that “ when this construction is finished, it will bring to California for the first time a distinctive architecture and pattern of thought found all over southern Vietnam. ” 1 The successful construction of this cathedral, which adhered to a “ divine blueprint ” communicated to religious leaders from 1926-1934 in the French colonial city of Saigon, marks a new stage in the public recognition of the indigenous religions of Vietnam. This chapter explores how indigenous religions have brought aspects of Vietnamese culture and folklore to the United States; how they are part of an historical pattern; which practices are shared across religious lines for all Vietnamese; and what the future prospects are for these communities.
WHAT ARE VIETNAM ’ S INDIGENOUS RELIGIONS?
Most Americans perceive Vietnam as a primarily Buddhist country (current government statistics estimate that there are ten million Buddhists out of seventy-eight million people) with a sizeable Catholic minority (six million). But indigenous religions, a term used to refer to three specific groups, have long been significant, especially in the south. Caodaism, founded in Saigon in 1926, officially has 3.2 million followers and 1,300 temples, Hoa Hao Buddhism, founded in southwestern Vietnam in 1939, has 1.5 million followers, 2 but leaders of these faiths estimate their real numbers at closer to six million and three million people, respectively. Dao Mau (Mother Goddess religion) is considered a “ distinct subculture with cultural nuances varying locally, ” so there is no official documentation of its followers, 3 but recent ethnographic reports indicate it is expanding in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and it builds on traditional veneration of female divinities and heroes going back many centuries. 4 Statistics about the religious adherence of Vietnamese Americans indicate that about 40 percent identify themselves as Buddhist or Confucian, and 30 percent as Christian or Catholic. 5 Little is said about the others, who are perhaps presumed to be secular. Although a number of scholars mention Caodaism and Hoa Hao in passing, 6 the only academically detailed and published accounts of American Caodaists are my own. 7 Hoa Hao Buddhists have been studied in Vietnam by Philip Taylor and Pascal Bourdeaux, who also make reference to American congregations and their Internet connections to the homeland. 8 Karin Fjelstad and Nguyen Thi Hien have studied spirit mediums affiliated with the Mother Goddess Religion (Dao Mau), and have coedited a volume and published a co-written ethnography analyzing the transnational connections between spirit medium communities in Vietnam and California. 9 There is obviously much room for more research, a need for an accurate counting of temples, adherents and congregations, and for an ethnographic exploraFolklore as a Sacred Heritage 187 tion of the transnational dynamics of indigenous Vietnamese religions migrating to the United States. Caodaism is a syncretistic religion that seeks to bring the gods of Europe and the gods of Asia together in a conversation that can serve to heal the wounds of colonialism and establish a basis for mutual respect and dialogue. Officially called Dai Dao Tam Ky Pho Do , “ The Great Way of the Third Age of Redemption, ” Caodaism combines millenarian teachings with an Asian fusion of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, and Roman Catholicism, an Asia-centric New Age movement that developed in the context of anti-colonial resistance. Established in 1926, its earliest members belonged to the urban educated elite of Saigon. In just a few years, Caodaism grew dramatically to become the largest mass movement in the French colony of Cochinchina, with 20-25 percent of the people of South Vietnam converting to this new faith in the period from 1930-1975. 10 Best known in the United States through Graham Greene ’ s description in his popular 1954 novel The Quiet American , 11 Caodaism in Vietnam was the topic of two dissertations in the 1970s, 12 but has not been studied for over thirty years, and there have been no studies of its American congregations. Hoa Hao is a reformist, millenarian form of Buddhism that was established in 1937; it is now the fourth largest religion in Vietnam after Buddhism, Catholicism, and Caodaism. It has established several temples in California and, like Caodaism, has also developed a series of websites and publishes histories and commentaries in Vietnamese within the United States. Founded by a young prophet who preached simplicity and egalitarianism, this new religion is, like Islam, opposed to the use of religious icons, and renounces the use of ancestral tablets and images of the Buddha on its altars. 13 It developed in western Vietnam, perhaps influenced by minority communities of Cham Muslims and Khmer Theravada Buddhists. The Mother Goddess Religion of Dao Mau has recently had a resurgence in Vietnam, especially in Hanoi, where a number of recent anthropological studies have been done, 14 but it is generally described as a traditional custom or indigenous practice and so it is difficult to estimate the exact number of followers at the present. The indigenous religions of Vietnam incorporate many occult aspects unfamiliar to mainstream Americans (spirit mediums, spirit possession, divination, talismanic blessings, etc.). Some ceremonies involve elaborate costumes, pageantry, and music for the Caodai liturgical mass or Mother Goddess performances, while others, such as Hoa Hao chanting of prayers, are conducted without instrumental accompaniments or devotional decorations, aside from the ubiquitous fruit, flowers, and incense. Scriptures are received by spirit messages spoken, sung, or traced by the beak of a phoenix-headed basket.
THE ERASURE OF INDIGENOUS RELIGION IN U.S. IMMIGRATION STATISTICS Indigenous religions have been left out of almost all previous studies of Vietnamese immigrants, in part, because the researchers who first surveyed religious preferences of refugees at entry points like Camp Pendleton only provided immigrants with six options for religious affiliation: Christian Protestant, Christian Catholic, Buddhist, Confucian, Hindu, or Muslim, which did not acknowledge the existence of indigenous religious practices, although they were practiced by 15-25 percent of the population of South Vietnam in 1975. It seems likely that followers of these indigenous religions were counted as either Buddhists or Confucians when they were processed for U.S. entry. It is also possible that some of their members were miscounted as Catholics, said to have made up “ about half ” of the first wave of refugees in several studies, although Catholics represent about 30 percent of the present Vietnamese American community. 15 A substantial dimension of Vietnam ’ s religious diversity has not entered into the statistical data or efforts to quantify them. Largely missing from accounts of early refugee processing were the pressures placed on non-Christian refugee families to convert to and follow the faith of those Christian churches who sponsored them in the first few years that they lived in the United States. Most of the first wave of refugees were sponsored by faith-based organizations, either the Catholic Relief Fund (which resettled nearly 50 percent of all refugees, and explicitly favored those who identified themselves as Catholic), or a variety of Protestant organizations (notably the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and the Church World Service). Family histories revealed numerous cases in which refugees temporarily housed in camps chose to convert, or at least self-identify as Christian in order to secure faster sponsorship and immigration to the United States.These conversions usually lasted as long as the family was being sponsored. After they had immigrated, they reverted back to their indigenous religions or to Buddhism. The novel-memoir Catfish and Mandala by Andrew Pham 16 contains an account of his own family ’ s conversion in Louisiana, followed by reversion when the family united with family in San Jose, California. Committed Caodaists who did not convert to Christianity were told in several instances that “ all the other refugee families are now Seventh Day Adventists, ” or Baptists, etc. There was a clear perception that baptism of the whole family was expected as a gesture of gratitude, and some Caodaists in fact rationalized these baptism ceremonies with the argument that since Jesus was a part of the Caodai pantheon, “ giving themselves to Jesus ” did not contradict a commitment to Caodai doctrine. The faith-based organizations that sponsored many Vietnamese refugees have not publicly acknowledged that they pressured refugees toFolklore as a Sacred Heritage 189 convert, or that they favored Christian refugee families for resettlement and sponsorship, but this was often perceived to be the case by refugee families. The resurgence of indigenous religious in new ethnic enclaves is therefore an especially significant development, as it contradicts early predictions in the immigration literature that conversion to Christianity was simply an aspect of assimilation, and that it was, therefore, also irreversible. This resurgence could also be related to the phenomenon of Vietnamese ethnic resilience as refugees assumed many of the characteristics of a diaspora. DIASPORA VS. ETHNIC GROUP Immigration scholars have recognized for some time that for post– 1965 Asian immigrants and refugees, religious congregations are the most important community building institutions: they offer resettlement assistance, counseling services, a sense of community, and language courses in English for new immigrants and in Asian languages for the second generation, as well as a cultural context that is familiar, reassuring, and sustaining in the light of the major disruptions created by forced dislocations and differences in language and customs. But recent ethnographic studies have argued that traditional Southeast Asian religions may have failed to translate well in California, as is suggested in the title Buddha is Hiding of Ong ’ s 2003 work 17 about Cambodian refugees. Seemingly, more international and inter-ethnic versions of immigrant Asian religions have had somewhat more success, especially those that have developed dynamic, sophisticated websites, used both for online proselytizing and for archiving sacred texts, commentaries, and religious history. Some immigration theorists have argued that moving to a new country is itself a “ theologizing ” experience: it forces a radical shift in world view that causes a questioning of earlier religious beliefs while intensifying the need to find solace and continuity in a new and very different context. 18 The theological crisis might be particularly acute for refugees who fled persecution in their home countries versus moving in the hopes of finding better economic opportunities. Forced to leave a land that they remain deeply attached to, many refugees experienced not only the trauma of dislocation, but also separation from family members (often imprisoned in re-education camps) and life-threatening journeys by boat in order to escape. Some refugee populations, especially those with the lowest levels of literacy (Hmong, Cambodians, and Laotians) are identified as “ vulnerable ” by evangelists, and particularly targeted for conversion by Mormons and Christian fundamentalists. The Vietnamese have been perceived by most scholars as being more resistant, since Vietnamese of all faiths have used churches and temples as sites for maintaining their cultural heritage, language skills, and ties to their homeland. The level of190 Janet Hoskins education at the time of emigration is important, since immigrant groups who are able to educate the new generation through books, websites, and multimedia are better able to establish transnational linkages than those who arrive without those skills. The concept of ethnic resilience when used in sociological studies of Vietnamese Americans usually refers to parameters of socio-economic “ success. ” For example, within ten years of their arrival, most first wave Vietnamese refugees were earning above the national median income. 19 Clustering in ethnic enclaves also made it possible to maintain relatively high levels of bilingualism and even literacy in Vietnamese, 20 which has enabled long distance nationalism 21 and identify to persist — leading to one of the most developed diasporic communities in the United States. A diaspora, in scholarly terms, is distinct from an ethnic group, because it is grounded in a particular understanding of its social mission as tied to a place of origin. The narrow definition provided by Amesfoot in a discussion of Moluccan refugees in the Netherlands is useful to recall: “ A diaspora is a settled community that considers itself to be ‘ from elsewhere ’ and whose concern and most important goal is the realization of a political ideal in what is seen as the homeland. ” 22 The term originated in discussions of Zionism and, as Aihwa Ong has observed, it applies to some other cases in the United States, perhaps especially Cuban refugees, 23 but should not be applied indiscriminately to all overseas communities: “ The popular view of diaspora as ethnicity has elided the fact that diaspora is really a political formation seeking its own nation. ” 24 The resurgence of Vietnamese indigenous religions has taken place in the context of ethnic enclaves and diasporic politics, but the leaders of these religions stress that their teachings emphasize peace, nonviolence (both Caodaists and Hoa Hao practice graduated forms of vegetarianism), and reconciliation. Perhaps the greatest challenge to these congregations today is how they will reconcile a global faith with the continuing political divisions between their followers in Vietnam and those in overseas communities. I have argued that some Caodai leaders favor a “ global religion of unity, ” modeled on Tibetan Buddhism, which welcomes non-Vietnamese converts and seeks to translate religious scriptures into English, while others emphasize the diasporic ideal of “ long distance nationalism, ” in which followers see themselves as primarily Vietnamese, and elevate their cultural tradition to the level of a religious ideal. 25 Followers of Dao Mau are less explicitly politicized, and do not seek to proselytize to non-Vietnamese, since they see their faith as based primarily on a ritual duty to consult the ancestors of their community. The Hoa Hao Buddhist share aspects of “ long distance nationalism, ” focused especially on their homeland in the western Mekong Delta, but they remain the indigenous religion that is most stringently suppressed and constrained by the communist government.Folklore as a Sacred Heritage 191 Caodaists expressed a desire to follow the pathway of Tibetan Buddhists, whose global proselytizing has been linked to a political struggle for greater freedom within their homeland, now in China. This activism highlights another dimension of ethnic resilience in a pluralistic society: connections forged among immigrant communities in California build a grassroots cosmopolitanism that is premised on everyday crossings of minority-minority cultural borders, and specific sets of local-global relationships. (A similar idea has been developed in the notion of the “ transcolony ” in post– colonial studies, and arguably all the Southeast Asian homelands whose people immigrated to the United States did so as a result of US military intervention and a somewhat neo-colonial relationship.) Buddhist and Caodaist groups from Vietnam, for instance, are exposed to Theravada Buddhism from Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, as well as Taiwan-style Mahayana Buddhism at places like Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, Los Angeles County (the largest Buddhist temple outside Asia). An ethnography of religious innovations in California needs to consider individuals who see themselves as exiles, temporary residents of a diasporic community, and others who accept being labeled an American ethnic group. Many religious leaders consider their teachings universal, and that the true community of belief is a nonterritorial one, but they have widely varying positions on whether it makes sense to proselytize to non-Vietnamese. The ethnic and cultural diversity of the increasingly brown population of southern California, with its historically high rates of what has been called miscegenation (i.e., interracial marriage and childbearing) and religiously mixed marriages, has the potential to create a new cross-ethnic and cross-racial flexibility of religious identifications. The ordination in May 2005 of Linda Blackeny-Hofstetter, an African American woman, as the first non-Vietnamese priest of Caodaism, highlights this potential. After three decades of practicing Taoist meditation and vegetarianism, Blackeny-Hofstetter discovered Caodaism while working in Vietnam as a nurse in an AIDs treatment program, and decided that it was the faith she was seeking since it merged Christian and Asian philosophies in an appealing third world synthesis. She now heads a small chapel in Harlem, New York, which offers solace to all those who have suffered deeply, fusing a new congregation across historically significant racial and ethnic boundaries.
HISTORICAL PATTERNS AND INNOVATION: NEW DEVELOPMENTS IN CALIFORNIA The idea that the temple defines a community is a familiar one, like a Vietnamese or Taiwanese village, a familiar place where older people can find solace and speak in their own language. In adapting to the American192 Janet Hoskins lifestyle, most Caodaists, who were used to a Vietnamese calendar of attending services on the first and 15th of each lunar month, found themselves attending services weekly on Sundays to conform to the American work week. Since the temple became a networking center, its range of social activities expanded to fit a niche defined by other faith-based organizations in California. Church-going has come to be seen as a component of responsible citizenship in many areas, and Caodaists have come to identify their scriptures as Bibles rather than sutras (a term often used to refer to religious teachings in French translations from the colonial period). Caodaism in Vietnam has a hierarchical organization similar to that of Catholicism. It has a Pope, Cardinals, Archbishops, and a dozen different denominations, but in the United States, early Caodaist congregations were more eclectic and egalitarian than their Vietnamese counterparts. In the 1920s, Caodaists consecrated women as Cardinals, proclaiming equality of the sexes before God, but the most prominent leaders were male. Two women founded the first California temple in San Jose, California, wearing brightly colored ceremonial robes that are usually reserved for men in their homeland. Bold religious innovations continued for several decades, when several volumes of spirit messages directed them to develop a new set of doctrines for the New World. After 1995, when it became possible to travel to Vietnam again, many people returned to go on religious pilgrimages to sacred sites. After a quarter century of separation, there were a number of tensions between American-educated religious followers and those in the homeland. Some American congregations returned to the Vietnamese model, while others moved closer to the individualistic mysticism of Western practitioners of Zen or Tibetan Buddhism. The extent of liturgical innovation in the United States is hard to measure exactly, but it has included the development of a somewhat independent group of spirit mediums and a more egalitarian organizational structure. A similar process can be observed for Dao Mau goddess veneration, since women have emerged as stronger leaders in the diaspora than they have in contemporary Vietnam. Because Vietnam was closed off by the U.S. trade embargo and by political tensions for almost two decades, the flow of money, material goods, and publications from the homeland to the United States was a period of isolation and because of that, a time of religious innovation when compared to other Asian immigrant religions. When the embargo was dropped, and reforms opened up new pathways for travel, investment, and religious expression, two former enemies became linked in a transnational network that connected religious units at many levels, and was characterized by important flows of diasporic money to rebuild temples in the homeland.Folklore as a Sacred Heritage 193
POPULAR RELIGIOUS PRACTICES AND THEIR EFFICACY
Caodaism is a highly institutionalized, hierarchical organization that emphasizes discipline, and respect for senior dignitaries as well as following the many written scriptures that have been compiled, edited, and published for the benefit of its followers. Hoa Hao Buddhism is more egalitarian and is a lay Buddhist movement without its own clergy, no large impressive pagodas, but a strong emphasis on social service, charity work, and meeting for chanting and praying. It has its own scriptures from the Prophet Huynh Phu So, and these are distributed at each one of its temples, but there have not been recent teachings since his disappearance in 1946. In the Dao Mau tradition, participants explained their commitment to the practice on the grounds that it worked, that it was efficacious, and that it brought blessings that would help families in times of hardship. The ideals of inner virtue and loyalty were often stressed, although there is also the notion that being part of this practice can result in personal benefits, such as improved health, wealth, and social prestige. Mainly, however, women followers have stressed that Dao Mau spirits came from Vietnamese history, and thus represent the indigenous foundations of Vietnamese culture as a mixture of warlike mandarins, spoiled princes and elegant princesses, ethnic minorities, and finally, impetuous and comical caricatures of the youthful princes. The focus on ceremonies seems to draw on the diverse cultural sources of Vietnamese identity, and uses these as resources for success in the New World. As an embodied practice, it is idiosyncratic and individualized, wherein each dance is a way of interpreting key aspects of a spirit and communicating those to the audience. At its foundation, Caodaism is a religion of words, even if the words are accompanied by large-scale rituals in elaborate temples with colorful costumes and music. Spirit mediums in Caodaism primarily dictate verses, either by speaking them in the presence of a scribe, or by tracing them out in cursive letters with the phoenix basket. The importance of written doctrine is much more salient in Caodai publications. Words to the chau van songs, which are fairly standardized in Vietnam, function as a kind of scripture since they define the sacred attributes of each spirit and are a required part of each performance. Spirit seances in Caodaism define a place for Vietnamese people to stand in relation to a cosmopolitan conversation about the relations between the world religions and the specific historical destiny of the Vietnamese today. In contrast, the spirit mediums in Dao Mau seem to be addressing issues in their private lives more often, although they do so by incarnating spirits from the Vietnamese past. Caodai doctrine provides a grand narrative about the process of decolonization and the reasons why Saigon had to fall in 1975 (to permit the globalization of the religion),194 Janet Hoskins while the message of Dao Mau spirit mediums seemed to lie not at a discursive level, but as a form of embodiment, enacting certain body postures and gestures that emphasize ties to a cultural repertoire of concepts and possibilities that can be realized in a new setting. Caodaists explicitly state that their religion is yang ( d ư ơ ng ), although it draws its strength from the world of the spirits who are yin ( â m ). The left eye of God is the sign of a positive, modernist, progressive, and dynamic religion that, in their view, will not be caught in the passive, reclusive, ascetic mode of earlier esoteric traditions. Of course, many people have claimed during the period from 1975 to 1995, it was necessary to “ turn back to esoterism ” in Vietnam because it was not possible to have the same visible role on the world ’ s stage while the government maintained an anti-religious stance. Although there is a productive and essential tension between the two poles in all teachings, Caodaism is often presented as energizing a dynamic synthesis of what had been an overly quiet, contemplative religious tradition. Some researchers have argued that Dao Mau identifies itself as a primarily yin practice — in healing yin ailments ( ben h â m ), in honoring female deities, and in engaging with a practice that celebrates female qualities before the power of male spirits are highlighted. 26 The emphasis on compassion and what are often called Buddhist values stresses this as a path of “ female spirituality ” that seems, however, to also be open to those men who want to call up the female aspects within their own personalities. The Dao Mau ceremonies also emphasize the fact that many healing arts and knowledge about plants and medicines come from ethnic minorities, the “ people who live in the mountains and forests. ” Caodaists do not really pay much attention to ethnic minorities. Although they are in no way excluded from its theology, the only place they are given is at the lowest level of spiritual attainment, the worship of localized spirits and ancestors ( th ầ n ), and there is little that explicitly addresses ethnic diversity. But there is an ethnic dimension to the arguments that Caodaists present that they encompass all world religions, since Nam Bo/Cochinchina is an area where Muslim/Hindu Cham and Theravada Buddhist Khmer were once strong. Lots of religious imagery is explicitly either Hindu (Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu sit on top of the roof of the Caodai temple) or Theravada Buddhist (the head spirit medium sits on a throne in front of a seven headed Naga serpent, copied from Khmer images of the giant cobra that sheltered Buddha when he meditated during a storm). The snake is both a symbol of natural powers and the fertility of the land, and also a symbol of earlier peoples who lived in Southern Vietnam and who, in the past two centuries, been largely displaced by the Vietnamese. Caodaists argue that their faith is the culmination of all the religious diversity that exists in Vietnam, and they see it as synthesizing the essence of each tradition. While they include the worship of ancestors, localFolklore as a Sacred Heritage 195 spirits, and national heroes like Tran Hung Dao, they do not assume the same importance as literary figures such as the Chinese poet Ly Thai Bach, or the red-faced general Quan Cong from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms . There is a liveliness in Dao Mau performances and an emotional intensity that appears to be personally meaningful to their participants. Caodai mystics say that the energy they receive from spirit communications is very intense, and it is sought after as much as the message or teaching itself, but it is a private experience. The political problems that these three indigenous religions face in the present period of normalization in Vietnam are quite distinct and have an impact on the relationships between diasporic congregations and their homeland. Spirit possession rituals can be seen as efforts to embody and magically access the powers of ethnic predecessors in rites that “ both transgress and reconstitute ethnic, gender and ritual boundaries. ” 27 As contemporary ancestors, they incarnate a hybrid mix of Confucian-Marxist-Daoist approaches that attempt to ritually embody their imagined authentic otherness in festivals that enlist ethnic minorities in the ritual regeneration of the national community, both in Vietnam and overseas. Thus, state policy has changed in a dialogue with popular religious conceptions of minorities, wherein they are now part of a recent shift to find new, spiritualized foundations for national legitimacy. Because the majority of Vietnamese Americans came to the United States as refugees, attitudes toward their homeland have long been characterized by a certain ambivalence: intense feelings of cultural nationalism and pride in their heritage, combined with distrust of the present Communist government, which, since 1995, has been increasingly open to foreign investment, but not to foreign ideas. One result of this is the use of religious icons and religious congregations to develop an alternative nationalism, etched out in a diasporic space, in which the sacredness of faiths born in Vietnam is presented as transcending the geography of the current state. This phenomenon is realized differently within the different groups that we have studied: for Caodaists, diaspora has been a part of religious doctrine since the birth of their faith during the colonial period in the 1920s, when nationalist leaders were already talking about the loss of the country and the need to reclaim its essence from French overseers; for Dao Mau followers, an entire century of divisive Cold War politics and decolonization was erased in order to evoke the spiritual return to the heroes and heroines of the imperial period; and for Hoa Hao Buddhists, the lineage of teachers from Prophet Huynh Phu So are increasingly placed in the context of global Buddhism, trying to reclaim their place within that wider tradition as a specifically Vietnamese form of Buddhist worship.
PROSPECTS FOR THE FUTURE: HERITAGE POLITICS AND HOMELAND TIES The relationship between diasporic congregations and those in the homeland has changed in a significant way over the past decades. From 1975 to 1995, Vietnam was identified as the past, the ancestral source, but a place that had no future, so it was the aim of refugees and immigrants to forge a new life in the host country. This did not mean, however, that these communities were committed to assimilation. On the contrary, their primary commitment seemed to be to recreate the vanished world of the Republic of South Vietnam in California. This was the ideological impulse behind the creation of one Little Saigon community in Orange County, and efforts to create a second one in San Jose. The high rate of nationalization for Vietnamese refugees was tied not to a wish to become American, but to an intense desire to sponsor other immigrants and family members to come over from Vietnam so that there would be a significant community in California, where religious, cultural, and social institutions could be rebuilt. Since 1995, when it became possible for Vietnamese Americans to return to their homeland to visit, purchase land, retire, or form businesses, this orientation has changed and a more transnational community has been forged, enabled by modern forms of media, transportation, and entrepreneurial activities. Religious organizations, far from being bastions of traditionalism, have been at the forefront of these new developments, with elaborate websites, desktop publications of religious texts, and new opportunities for missionary outreach. All of the indigenous Vietnamese religions build on a foundation of ancestor worship that is shared across religious lines, and is even practiced in the homes of devout Catholics. Each family has an ancestral altar, usually decorated with photographs of dead relatives, and/or ancestral tablets inscribed with Chinese characters. Offerings of fruit and flowers are placed on the altar daily in some households, while in others the ancestral altar is only set up during Tet, the New Year celebration that is the most important traditional Vietnamese festival. This custom is also performed in folkloric festivals featuring regional dances and music. What in Dao Mau is a form of worship is presented as entertainment in other contexts. James Clifford has argued that diasporic consciousness oscillates between suffering and survival, so that loss and hope are lived as a defining tension. 28 Vietnamese Americans commemorate their history as refugees by placing the yellow flag with red stripes of the Saigon republic on altars, and flying it in Catholic churches, the Hoa Hao pagodas, and the eclectic Caodai temples. It is now usually referred to as a “ heritage flag ” and represents the community, although it no longer represents a government. Ritualistic gestures like this one serve to make the diaspora sacred, infusing folklore with political, spiritual, and, moral significance.
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