Monday, March 14, 2011

Faith, Mothers-in-Law, and the Occult

We just finished Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and Yoshi enjoyed the Latin flair for cursing (Ernie was repentant) and the build-up to a bloodbath at the end of the book. I had forgotten since high school that the honor-killing centered on Angela Vicario’s loss of virginity and failure to produce the expected bloodstain on her wedding night. So mid-stream through the book, and sensing that I might not have chosen 11-year-old-appropriate material, I tried to substitute key images with more ambiguous references, and to keep the level of vocabulary sophisticated enough that I could move through certain passages without catching Yoshi’s attention. The book –with much humor—weaves together the heavy fist of Catholic institutions, gold-trimmed robes and drunk nuns, with the ever-present influence of the occult, symbols coming from nature and forebodings in nervous mothers’ dreams. Why is it always the nervous mother whose dreams foretell disaster? 
Ernest has been a little uncomfortable with where to place statues and icons in his spiritual hierarchy. Buddhists are very material in their relationship with the divine. They place statues of Buddha, and then flowers, and fruit, and bowls of money, and shimmering gold and silver ornaments, at the center of the Wat, and then kneel and meditate in front of these things. Ernest can’t help seeing the piles of things as –well, things—and how is the statue going to spend the money anyway? His teacher, an Indian-American missionary a bit more strident than the rest, who sets Exodus as the basis for his curriculum and spiritual outlook, has the class focused right now on Moses’ covenant with God, and the Ten Commandments brought down the mountain on two stone slabs. Though shalt not set false god before me. When a monk at Angkor Wat put incense sticks into Ernie’s and Yoshi’s hands, they were happy to take them and place them in the urn in front of a Buddha. They even imitated the ten short bows before the Buddha that must have been some request for wish-fulfillment. I wasn’t too obliging when he suggested I deposit ten bucks to Buddha for good measure. But Ernest left there troubled—why worship a statue? I said if we ever visited the Vatican or some churches in Spain, he’d see that Catholics also got pretty caught up in fancy-pants decorations around Jesus—and much moreso than the Cambodian Buddhists. But thinking about it more afterwards, it seems like many of us follow a combination of invisible spiritual leadership, and ornaments that remind us of what we believe in, and signals we are trying to read from the world around us. Are they angels intervening to send a message? Are the birds and the trees part of a divine arrangement that is trying to guide us?
I’ve been happy to have the help of a young lady in the office, who is an aspiring law student and getting her start as a team assistant here. After putting together a few of my meetings at various ministries, Chak Riya approached me to say that I really would do better to have a personal assistant and ad-hoc translator, and that she should accompany me on my meetings from now on.  So Chak Riya and I have been making the rounds together lately—the Ministry of Commerce, the Ministry of Justice, the Court of Appeals—and she is smoothing out the conversations with interjections in Khmer and easily locating offices within the massive government compounds that I would spend hours hunting for. We sit through traffic jams together, too, talking about project objectives and plans for follow-up. But one day last week, she asked me how old was I when I got married. Do all Americans get married so young? When did you start having children? Well, you get the idea. I tried to counter that she is doing well for herself, and things will happen in their own good time. ‘No,’ she said, ‘This week was supposed to be my wedding. I had the invitations printed and the restaurant booked and all the catering and music paid for. But it is cancelled now, and I am bankrupt.’ I was in over my head, having no idea where her line of questions was leading me. ‘What happened?’ I asked. ‘My boyfriend is a Chinese,’ she explained, ‘and I am a Khmer.’ Was that a problem? Were the families against it? Why not leverage her job and move to some other place? ‘It was his mother. She visited a fortune-teller, who said something I can’t repeat, and now we cannot get married.’  I was dumbfounded. I could just imagine the fury of putting an entire wedding together, spending money she hadn’t even earned yet, and having it sabotaged by a superstitious mother-in-law! But I had learned enough about Buddhists and the occult not to reject this logic as completely out of hand. ‘Well, have you thought about moving to America with your boyfriend?’ I wondered. ‘No, we want to go to Canada.’  Probably the dark forces working against Chak Riya will not be as strong in Toronto.