In Death.

Obon. Hungry Ghost Festival. Pitru Paksha.

Summer happened and Autumn in right around the corner. This time forms a melancholic, yet beatiful transition for me. At the peak of summer, fireworks take to the skies with an air of festivities as people walk about in Yukatas. Then, just as it gets a little too hot, the skies begin to darken rain greets the overheated pavments. The trees begin to yellow. Slowly but surely, Autum arrives like a regal creature with its yellow, red and orange shades. The air, no longer muggy hot, is crisp with a slight smokey smell.

At the peak of it’s blistering heat, Japan remembers it’s dead through Obon. During a 3 day period (13 July to 15 August), people go back to their hometowns and visit thier family graves. Summer is also considered to be a great time to tell ghost stories because as one friend told me, ghost stories make a person shiver (with fear) helping to beat the summer heat. I can’t vouch for the legitimacy of that statement, but it sounded interesting.

Here’s a short write up about Obon:
http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2286.html

In China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, during the 7th Month of the Lunar calander (this year it was from 03 Aug 2016 to 31 Aug 2016), there’s the Hungry Ghost Festival when Buddhist or Taoist people of Chinese descent would try to appease “Hungry Ghosts” that have left the realm of the dead to visit the world of the living. You can see people buring offerings for thier ancestors (including paper ferraris and Iphones), Getai and Chinese Opera. There are also a list of dos and don’ts during this period, to avoid offending the ghosts. Not surprisingly, there are links between Hungry Ghost and Obon.

Here’s a nice reliable website on how we do this back home in Singapore:
http://www.yoursingapore.com/festivals-events-singapore/cultural-festivals/hungry-ghost-festival.html

In my own Hindu belief, we have Pitru Paksha. A series of rituals are to be followed over a 15 day period following the lunar calender ( this year it was from 16 September 2016 to 30 September 2016) to honor our ancestors every year. The eldest son of the family is usually responsible for doing the prayers.

Here’s good old wiki if you wanna read more on that:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pitru_Paksha

 

So why talk about this?
Personally, I’m really interested in finding similarities between different cultures and my own. Often times, I’m enthralled to find how intertwined Asian cultures are despite the differences. The more I read, the more I find the influences and connections. It’s fascinating.

So, recently, I went to Mount Koya in Wakayama  with my mom and stayed in a Shingon Buddhist temple called Fudoin. For anyone interested, this is an actual thing in Japan where you can stay at some Buddhist temple. It’s called Shukubo! You can even choose to have temple cuisine which are strictly vegetarian!

For more info on Shukubo:
http://eng.shukubo.net

Anyway, I stayed at this temple and I found out they did prayers every morning for the deceased. So, I asked my mom if she wanted to do any prayers for my paternal grandfather. Co-incidentally, our travel dates were during Pitru Praksha and the prayer date would also be the date designated specifically for my grandfather’s prayers. It was very emotional for mom.

So we submitted my grandfather’s name, his date of passing and my father’s name (he’s the firstborn son).

The next morning, we reported to the prayer room at 7am.
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The head priest was already there. Once everyone was gathered, the prayers started. What followed, I find it hard to put it into words because of how mesmerising it was.

The morning prayers sounded like this:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7VGeZDpaDdg

I really could have gone on and on listening to this. It really was an experience that left me much calmer and relaxed. Then they said a prayer in our name and as a group we read a part of the Hannya Shingyo (Heart Sutra).  Lastly, the head priest said some words about the temple and Mount Koya’s history.

It all lasted for about 50 minutes.

After breakfast, we visited Okunoin where the founder of Mount Koya, Kobo Daishi is enshrined. The lead up to the main shrine houses Japan’s biggest cemetery (More than 200,000 graves!). When we reached the main shrine, morning prayers were underway. We were really lucky because the priests were performing a Goma (fire ritual, Homa, Yajna) in addition to the prayers…which was particularly touching to watch, because that’s what my name, Yagnya, means.

To watch the meaning of a Sanskrit name of a Singaporean Indian Girl being performed in a Shingon Buddhist temple in the mountains of Wakayama. I don’t know if I can ever put that into words for anyone.

We couldn’t take pictures inside, but here’s a video of a Goma being performed at another temple in Mount Koya:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=–A-5Dxmf74

And here’s a wiki article about Yajnas and their significance in Hinduism:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yajna

I find myself floundering for last  words here. I could say something like “we’re all equal in death…” but that would cheapen this entire experience.

So instead, I encourage you too to embark on your own journey in Japan to find something here that connects to you across borders and religion…that despite it all you find it sacred. It doesn’t mean you change your religion or become suddenly religious for this, just something that you find something that inexplicably connects to you on a deep personal level even if you are far far from home.

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Race against Racism

I began typing this article before Singapore officially turned 50 after I expericed some not so nice situations. I’ve glazed over most of my experiences as I don’t believe in naming and shaming and also because I don’t need the details to get my points across.

Disclaimer (because these are dead handy when I speak from personal experience): The article is going to touch on race, language, religion, skin colour and then some more. If you’re not up to it, by all means avoid reading this article because I think it IS a heavy topic. Also, because I speak from personal experciences, I will try not to sound like a know all and see all and will also try not to make sweeping statements. However, I ask for your forgiveness and understanding if I do.

Sometimes, being a brown person can be difficult. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been aware that being brown was not the best thing to be in the world. At some point in primary (elementary) school, a part of me wanted to be Chinese so much, I cut my eyelashes short. Obviously that didn’t work out well and thankfully my lashes also grew back.

I’m pretty sure most people don’t go about trying to be Chinese the way I did and people might ask me why I did that. At that age though, I’d already been the butt of more than one anti-Indian slur and I’d faced my fair share of bullying just because of what I was born as. Now, imagine having your presence ignored, being told you had worms in your brains, offering help but being kicked away, be in a group discussion and suddenly have the meeting conducted in a language you don’t know and have people whisper behind your back in another language from the age of 4. Pretty sure that’s not very fun.

By Junior College (high school) though, people seemed to have gotten better (at least in the sensitivity department) and I had a wonderful time and made some great friends who were some of the least judgemental people I’d met to that point. The topic of racism (we studied it in class) seemed like a distant concept of the past…or something only seen in history books when the Holocaust was mentioned.

Then of course, Arts College happened and I really had the best days of my life there. People were broad minded and accepting, I had a lot of freedom to question and debate on a whole ton of issues…the world felt like it had opened up and people who met me after that told me that I’d become a better person. Prejudices or judgemental views I never knew I had came to light and I had to deal with them. All in all, Arts College was the best thing that happened to my soul.

So you can imagine the shock I had when I came out.

To give a little context, Singapore had begun facing a spike in the number of new citizens, permenant residents and foreign talents. This included people from Europe, America, Australia and of course other Asian countries. Suddenly, I’d be riding the cab, and I’d be asked if I was really Singaporean. Even if I said yes, they’d ask WHEN I had come to Singapore. I’d have to put on an exaggerated Singlish accent and laugh it off to get some people off my back.

Somedays, it can be very painful. My maternal grandparents are Indians living in India. My paternal grandmother has been a Singaporean PR with an Indian citizenship since she got married to my paternal grandfather who came to Singapore from India and got his Singapore citizenship. My Dad is Singaporean (born in Singapore, did his NS) and my Mum’s a Singaporean PR with an Indian citizenship. My brother was born in Germany, but he’s a Singaporean (did his NS!). 4 years of my early childhood was spent in Germany where I learnt phonetics and phonics. So, I learnt Singlish a lot later in life and it still doesn’t come to me very naturally. SORRY!

Do people need to know all this?
Will people leave me alone if I told them all this?
Why am I expected to prove myself?
So WHAT if I were Indian?
What must I do to be Singaporean?
What IS Singaporean?
How are some of these Singaporeans better than my PR Mum who’s done so much for the country in her 26 years here?

Then to make matters worse, the Little India Riots happened.

I don’t even know where to begin with that one. I started to see statements like “All the AH NEH (anna in tamil means brother) go back home lah!!” appeared on the net. Suddenly, there was talk of keeping foreign workers in a ghetto like place. Suddenly, these workers were being used as volunteers for anti-rioting practice.

Then I started to see racism popping out more and more and not just against Indians.
Maybe it had increased, maybe it was always there and I had learnt not to see it…

In any case, it made me nauseous.
It was like Primary school all over again, except it was on a national level.
Still, the country uses it’s multi-racialism/culturalism as a selling point.
Sometimes, it looks like a bad joke…and I’m guilty of selling it too.

Then of course, I applied for my job on the JET programme and got in.
I don’t think I’ve had a clearer view of racism…

Racism in Japan definately exists. I’ve had people compare skin tones with me and comment on my darker skin tone while applying entire bottles of sunblock lotion. Many people assume I’m from India when they first meet me. People have asked if I can speak English. I have been told very bluntly that people of some countries are ALL smelly and disgusting.

Japan is an (almost) mono-ethnic society.
I also live in a relatively unexposed rural part of Japan.
I don’t think this should defend their actions/statements but it isn’t my home.

At the same time, I was hearing very similar racist comments being made by fellow Singaporens.
These were Singaporeans who were by no means uneducated or underexposed.
Neither were they from terrible underpriviledged backgrounds.

I find it extremely hard to wrap my mind around this.

Singapore is a very very dear place to me.
I believe it has so much potential.
When I was still in school, we used to recite the pledge before the Sigapore flag every morning:

We, the citizens of Singapore,
pledge ourselves as one united people,
regardless of race, language, or religion
to build a democratic society
based on justice and equality
so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and
progress for our nation.

Perhaps I’m an overly patriotic fool to some, but I truly believed every word I spoke and I still do.
So for SG50, amongst many many things that are being done, I wish people could take a look within.
You don’t need to walk on eggshells. You don’t have to go the extra mile.
Just treat people equally.
If something wrong is done by a person who isn’t a majority, don’t use race against them.

It’s really not that difficult. Is it?

Extra reading:
http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2015/08/02/issues/claiming-right-japanese/#.VcFkJrdO7IV