I‘ve always loved taking part in Day of the Dead celebrations since first becoming aware of the tradition so many years ago living in Los Angeles. Counter to the messages we’re bombarded with daily in our youth-obsessed society, it’s refreshing to see death framed as a beginning rather than an end, to take the time to honor the ancestors whose shoulders we stand upon and welcome their spirits to join us. This is also a Vietnamese tradition during the Lunar New Year — in my house growing up we would place dishes of fruit and cups of tea out on altars decorated with flowers and photographs of friends and family who have passed.
But last night’s Día de Los Muertos concert at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco touched on something else too: that during a time when people want to build barriers and declare so many as “other”, love and inclusiveness is needed now more than ever. Singers on the stage spoke about the struggles of being so far from home, trying to create a better life for themselves and their families. As the child of immigrants and Vietnam war refugees I could sympathize. A mariachi rendition of ‘Strawberry Fields’ took on new meaning when it was used to touch on the struggles of migrant farm workers. The performers switched frequently between English and Spanish, and while I found myself at times wishing I could understand what exactly they were saying, the words didn’t even matter because the music expressed their hearts completely.
I feel so fortunate to have been raised in the cultural melting pot of Honolulu where native Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese and so many other traditions are honored in classrooms and throughout communities from a very young age. My life and my world view is so much richer because of this exposure. Taking the time to appreciate the beauty other cultures have to offer, seeing all of the ways we are more alike than not, reinforces our sacred interconnectedness. As Alan Watts once put it, “The prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination.”
That’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about international travel. There’s an almost indescribable satisfaction found in being on the other side of the globe and seeing glimpses of home. The world can seem to many like a big and scary place, but it doesn’t need to be. I’ve never forgotten the words of an elementary school assembly speaker who declared that she didn’t see borders; rather she thought of herself as a Citizen of The World. I think it’s safe to say that the huge swaths of people in our country spewing racist, anti-immigrant vitriol right now aren’t evil but just somewhat sheltered, horribly misinformed and deeply afraid. Fear-based decision making always leads you astray. I’m still bracing myself for what happens Tuesday with so much at stake locally and nationally, but for just an evening we had a precious chance to set it all aside and forget about walls.