Five-year-old Little Brother is a vision of loveliness in his red and white flowered yukata. His three older sisters put their hands up to their faces and scream in girlish voices, “Kawai-iiiiii!” as he primps and poses for us. Then the sisters revert to their true otaku forms and start making cracks about cross-dressers. Off comes theyukata in a pile on the floor. Back to the too-small happi coat and the tough-guy kung fu stances, a white scarf bound around his forehead.
The children are buzzing tonight about the Obon Dance down at the Puna Hongwangji. Even though we decide to have a light supper before heading out, they can’t stop talking about all the good food they are anticipating — tempura, teriyaki chicken, mochi, andago, anpan, Spam musubi. Little Brother begins to call it the “Udon Festival.”
As we drive to the temple, we tell Little Brother the story of Mokuren, the Buddhist monk who saw in a vision that his mother had become a hungry ghost starving in the hell realm because she had been stingy and greedy. He went to the hell realm to see her, to save her, to bring her food, but the food all burned up as soon as it touched her lips. So he and the monks at his temple began to dedicate the merit they accumulated through prayer and good works to her, like giving the extra credit you earn on a test to your classmate, until at last she was saved. Mokuren was so happy at the news that he danced with joy. And so we dance every year to celebrate our ancestors and to feed those spirits without family to care for them.
We talk about the less glamorous Chinese version of this festival, the hungry ghosts festival, where we feed the hungry ghosts that come back to our world for one night (tip: feed them far away from the house so they don’t follow you home). Little Brother is curious about the hell realm, so his sisters regale him with gruesome tales about the 27 levels of hell in Chinese cosmology, their favorite, the one where people are fried in a giant wok.
When we arrive at the temple, the cheerful lanterns around the yagura draw us to the circle where the minyo band is already singing. Then we get down to business.
First glow sticks.
Then shave ice.
Inside the circle, dancing with Little Brother, I think about Mokuren dancing for joy at the salvation of his mother. He was overcome, so he danced. We are dancing to remember his joy. But there is a nuance. For us, the feeling of joy comes out of the dancing, from the easy feeling of community that embraces us, from the lightness of the circle, not the other way around. This is fun! We do not know anyone here, but it is easy to imagine — they appear almost as ghosts — the faces of dear friends far away dancing with us in the backward glances of other dancers.
This article first appeared in PacificCitizen.org.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is an editor of IMDiversity.com Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for AnnArbor.com, a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog, and a contributor for Chicago is the World. She is on the Advisory Board of American Citizens for Justice. She team-teaches "Asian Pacific American History and the Law" at University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at franceskaihwawang.com, her blog at franceskaihwawang.blogspot.com, and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.