Material, emotional and spiritual homes

A growing body of research has drawn attention to the roles of religious and spiritual practices, institutions, objects and spaces in enabling or constraining senses of home, belonging and identity among migrants and diasporic communities (Hagan 2008; Sheringham 2013; Vasquez and Knott 2014). Recent studies have explored how migrants’ everyday religious practices unsettle traditional boundaries between the home, the city and spiritual worlds (Sheringham and Wilkins 2018). This chapter explores how participants draw upon religious practices, objects and institutions to create a sense of home and belonging. It aims to demonstrate the multiple scales at which religion and spirituality operate, from the individual body to the dwelling, the city and across transnational space. The temporal nature of religious belief and practice is also emphasised, as participants’ spiritual practices and objects are seen to connect their memories of past homes with imagined future homes and mobilities. The second part of this chapter highlights the physical and emotional work involved in (re)making home in the context of migration and displacement, exploring how participants draw upon emotional and mundane objects and practices to establish a sense of home in the city.

Religious and spiritual practices in Vietnam and East London

Religious practices in Vietnam are diverse and are frequently drawn upon alongside each other. While a large majority of Vietnamese describe themselves as Buddhist, an estimated 10 per cent of the population are Catholic. Alongside these major religious faiths, ancestor worship is widely practised across Vietnam, including among people who would not otheiwise define themselves as religious. The spirits of deceased family members are considered to exist alongside their living relatives, and are regarded as having power over their lives (Jellema 2007a, McAllister 2012). Rituals of ancestor worship include the offering of food and water, while paper replicas of money, clothes, mobile phones and other items are also burned at the gr ave of the deceased in the belief that they will be transferred to the ancestors in the other world (Di Gregorio and Salemink 2007). The practice of worshipping the ancestors is also known as nhâ ôn ông bà, or ‘remembering the moral debt to grandfather and grandmother’ (Jellema 2007a: 468). The wellMaterial, emotional and spiritual homes 103 being and success of the living is seen as dependent upon maintaining relations of mutual care with the ancestors.

In addition to practising ancestor worship, some participants in this study discussed visiting a fortune-teller (thây bôi) for guidance on spiritual and practical matters, including auspicious days to conduct busmess, plan a trip or get married. Practices of spirit mediumship (lên dong), in which practitioners become possessed by a spirit, are also popular forms of conununication with the other world (Kendall 2011). During the Socialist revolutionary period, the Vietnamese government discouraged what it described as superstitious beliefs, while the extreme poverty of the war necessitated a decline in public ceremonies. Contemporary scholars have since noted a renewal in public forms of ritual and religious worship, linking this with political and economic change (Di Gregorio and Salemink 2007). Large public ceremonies and the construction of ornate ancestral graves have been associated with a means of gaming social status among the living (Jellema 2007a). However, several of my participants describe worshipping the ancestors as an intimate practice and many rituals are undertaken in the home rather than in public spaces. Ancestor veneration is more often related to maintaining family relationships, as a form of personal moral development, and as an act of care for deceased loved ones. Ancestor worship has generally been associated with the patrilineal model of kinship, and is formally regarded as the responsibility of the eldest son in the family. However, many of the women that I interviewed take an active role in worship, and emphasise the mutual care and support that is part of remembering and honouring their ancestors.

Worshipping the ancestors: within and beyond the home

Tire majority of my participants (including Buddhists and Catholics as well as individuals who do not define themselves as religious) practised ancestor worship. Most individuals discussed the presence of altars in their family homes in Vietnam, whilst several also had an altar in then homes in London. The material culture of domestic altars varies between individuals and their faiths, but usually consists of pictures of the deceased, offerings of finit, vases containing flowers, and an incense holder, candles or electric lights. Buddhist worshippers have figures of the Buddha and of Guanyin, who is known as the ‘female Buddha' or Goddess of Compassion. Many Vietnamese people also have shrines to deities that are incorporated from Taoist beliefs. These include the Kitchen God. known as Ông Tào, wdio is particularly associated with the home, hearth and family (McAllister 2012). In addition to daily offerings, particular rituals are practised on the first and the fourteenth day of each month according to the lunar calendar, as well as on the anniversary of the deceased ancestor’s death and at Têt (Lunar New- Year). Ancestors are offered particularfoods, drinks or other substances that they enjoyed when they w-ere alive, including meat, alcohol and cigarettes. When the incense has burned down, the living may eat, believing that they will gain the spirits’ blessings through consuming the food.

Son’s altar is housed in the living room of his home in Hackney, and features statues of the Buddha, Guanyin and pictures of his deceased parents (Figure 5.1).

Sou’s altar

Figure 5.1 Sou’s altar

Every evening, Son places offerings of fruit onto the altars and lights a stick of incense until it begins to smoke, then stands back and bows his head in respect to the ancestors and deities. As the incense bums, he invites his parents to come home and enjoy the offerings, and prays for the well-being of his loved ones. Son described how the ancestors return home to receive offerings from their relatives. He noted that the altar must be kept brightly lit, so that the spirits can find their way home:

Basically, they wander around, but when you make the offering they come back and sit in the picture. They come to eat, they come to bless you - you can ask them for a better career, to find a partner, whatever you want them to bless you to have.

Son

The altar is usually given a prominent place in the living room, and can be housed on the top floor of the family home as a mark of respect to the ancestors. Several participants noted the importance of keeping the altar clean and replacing the offerings as a mark of respect to the ancestors. Son described how the altar is seen as the focal point of the Vietnamese home:

The centre point, the focus point, the point that brings families together . . . a house feels empty without an altar - you can have all this stuff, but it still feels cold, but this makes the house warm. I mean. I’m at home a lot, I live by myself, but I never feel that lonely because in my mind, my parents live here with me. Buddha’s all around, and I feel safe.

Son

The above quotation demonstrates the multiple roles of ancestor veneration and the ways in which it is intertwined with Vietnamese concepts of home and family. The material culture of Son’s altar is particularly significant, as his family were unable to bring many objects or photographs with them when they escaped from Vietnam by boat. The pictures of Iris mother and father were enlarged from small black and white photographs - some of the few possessions that they were able to cany with them on the journey to re-settlement.

Jellema (2007b) proposes that ‘altars and graves ... are not permanent homes for the dead, only meeting points from which the ancestors “come and go’”. In Vietnam, the period following the death of a parent is marked by extensive rituals involving the family and community. Son’s mother died six years ago. He described how every evening for forty-nine days after her death. Iris mother's spirit would return home. During this time, three bowls were placed on the altar: one for the deceased and two for the spirits who are thought to accompany them to the other world. Son described the complex emotions that these practices evoked in him:

I asked her all the tune when she passed away -1 got so scared I went to my sister’s house to sleep, actually. In that forty-nine days that she came back to eat, I tell her all the time, ‘don’t come, mum, I know you love me, you want to come back and visit the house - it’s ok, but don’t let me see you.

Son

Practices of ancestor worship are not only associated with the home, family and domesticity, but are also connected to work and business. Ту, who worked in a Vietnamese restaurant in Hoxton, described how he was responsible for lighting the incense and making offerings of food and Vietnamese coffee to the gods on an altar in his workplace (Figure 5.2). In Vietnam, business owners and employees venerate the God of the Earth (Ong Bia) who they ask for protection of the business, and the God of Fortune (Thein Tai) who is associated with economic success. Altars to these deities are widely found within restaurants, shops and nail salons in London. The presence of these altars and the rituals surrounding them demonstrates the multiple transnational connections between work and spiritual practice, but also illuminates further relationships between home, work and the city. In addition to asking the gods for the protection and success of their businesses, workers also pray for the health and well-being of the business owners and their family (Htiwehneier 2009).

The significance of material goods within religion in Vietnam reveals close connections between the spiritual and economic realms. Kendall (2011) notes the

Altar in a Vietnamese restaurant, Hackney

Figure 5.2 Altar in a Vietnamese restaurant, Hackney

Material, emotional and spiritual homes 107 increasing presence of markets selling ‘religious paraphernalia' in Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, arguing that ‘the production of goods for specifically ritual ptuposes - from altar tables to statues to spirit medium costumes to elaborate votive paper offerings - testifies to an enthusiastic linkage between tilings material and spiritual in contemporary Vietnamese popular religious life’ (Kendall 2011: 108). Connections between the spiritual and economic realms are also visible in the recognition that spirits have ‘appetites and desires’ that ‘respond to changing horizons of material consumption, fashion and taste' (Kendall 2011: 109). The importance of material goods within religious practice is also contested, as some commentators describe ‘conspicuous consumption’ as a moral issue in which the sincerity of religious practice becomes compromised (Kendall 2011). However, the importance of material goods in religious practice can also be understood as part of an ongoing process in which traditional practices are re-negotiated in the context of modernity and political change (Endr es and Lauser 2011). The production of sacred goods provides employment for whole families and even districts in Vietnam, where particular villages are tarown for producing particular items. Furthermore, networks of sacred objects are often transnational, as members of the Vietnamese diaspora purchase religious items from shops in London that have been imported or sent from Vietnam. Participants in this study described how items that were used in ancestor veneration and other spiritual practices could be purchased from Vietnamese shops in Hackney. These objects can be identified in altars in both homes and workplaces, further illustrating the links between home, work and spirituality.

Relationships between transnational migration and religion reveal the ways in which movement and travel are not only practised by worshippers, but can be seen as part of the essence of spirits themselves (Hiiwehneier and Kr ause 2010). Scholars note that even when then- worshippers remain in one place, spirits ‘come into presence’ as part of an ongoing process of arrival and departure (Lambek 2010: 14). The portability of many religious objects and practices enables worshippers who migrate to feel a sense of belonging as part of transnational religious networks. However, the impact of migration upon spiritual practices and the expectations surrounding them can be complex and unsettling. Ту told me that he and his colleagues were unsure whether they should worship in English or Vietnamese, and whether the spirits could hear them in their new location.

Adaptable and mobile spiritualities

Religious and spiritual objects and practices are associated with home in multiple ways, enabling migrants to develop a sense of belonging in the city. However, participants’ narratives also emphasise how the meanings and uses of objects can be altered and sometimes transformed in the process of mobility. Ту showed me an amulet that he carried with him at all times (Figure 5.3). The object was a small red square embossed with a gold image of the Buddha, framed with Chinese characters and encased in a protective laminate cover. Ту also described the amulet as a ‘safety charm’ that had been given to him by his mother for protection on his journey from Vietnam to London.

Ty’s amulet

Figure 5.3 Ty’s amulet

As he reflected upon the amulet, Ty discussed the roles of religion and ancestor worship in Vietnam and then- personal significance, particularly the importance of protection for those who are travelling far from then home and loved ones to an unfamiliar environment. He kept the amulet in his wallet, carrying it with him to enable a sense of spiritual presence as he navigated his way around the city. While Ty believed in its protective capacities, he also cherished the amulet because it was a tangible reminder of his home and family:

I think it reminds me that I’ve I got a family, my mum, and it remind me that. .. somehow it give us the answer for something we don't know in life, it helps you to have peace of mind, things like that - if something happens, you’ve got a lucky' charm already.

Ty

Ty’s amulet demonstrates how the meanings of religious and spiritual objects can become altered in the process of mobility, taking on particular significance for migrants who are navigating the challenges of everyday urban life.

Buddhist objects in Ngocs living room

Figure 5.4 Buddhist objects in Ngocs living room

While several participants had an altar or shrine as a focus of then worship, they were mostly found among people with long-term residence in the UK. Participants in shared or temporary housing may be unable to house an altar due to spatial or financial constraints. Moreover, the presence or absence of an altar is also related to participants’ motivations to migrate and where they perceive ‘home’ to be. Some participants did not feel that it was their role to house an altar because their parents maintained responsibility for honouring the ancestors in the family home in Vietnam.

Ngoc, who lived in a shared house near Mile End, had adapted the material culture and rituals surrounding ancestor worship to her East London home. Figure 5.4 shows the mantelpiece in Ngoc’s living room, on which were displayed objects including a large incense burner, lotus-shaped candles, artificial flowers and offerings of water in small porcelain cups. This shr ine appeared to resemble a traditional Vietnamese altar, but was focused upon a depiction of the Buddha rather than venerating her ancestors. Ngoc explained that as part of the process of establishing her home in London, she consulted her mother for advice on the practicalities and demands of worship in her new location, asking her whether she should have a picture of her deceased grandfather in her London home. Her mother advised her that this would be ‘too complicated’ for her to install and look after, suggesting instead that a picture of the Buddha would be a ‘good blessing’ for the house. Maintaining the altar is an important part of paying respect to the ancestors and other deities. Participants explained that the altar must be kept clean and well-lit at all times, with fresh fruit and flowers ideally being replaced daily. Son emphasised that it is important to honour the ancestors whatever your level of social or economic position:

That’s a way of showing respect, you know? You neglect it, you don’t keep it clean - that’s another way of showing disrespect, which, as you can see, I must have it cleaned properly, you know? My mum, when she was alive she always keep it clean . .. every' morning you’re supposed to clean the cups, clean with water - fresh water, and flowers as well, they always have fresh flowers, fresh water, fresh fruit in Vietnam, every single day. Even if they cannot afford to eat, they still always have to have these things fresh.

Son

Migration impacts upon participants’ religious practices in multiple ways, including through the effects of constraints on space, differences in housing design, access to places of worship and living costs. Participants adapt their practices to the opportunities and barriers in then- new environment, leading to a reconfiguration in material culture and practices of worship over transnational space and time. Minh described the differences between her practices of worship in London and Vietnam, emphasising the effects of spatial constraints on practising correctly:

In Vietnam we have a room for ancestors only. But here, the house is so small, so we don't have the place, so we have the statue of the Buddha instead. The statue should be placed stably - you should not move it. Even after we bum the incense many tunes and there’s some dust, around it, so you just clean it, but don’t move anything. If you move it, maybe your business not good, your house not good, something like that, but here it’s so different, because we don’t have the space.

Minh

Worshipping the ancestors has been understood as a means of combatting the uncertainty of everyday life (Di Gregorio 2007). and is an important source of guidance and comfort to participants. Several participants described how the act of worship and the material culture and ritual surrounding it evoked a sense of home and continuity with the past, as well as helping them to make sense of their migration experiences. However, this relationship also places multiple demands and expectations upon worshippers, particularly those who are practising in contexts of mobility.

Religion and transnational relationships: reconfiguring home

Practices involved in ancestor veneration are closely tied to particular notions of home. Ancestor worship summons both ancestors and the living to return to then ‘native homeland’ (quê htromg), the ancestral home that is associated with birth and childhood. This would appear to be at odds with the reality of internal and transnational mobility that are part of everyday life for many families in contemporary Vietnam. However, scholars note that these returns are considered to be temporary and occasional, and allow for mobility and separation (Jellema 2007b). This flexible idea of home is also endorsed by the state, whose leaders urge people to ‘remm to origins’, whilst accepting that movement and separation are contained within the idea of return (Jellema 2007b: 70). hr supporting public rimais, the state also confers upon everyone (including overseas Vietnamese) a Vietnamese identity:

If convinced of the claim that all Vietnamese worship then ancestors, it is perhaps not far-fetched to argue that to worship the ancestors is to be Vietnamese; that is, when someone bums incense at the altar, they actively and incontrovertibly perform then Vietnarneseness.

Jellema 2007b: 72

The above quotation demonstrates how spiritual practices can be drawn upon or utilised by the state in order to present particular ideals of national identity. However, this book reveals how spiritual practices and beliefs are adapted and re-shaped by individuals as part of the migr ation process. Moreover, participants’ narratives highlight the ways in which ideas of identity and home are continually shifting to incorporate elements of their cunent life and location. During worship, Vietnamese people ask then ancestors to ensure good health for themselves and their families, as well as asking for assistance with practical matters such as exams, relationships, journeys and financial difficulties. Followers begin with the invocation ‘nam mô a di dàphâf (‘Hail, Amitabha Buddha') and announce their name, the date and time, then ask for blessings for their family and country, followed by requests for personal support. Minh described this sequence of worship in her narrative:

Yeah, we say [prayers] for Vietnam and UK, because I live here as well. And then I will pray for my family, like, my parents will be healthy, and had they been sick, to get well ... I wish I can have merit [at College], I wish I can pass my exams, something like that. So you go from general to detail.

Minh

This quotation highlights that practices of ancestor worship are not only intertwined with the home and family but also link the Vietnamese home with the wider world. Minh asks the spirits to bless Vietnam as a nation, not only because it is where her family is located, underlining the associations between ancestor worship, religion and national identity in Vietnam. Minh includes her cunent location in her prayers, demonstrating the ways in which worship is reconfigured by migration, and connecting her present home in London with her family home and notions of home and identity on a national scale. The Vietnamese home can thus be understood as a site of connection between the domestic and public, between living relatives and spirits, across transnational space and with the spirit world (Di Gregorio and Salemink 2007, McAllister 2012).

However, not all participants felt that ancestor worship was an essential part of then- beliefs or identity, and several had altered then practices since their migr ation to London. Hang, a translator and teacher who grew up in Hanoi, had a difficult relationship with her family, and remembered Têt (Lunar New Year) as a time of tension, which occasionally spilled over into anger as the family spent extended periods together. After arriving in London, Hang had become a follower of Tlrich Nhât Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was exiled because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. Whilst Hang kept a Buddha figure on the desk in her bedroom, she did not define this as an altar or make specific offerings. She practised mindfulness daily, and found a sense of well-being and conununity in the Engaged Buddhism movement, which holds regular meetings in London. Hang shared this quotation from Thich Nhât Hardi, which offers a radically different concept of home based on relinquishing attachments to material needs:

Your true home is in the here and the now. It is not limited by time, space, nationality, or race . .. With mindfulness and concentration, the energies of the Buddha, you can find your true home in the full relaxation of your mind and body in the present moment.

Thich Nhât Hardi 2011: 1

Hang valued the knowledge that she could create a sense of home within herself wherever she was in the world; one that was not dependent upon particular people or places, but could be evoked through a mindful awareness of the present moment. The above description highlights the multiple ways in which home can be experienced and defined by individuals, including the significance of a ‘spiritual home’ that reaches beyond specific places (Den Boer 2015).

Connections between food, home and mobility’

Food is intimately linked with questions of belonging, home and identity. Multiple studies have demonstrated the importance of food in engendering senses of home, belonging and identity in contexts of mobility and displacement (Bur rell 2014a, Law 2001, Petridou 2001). Other research has focused on sensory memories of diasporic homes and the ways in which these memories are evoked though particular foods (Lahiri 2011). Alongside the emotional significance of food, Petridou (2001) argues that migrants' perceptions of food are related to values of health, taste and distinction, often expressed by eating or not eating foods in their new location. The social aspects of food and eating are also examples of collective forms of home-making. Sutton argues that ‘there is an imagined

Material, emotional and spiritual homes 113 community implied in the act of eating food “from home” while in exile, in the embodied knowledge that others are eating the same food' (2001: 48). Sharing food and cooking together emerged as important social practices and aspects of home-making among my participants. While some individuals enjoyed visiting restaurants throughout the city, other participants reserved eating out for special occasions. Most participants preferred cooking and eating with family or friends at home. These preferences were not only discussed in relation to finance but also articulated the significance of cooking and eating as a social practice. Ngoc described the routines that she had developed with her housemates so that they were able to share their evening meal together every' day:

Ideally, the person who gets home first should make the rice, and then in the morning I will leave out the meat that we’ll have for dinner. Lunchtime we're not at home at the same times, so we agree to have only dinner together... so we store meat for the whole week in the freezer, and every morning I’ll pick one, becattse I’m the main chef. I’ll leave it out, and maybe if I go home late, for example. I’ll tell them to just prepare it, like slice it or take the bone out or do something, or otherwise I’ll go home and cook. And yeah, the one who cooks doesn’t have to wash the dishes!

Ngoc

When I asked Ngoc why she felt it was important to prioritise cooking and eating together, she explained that maintaining a daily routine encouraged them to become more like a ‘family household': contributing to the everyday miming of the house and developing close relationships. Creating a home in the context of migration thus involves physical, imagined and affective forms of work (Ahmed et al. 2003). Accounts of relationships between food and migration underline the multiplicity of associations between memories, emotions and the senses. In a study of rituals surrounding Christmas among Polish migrants in the UK, Burrell (2014a) demonstrates that consuming food and other material goods from Poland juxtaposes ‘the emotional pull of the homeland’ with ‘the need to invest in a new life in a new place’ (Burrell 2014a: 57). This articulates the complex links between materiality, emotion, memory and identity in contexts of mobility. Engagement with objects and foods can increase the sense of a ‘continual transnational self, providing an opportunity to experience the feeling of a coherent identity within a world that often disrupts migrants’ senses of self (Svasek 2014: 17). Sharing food from the homeland may also create a sense of conununity with others from similar ethnic or cultural backgrounds, and can facilitate relationships with other conununities and non-migrauts. Burrell (2014a) also proposes that festivals in which particular foods are included can increase the visibility of migrant groups in the city, contributing to then senses of belonging and inclusion.

The sensory and emotional qualities of food and the memories that it evokes can also heighten feelings of loss or homesickness. For many of my participants, the absence of crucial ingredients can be a painful reminder of the distance fromtheir home country and increase then feelings of dislocation. Vietnamese food was discussed as the thing that participants missed most aborrt Vietnam after their families, and obtaining ingredients that enabled them to cook similar foods in their new location was a priority for most people. Vietnamese food is now much more widely available than when the first refirgees arrived in the 1970s, when Uyen’s family worried that they would never again be able to eat rice. While Vietnamese communities originally had to travel to Paris to buy Vietnamese ingredients, migrants today can visit a range of Vietnamese restaurants and buy ingredients from Vietnamese shops. Supermarkets are also stocking an increasingly global range of foods. Several participants said that they only visited Vietnamese shops occasionally as they could get most of what they needed from a mainstream supermarket. However, most people described missing the unique tastes of Vietnamese street foods that are difficult to recreate with the correct fresh ingredients. When they discussed the significance of food, most participants referred not only to the taste of the food itself, but also to the practice of meeting friends and eating orrtside. The sociality and atmosphere of going out for street food was something that they described as being especially evocative of home, and was also the most difficult aspect of Vietnamese food culture to recreate in their new location. Food is also interwoven with religious practice and ancestor worship in Vietnam, and several participants endeavour to obtain foods such as particular firrit that is traditionally offered to ancestors and deities. Several of these fruits are unavailable in the UK, meaning that participants must adapt their practice to the resources and constraints of their London environment. An examination of the role of foods within let (Lunar New Year) addresses multiple connections between participants' emotional attachment to the physical embodiments of this festival and their absence in the London environment. Têt is an occasion in which a range of symbolically significant foods are prepared, offered and consumed, linkfrig people not only to their living and deceased relatives, but also to their places of origin and national identities (McAllister 2012). The ‘five fruits bowl' (mam ngil qua), which is commonly placed on the ancestral altar, symbolises worshippers’ hopes for prosperity and good fortune in the new year. Festive rice cakes, traditionally made at home but now frequently bought in the market, are given as gifts, and differ in particular regions as well as signifying a link with Vietnam as a whole. Dining our interview, Hièn shared a photograph that was taken during the last Tet celebration that she spent with her family before leaving Vietnam (Figure 5.5). In the centre of the photograph are the bdiih clunig, rice cakes from North Vietnam that are usually served with giô lua, a dish of pork sausage that can be seen next to the rice cakes in the picture. Hièn recalled how Vietnamese families would once spend several days preparing the rice cakes, while most families now buy them ready-made in supermarkets. To the left of the picture is a bowl containing pumpkin seeds, which are another popular Vietnamese snack. As she described the photograph, Hièn recalled the many people who had been celebrating at her family home; Têt is traditionally a time for visiting family members and renewing relationships with living and deceased relatives. What the photograph cannot show (and what Hiên struggled to describe to me) is the unique taste of the sticky

Bânh chinig at Têt. Photograph taken by Hièn

Figure 5.5 Bânh chinig at Têt. Photograph taken by Hièn

glutinous rice wrapped in banana leaves. The bânh chinig embody multiple connections between home, family and identity, the material and spiritual worlds. While most participants find different ways to celebrate Têt with relatives and friends in the UK, the absence of foods that are integral to the festival has a profound effect on their emotions and increases the sense of separation between the worlds of Vietnam and Britain; of home and its absence.

Burrell (2014a) notes that foods which may once have been taken for granted become desired and cherished in the new location. Through food, the multiple scales of home-making are signified, from the bodily to the interpersonal, from the house to the nation and beyond. Examining the significance of food within migrant home-making demonstrates the close connections between material and emotional dimensions of home. It also underlines the possibilities of change inherent in the meaning of objects and possessions. The next section explores the ways in which participants’ homes in East London can be understood as spaces of connection in which practices, objects and ideas are shared, exchanged and reconfigured as part of the process of home-making in contexts of mobility.

Stretching home: translocal practices, objects and relationships

Translocal approaches theorise migrant homes as places of connection, not only through the movement of people and objects, but also through the exchange of ideas as migrants encounter new perspectives and interact with people from a range of backgrounds. From this viewpoint, migrant homes are constructed through and constitutive of what Brickell (2011) tenus ‘translocal cultural imaginaries’: the sharing of ideas and practices across local and national boundaries, as well as through literal forms of mobility (Brickell 2011: 32). The domestic spaces of my participants are centres of connection between persons, places and ideas. Several participants displayed objects or photographs that they had bought or been given on visits to various countries, most of which were associated with people, experiences and transitions in their lives. Ngoc’s bedroom in Limehouse contained numerous objects that had been brought back from her trips to the Netherlands, where her sister is currently studying. Ngoc pointed out some wooden clogs and a bowl decorated with traditional Dutch images, and noted that the majority of her ornaments were bought on similar trips:

That’s a souvenir from the Netherlands - they have the windmill on it and then the bowl is the colour of the flag I flunk, yeah. I think most of the stuff here is souvenirs, for example, like this lavender is from last summer when I visited the lavender fields.

Ngoc

Hang also enjoyed travelling and had visited several European destinations since arriving in the UK. The walls of Hang’s bedroom displayed photographs of the places she had visited and friends she had made on her trips. Hang also showed me a journal that she had kept since she was a teenager, and in which she collected the handprints, contact details and messages of people that she had met and become friends with on her travels. This notebook was a visual record of Hang’s experiences and transitions in her life since leaving her home in Vietnam, and she enjoyed looking thr ough the journal and remembering the people and places she had encountered. Hang’s photogr aphs and journal are examples of objects that are light enough to be transported and carried with people on their journeys, and such objects are valued by participants with limited space or temporary migration backgrounds.

In addition to exploring the domestic possessions that participants have brought with them from their homes in Vietnam, participants’ everyday home-making practices are influenced by the sending and receiving of objects between Vietnam and the UK. Participants were frequently sent objects relating to food preparation and cooking, items of furniture and home decoration, usually obtained from a relative visiting the UK, but sometimes through international delivery. Participants had also asked their relatives to send or bring medicines, cosmetics, foods, clothes and stationary. Minh described how Vietnamese people in the UK often preferred to obtain medicines from Vietnam, including traditional remedies, because they were familiar with these medicines and trusted them to treat their symptoms effectively. Western medicines are less familiar and comparatively expensive, and Minh remarked that doctors that she had consulted in London were either reluctant to prescribe particular medicines or did not prescribe ones that she thought appropriate for her condition. Online networks play a major role in participants’ sending and receiving practices. Minh showed me posts on the SVUK Facebook group in which members were advertising for items to be transported by people travelling to or from Vietnam. In addition to the obtaining of particular objects, some practices are also part of attempts to circumvent rales on luggage allowance and international monetary transfers.

Ngoc’s mother had been closely involved in furnishing and decorating the flat in which Ngoc lived with other Vietnamese students. Ngoc pointed out items in her bedroom that had been brought and sent from Vietnam by her mother, including a rag and curtains:

Oh yes, this rag - it’s not my idea, but my mum was like, because of the previous people who were living here, she’d actually get down on the floor and scrub the carpet twice with a detergent, but she still feels like, ‘you’re not walking there barefoot’! So she sent me a rag from Vietnam, and she said to just lay it dowrr here in case your blanket or pillow falls down or so you can walk bare feet inside, just don’t walk bare feet in the grey [carpeted] area, and I was just like . . . okay . . . but I never do it! I leave it out for her though. The previous curtains were really thin and I think she didn’t like them either, so basically she measured the dimension of the window and the length she wanted, then she actually went back to Vietnam and had it custom made.

Ngoc

Ngoc’s explanation highlights the influence of her mother’s views on her home and home-making practices, realised through the sending and transporting of items from Vietnam. While finance is undoubtedly a major factor in these decisions (as it is often cheaper to bring items from Vietnam than to purchase them in London), Vietnamese objects were often seen as more attractively designed and sometimes of superior quality. Ngoc’s narrative also speaks to the ways in which her mother is able to maintain her parental role and to remain involved in her daughter's home life despite the distance between them.

For some participants, it was the absence rather than the presence of certain objects and belongings that evoked the strongest sense of home. Sometimes these possessions were not items of obvious emotional or material value, but everyday objects that had taken on great significance with time and distance. Linh showed me an image of a particular form of bolster-like pillow that is popular in Vietnam, on which she slept at her parents’ home in Ho Chi Minh City. Linh missed the comfort of her favourite pillow, and told me how she wished that she had brought it with her, particularly because she was unable to find a similar one on sale in London. Apart from its sensory qualities of relaxation and rest, the pillow seemed to be a symbol of or focus for the dislocation and homesickness that Linh managed in her everyday life in the UK.

In a context of expanding global communication, migration research is increasingly focused upon the ways in which transnational relationships are maintained and reconfigured through the technologies of email, mobile phones, Skype and social networking (King-O’Riain 2015, Longhurst 2013, Madianou and Miller 2012). In a study of transnational families in Ireland, King-O’Riain proposes that using Skype enables families to create spaces of ‘transconnectivity’ in which they practise multiple forms of belonging over large distances (King-0'Riain 2015). While, historically, transnational families kept in contact using landline telephones and then mobile phone technologies, voice-over Internet protocols (VoIP) such as Skype are becoming increasingly popular forms of communication. Most of my participants used technologies including Skype or FaceTime (an equivalent application available through Apple devices) to contact their- relatives at least once a day. They often combmed Skype calls with other forms of online communication, such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, which allow the user to send instant messages. Although most participants used Skype to make discrete calls to specific relatives, often doing so at particular times of day or on the same days of the week, a minority of people remained connected to Skype for longer periods. These participants practised extended periods of communication by leaving their webcam connected while they completed other tasks, sometimes going away from the computer altogether and returning later in the day. Tuan described how he would keep Skype ‘on’ and connected to his mother all day, leaving it on in the background while he worked. Participants that use Skype in this way described not necessarily wanting to have a specific conversation, but to feel an ongoing sense of connection to their family, home and everyday life in Vietnam. King-O’Riain (2015) proposes that the instantaneity of Skype’s audio and visual aspects affect emotional relations in ways distinct to previous forms of communication. The ability to see and interact with loved ones in real time enables migrants to maintain a sense of closeness to then- loved ones and a feeling of being present in then- everyday lives (King-O’Riain 2015: 268). From a translocal perspective, these forms of communication srrggest that transnational families are not ‘emotionally disembedded', but remain connected in localities that are enabled by the increased use of Internet technologies (King-O’Riain 2015).

Whilst objects and practices are a significant aspect of creating a sense of home among many participants, other narratives illustrate the ways in which concepts of home stretch beyond the physical boundaries of the house. Several participants talked about their experiences of home and belonging in relation to the neighbourhood or the city rather than to the domestic space. For Hien, the location of her flat on the river Thames was a significant part of why she chose to live in the apartment, and was an ever-present reminder of the city (see Figure 5.6):

I think I like the fact that we have this window looking out to the river, to me it’s an expanded part of the flat - we don’t feel that we can only be here, we can always walk out there - that’s why I like this flat.

Hien

Alongside her aesthetic appreciation of the river view, HiSn’s narrative speaks to a sense of freedom and space in being able to access the river and spend time outside, rather than feeling confined within the relatively small space of her flat. The close proximity of the river made Hwn feel that this environment was also

View over the river Thames from HiSn’s apartment

Figure 5.6 View over the river Thames from HiSn’s apartment

part of her home in London, and an important aspect of her experience of living in the city.

Two other participants, Ngoc and TuSn, lived in flats on former local authority estates in Limehouse and Mile End respectively. Their flats each had views of Canary Wharf and the Gherkin: two of London’s most iconic buildings and symbols of financial power and wealth (Figure 5.7). Tuiin described how he chose his flat partly because of its view, and liked being surrounded by famous landmarks. Ngoc was interested in the juxtaposition between East London's high-rise estates, often associated with social deprivation, and the towering architecture of the City beyond. For several participants, views were a point of connection between their dwelling and the city that they had chosen to inhabit, and enabled their experiences of home to stretch beyond the boundaries of the house and into the wider city.

 
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