How Do You Belong?

What are ways to strengthen ties over time and place?

Posted Jul 22, 2020

Ton Nu Thi Ninh, used with permission
Madame Ton Nu Thi Ninh
Source: Ton Nu Thi Ninh, used with permission

I recently heard a talk given by one of Vietnam’s leading diplomats and cultural experts that raised a question about how we belong to communities. As so many of us continue to isolate ourselves from others because of health concerns, this was a message that hit me at the right time.

Madame Ton Nu Thi Ninh was an academic in Paris for many years: a diplomat for two decades and then a member of the National Assembly in Vietnam. She is now a committed social and cultural advocate. Her passion is helping people in Vietnam and other countries understand each other better and she spoke about Vietnamese families.  

Addressing students from three American universities, Madame Ninh described the Vietnamese family during the latter part of the 1900s, factors that have affected it, and how it is changing in the 21st century. For me, one of the most important points was a question about how we “belong” to communities. She used the rituals around death and commemoration of relatives as a jumping-off point to consider belonging.

What some foreigners falsely refer to as “ancestor worship,” she explained is a way to honor relatives who have died. This involves organizing annual dinners to bring relatives together on the anniversary of the deaths of her parents and her in-laws. The family members place some of the meal at the altar of the person being honored and then wait for incense to burn down before they sit for a meal together. 

Ninh calls it “belonging through time.” It’s a way to build a “generational chain,” and “an awareness of generational continuity.”

Likewise, she discussed the importance of Lunar New Year, or Tet holiday, when people return to the home where they were born, a village or city that could be far from where they live. This ritual of going back to the home village builds a sense of “belonging through space.” There is a geographic spot that brings a family together and they spend time in that community at least once per year.

Belonging through time and belonging through space.

In these days of pandemic separation, we need to prevent loneliness, to find ways to connect, and to be part of a community. We need to belong.