Omnipresence by Justine Teu
In her list essay “Omnipresence,” Justine Teu writes about superstitions and horror movies and the afterlife and ghosts—broadly understood, as the first ghost she learns about is God. “He is always watching over you,” her Catholic school teacher in Queens tells her, a revelation to a small girl with parents she describes as “fair-weather Buddhists,” Cantonese immigrants who’d brought their own cultural beliefs with them to the United States. In Catholic school she learns about sacraments and prayers and rituals. Her parents travel once a year to pay respects to “the biggest Buddha statue in America.” Teu devises her own private rituals, drawn to astrological charts and seven-day candles and superstitious behaviors to support her favorite baseball team. Like her Chinese ancestors, she regards certain numbers as lucky or unlucky. She enjoys horror movies as “safety videos” that introduce her to the enemy. “What I am interested in, specifically, are the rituals we use to surround ourselves to safeguard against everyday evils. Ghosts or demons or bad luck.” Her approach is syncretic and experimental.
In his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate observes that “the essay form as a whole has long been associated with an experimental method. This idea goes back to Montaigne and his endlessly suggestive use of the term essai for his writings. To essay is to attempt, to test, to make a run at something without knowing whether you are going to succeed.” Teu “essays” in this sense, trying out one set of answers and then another as she considers her subject, feeling her way forward in a spirit of inquiry. She explains that the “art of evasion” is part of how she was raised (“there is a sense that one should never get too close”), and the essay itself enacts the “art of evasion,” resisting structure, skirting subjects and returning to them. “From the beginning,” she writes in her author’s note, “I knew I wanted to format this essay through a numbered list.” While a numbered list can suggest sequential logic, Teu’s numbered list seems to give provisional form to the formless, functioning as another device to stave off anxiety. It is only late in the essay that she arrives at her point of departure (“perhaps that is what I’m looking for”), and then breaks away from her list with an unnumbered afterthought. —CRAFT
1. The first ghost I ever learn about is God, circa 1998, in a kindergarten classroom in Queens, New York. My parents have sent me to Catholic school not out of religious devotion, or some need for strictness, but because they needed someone to watch me while they went off to their full-time jobs in the city. My parents like the security of it: a retired schoolteacher oversees the breakfast program in the morning, doling out government-subsidized meals in white paper bags; I wear a jade pendant for luck while I learn about Jesus; and then my grandparents pick me up in the afternoon, where they feed me enough home cooking to make up for breakfast. He is always watching over you, the religion teacher tells us, in a way a first grader will understand: He is everywhere and everything all at once, which I later learn means “omnipresent.”
2. Which is not to say that I am a Catholic. I belong to no denomination, or belief system, save for my family’s fair-weather Buddhism. But my father, ex-military, likes the idea of the commandments. Rules for good living, which in turn means a life kept out of trouble. Safe. Yet in such a school, which I attend up until eighth grade, what I don’t remember are commandments, or what prayers to say. All that lingers is some feeling that life will go terribly wrong, if one does not abide by the invisible forces around them. For Catholics, something very wrong may mean a sudden pestilence on one’s house; for the Chinese, it may mean a sudden veering away from a secure life.
3. In the introduction to Jorge Luis Borges’s On Mysticism, Maria Kodama writes, “At every moment the agnostic is attempting to understand the intangible in the only exclusively human way—through reason.”
4. That sounds awfully like superstition, putting these inexplicable forces in their place. For instance, Chinese families like to avoid the number four when getting new license plates. In Cantonese, the number sounds like the verb for “death” if you say it in the wrong tone, so I can understand why people don’t want to associate it with driving on superhighways. Actually, part of me feels strange for even including a fourth entry. When you take an elevator in Hong Kong, you’ll notice that most buildings don’t include a fourth floor, much in the same way people avoid thirteen in the United States. Still, the United States is a fairly young nation, so thirteen doesn’t really scare me. Four does though. The Cantonese dialect is older than my country of origin, so I give it its due reverence.
5. But my aim is not to define or dismiss a particular belief system of a country or a religion. What I am interested in, specifically, are the rituals we use to surround ourselves to safeguard against everyday evils. Ghosts or demons or bad luck. Whatever you’d like to call them. The Catholics use prayers and sacraments to guard against the worst, which doesn’t feel far off from what the fair-weather Buddhists do: once a year my family likes to drive up to the biggest Buddhist temple in New York State, about an hour away from the city, to bow three times in front of the biggest Buddha statue in North America. Perhaps we do pray, but what we don’t do is ask for reconciliation, or some communion with the body of some Buddhist version of Christ. We only have one genre, when it comes to prayer, and it doesn’t usually involve forgiveness or retrospection. In front of the giant Buddha, we ask for good health, good fortune, admittance into good colleges, good jobs, good relationships that might hopefully lead to good marriages. This is the way for the nondenominational, agnostic, fair-weather Buddhists, of many immigrant Chinese families: with little time in the day to self-flagellate, we silently ask for the best and hope we get it in the near future.
6. In Catholic school, they make us buy plastic craft beads and construct rosaries every year in the spring, which we then use to marathon-pray. I can never remember the exact sequencing, but I know it often involves a lot of Hail Marys and at least one longer Apostles’ Creed. We learn about the sacrament of Reconciliation, which involves confessing your sins to a priest in a booth and then getting prescribed a bunch of prayers for true penance. I try it once, but only in a mock session with the religion teacher, for you have to be baptized to actually do the real thing with the priest. It’s the second grade at this point, and I begin to worry that all the evil in my body, unconfessed and unreleased, will fill like bile in my stomach and kill me. I suppose it’s the closest I’ve ever come to an existential crisis in my young age, so much so that I go home to my parents later and ask if I should get baptized, but they just laugh and assure me I should keep focusing on my grades. The next time we head to the Buddhist temple, they simply usher me into the gift shop, where they arm me with a new jade pendant, a beaded tourmaline bracelet, and a gold-plated card inscribed with a picture of Guanyin for good measure. I suppose these charms are the next best thing, when we have no measures for absolution.
7. But I also wonder how much ritual one can arm themselves with. Now that I’m grown, I am no longer under God’s roof, attending First Friday Devotions or learning about beatitudes. The yearly trips to the Buddhist temple continue, but I’ve found myself more consistent in my own found spiritual practices, even if they feel guided by generational trends. There used to be a certain seediness to looking to the occult for answers, but lately, everyone’s been doing it: buying crystals promising potent spiritual change, getting their tarot decks from Urban Outfitters. I’m often looking into my own astrological forecasts, tracking moon cycles to explain my moods or streaks of bad luck. More recently, I’ve even delved into seven-day candles: tall, glass-encased candles that often need seven days of uninterrupted burning to finish; for seven days, the lit candle becomes a living entity sitting atop your wardrobe. How the flame burns can be an indicator of present spiritual forces, or a premonition of things to fix in your life. A tall, crackling flame can mean something or someone is trying to speak to you. Black soot all the way to the bottom, at the end of a burn, can mean that your wish or question cannot be answered by the spirits, that there is some sort of disconnection with your heavenly messengers.
8. This is where I start to wonder about the practical dangers of leaving a seven-day candle lit, and whether or not I’ve amassed enough good karma to avoid a house fire. Some spiritualists say it’s fine to snuff it out, while others advise to leave it in a bathtub, or near a pan of water, in case a sudden earthquake were to strike. But practically, I’m not afraid of earthquakes; I care more about keeping that flame alive. So I sometimes make a point system: deduct for all the unconfessed sins; add for all the Buddhist temple ware; deduct again for the mere act of writing about the possibility of danger and inviting it, in what everyone is calling manifestation. But then again, maybe it’s all fine, because this entry so happens to be at number eight, which is perhaps the luckiest number in Chinese culture. Sometimes, it’s tiring, taking stock of the ghosts that are watching, waiting for me to amass some karmic debt. I feel that even a cent’s worth might mean danger.
9. But some might say that I’m more well guarded than most, when it comes to protection from ghosts or bad tidings. For one, Chinese culture often teaches the value of humility, as not to attract the attention of spirits who think you’re boasting. My mother often tells my sister and me about how she used to treat us as babies: I never said you were cute, or beautiful, or pretty, because there was a chance that some bad spirits might want to take you away from me. As a way to misdirect whatever malignant forces were always watching, she’d insist we were quite hideous as babies, as a lot of Cantonese mothers did. In a way, this passed-down superstition makes me feel that I was born with a trust fund of good karma, which in turn led into an upbringing of spiritual blue-bloodedness, some proper etiquette in the face of ghosts; there is an expectation, in our face-saving society, to live with great humility, even at the expense of your own moment of glory. Don’t brag, I’ve always been told, which sounds more like, Don’t attract ghosts. Please put yourself away.
10. I sometimes wonder if spiritualism requires constant combat. I don’t mean like a holy crusade, but the personal rules one devises in order to make sense of the bad things that have happened and might happen in the future. Don’t forget to wear your evil eye ring. Avoid Gemini suns. Don’t talk about that one good thing; you’ll jinx it. Perhaps this sort of gingerness only comes across this way because I am both the child of immigrants and the child of shaky capitalism. I fear everything: getting pushed onto the tracks in an instant of anti-Asian hatred; for the well-being of loved ones; whether I’ll be able to buy a house at some point, some real shelter to call home. But there is a sense that I must succeed in this strange world, using the base that my parents and their parents had to lay down until their hands were mottled with scars and wrinkles. And there is a lore around this kind of past experience, trauma. On my mother’s side, they often tell a story about how they decided to come to the United States, that one day, while my mother was working in a fish factory in Hong Kong, she sliced her finger so badly from a fish bone that she could see the white of her own. Her mother decided the event was so heinous that it was time to hightail it to the United States, where they would take their superstitions with them. Do not flip the spine of a dinner’s steamed fish, if you are getting on a boat the following morning. Do not put seven dishes on a table, for they only do that for postfuneral meals. Do not, do not, do not.
11. By the time I turn twenty-three, I book time with a psychologist. I tell her that I sometimes feel like I can see into the future, a thousand steps ahead. It is the first time I see my anxiety as soothsaying. Divination.
12. Sometimes I’ll devise my own rituals outside of what I’ve learned in Catholic school, or my own cultural osmosis. Take sports, for instance, which I watch in ebbs and flows of devotion. During the 2010 Major League Baseball postseason, during a particularly competitive series between the New York Yankees and the Texas Rangers, I find myself caught in the most intense fit of anxiety during the first game, which has the Rangers up five-nothing by the bottom of the fourth inning. In baseball, this is a pretty steep deficit to climb back from, though not impossible. I’m too antsy to watch from bed, so there I am, standing inches away from the television, willing the Yankees to score. I go against what is written in Matthew 4:5-7, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test,” and make a promise to whatever celestial force may be listening, that I will not move from my spot until the Yankees score. And when they do, at the top of the seventh, which then turns into a comeback in the next inning, I decide that my new god is this spot in front of the television. I convince myself that standing here will grant not only me immense power, but also an entire professional baseball team. I remember thinking my devotion will be enough to take them to the World Series, though they end up getting eliminated before that.
13. And I know I should really focus on where I am at the moment, I tell the psychologist when I’m twenty-three. I know but I do not stay.
14. My mother actively avoids ghost movies. Besides the general scare factor, I sense that she thinks she’ll attract whatever spirit comes across on screen. But I love them: how the crosses spin upside down; how the dead girl crawls out of the well; how the stupid people don’t have enough sense to avoid the old-timey artifacts with their ancient curses. I like them because I have enough sense to avoid that kind of danger. In a way, watching these movies makes me feel like I’m committing to a sort of regular disaster preparedness, like someone watching safety videos in their already fully stocked bomb shelter. I know the enemy. I rubberneck other people’s misfortunes, from a safe distance. Besides, most of my experience with horror movies comes from a western lens, where four is just another number and East Asians are relegated to the safety of menial roles. For once, I like that I don’t see myself represented. It is enough to add another layer of safety.
15. It has taken me a long while to commit to watching horror movies from Hong Kong, where my family is from. Throughout my teenage years and my twenties, I gorge on horror from the rest of East Asia: Japan, South Korea, even Mainland China. Mostly Japan. To date, I’ve seen every iteration of the Ju-On franchise, which many people know as The Grudge, and I’ve even gone as far as to indulge my fascination with ghosts with more obscure films like Ugetsu, which came out in 1953. I find that consuming these movies is a way of getting closer to my own culture’s lore, if not delving right into it: just as most East-Asian cultures despise the number four, there is that same uncleanliness about a death that isn’t considered natural. Yet as I run parallel to my own ghosts, I know watching Mainland Chinese horror, or Japanese horror, or Korean horror is not the same as making real contact; but maybe that’s just a matter of how I’ve been raised, through this art of evasion. There is a sense that one should never get too close to knowing our own ghosts.
16. But then again, haven’t I been raised with all kinds of ghosts at this point? Queens is the most diverse borough in all of New York City. I know my spirits aren’t just one thing. They can recite the Hail Mary by heart and watch playoff baseball.
17. Sometimes I’ll take meaningless internet quizzes to pass the time. I often encounter questions about what I fear most, followed by some typical answer choices, like heights, or the dark, or thunderstorms. I’m often torn between two options: ghosts and being alone.
18. At the beginning of the pandemic, my maternal grandfather dies after struggling with an ailing heart. It is a blow for sure, but not entirely unexpected, as he’d been saying that he was not long for this world for many years, and had even picked a burial plot out for himself in New Jersey beforehand. It is a death we are prepared for, like people who board up their windows before a storm. Before the funeral, we lay out the red underwear we’ll wear under our black clothes; we buy the paper we’ll burn for him in the incinerator; we make sure to look away from the coffin as it is closed, for there is a superstition that part of your soul will go with the deceased if one makes direct eye contact in that moment. We are ready for that invisible force. And after the service, we make sure not to go home immediately, make sure to eat something sweet, hop over a bucket of fire, to rid ourselves of any remaining bad fortune.
19. But tailing us is another invisible force of death, the kind you can only see under the lens of a microscope. At the beginning of the pandemic, the city shuts down and people are dying. But what they don’t talk about, or at least what people don’t think about, is that the dead still have to be buried. All across the city, bodies are stored in makeshift freezers to await their proper burial rituals. In New York City, they adopt a regulation that only ten people can attend a service, fully masked at all times. My mother, who is robbed of a proper mourning, worries about the pandemic floating over our heads. After spending weeks at the hospital taking care of her father, she knows the drill by now: discard your clothes as soon as you get home, get in the shower immediately and wash from head to toe. Usually, the washing is something we do after funerals to ensure that we rinse off any residual bad luck, but now it’s a practical ritual, the kind done to ward off another kind of death unseen.
20. Every spring, we go and tend to my grandfather’s grave in a ritual called han san. He has what I’d call a standard plot: one simple headstone, and then enough space to place two fresh pots of supermarket begonias. The New Jersey graveyard, which honestly could do a better job of maintaining the grounds, puts up a sign that says, NO PERENNIALS. And while we do listen, some of the other Chinese families with plots around us don’t: they plant young saplings and shrubs that’ll only grow and grow and grow, tall enough to guard the giant estates of the plots they’ve bought. My father, while lighting our joss sticks with his portable blowtorch, tells me that you can always tell if a plot is Fujianese: their more ostentatious headstones, large enough to rival living room sectionals, house twenty or more plots, and they’ll sometimes even build stone tables and chairs to sit at the base of their space to round out the property. We even joke to my grandfather then and there: Wow, Gong Gong, you have some rich next-door neighbors. I briefly question if he’ll be envious, but then quickly discard the thought, for as long as you sweep the grave and pay your respects, none of your ghosts will go hungry.
21. It was not until last week that I watched A Chinese Ghost Story, a Hong Kong horror classic from 1987. I’m not sure why, but I always thought it’d be more menacing. I’d seen the poster for the movie as a kid: the crimson red of the photo’s background, like blood, and the blank-faced stares of the actors playing ghosts and nonghosts alike. I thought, How uncanny. Outright scary. As a child, I felt that everything about the movie poster, the name, seemed too straightforward, and that the spirits were too front and center for my liking. But watching it, I was pleasantly surprised: though the movie pertains to the dead, it begins with an act of lovemaking by candlelight, with sensuous close-ups of the bare flesh between two very-alive people. The fight scenes, in Wuxia tradition, are both flowing yet frenetic. The main ghost of the movie, a temptress named Nip Siu-sin, takes on none of the usual markers of specter: her skin is still warm with color; she changes her robes; she gets to fall in love, and with someone living, at that. For her new lover, she decides to stop seducing men so that the true antagonist of the movie, a tree demon, can stop taking their souls. And ultimately, despite that great love, she passes on, and the movie ends in a ray of sunlight. Rather than hopeful, the movie’s conclusion feels rather matter of fact, much in the same way time cycles from night to day.
22. As the credits roll, I find it interesting that life and death are allowed to coexist in such a way, perhaps not as a lasting union, but at least a meaningful fling. Perhaps that is what I’m looking for too: some moment of connection with these invisible forces that doesn’t have to feel like I’m safeguarding against them.
23. Is that maybe what I’m looking for, when I light the seven-day candle, and when I watch the flame dance like someone’s dancing in the room with me? Or when I used to pray at night, perhaps not to any god, but whoever might pick up on my transmission? What is so frightening about spirits to begin with? Isn’t the whole world looking to kill us anyway? Why add another danger to fear?
24. Originally, I did not intend to end this essay on the twenty-fourth entry. If four in Cantonese culture is an ill-fated number because it sounds like to die, I worry that twenty-four might even surpass four in terms of bad energy. I’d even originally intended to list this twenty-fourth item as some sort of afterword, much in the way some superstitious contractors omit the thirteenth floor from their newly erected buildings. In Cantonese, the number two sounds a lot like easy, so when you pair the two digits together, two and four, it sounds like easy to die. But everything must come to an end, sooner or later, human life and personal essays alike. I could’ve avoided this number, or written dozens of more points until I hit the number eighty-eight, which would have meant double the luck to counteract the bad. But then ultimately I remember that I’m also a fair-weather Buddhist. When we learned about other belief systems in my Catholic school religion class, we read blurbs about Judaism and Islam and Zoroastrianism, and then the main tenet of actual Buddhism: Nothing lasts. And that is the only thing that surrounds us.
At the end of the day, I’ve been raised to make myself uneasy to die. To hate the idea so violently that I put a lot of care and vigor into a proper, safe life. In fact, I should have taken this paragraph break to move onto the next numbered point, if only to end this essay on a luckier note. But perhaps this small rebellion is my way of alleviating my own anxieties with such matters, and to ultimately make this zone someplace free from the borders of life and death.
JUSTINE TEU is a Brooklyn-based writer with writing in or forthcoming in Passages North, The Offing, Pidgeonholes, Pigeon Pages, VIDA Review, and other publications. She holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School. Additionally, she has recently served as an Emerging Fiction Fellow at Aspen Words, and has received support from the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference and the New York State Summer Writers Institute. She teaches creative writing at the Gotham Writers Workshop, where she focuses on helping new writers find their voices. Find her on Twitter at @justinecteu.
Featured image by Niklas Ohlrogge, courtesy of Unsplash.