American Ghosts and the Electronic Altar

October 06, 1991|By ANDREW LAM

Beneath the wooden altar in my aunt's house sits a large television set. It is often turned on while my aunt lights incense sticks to commemorate the dead. "Might as well," she says, pointing to the TV where Ricky is complaining to Lucy. "A couple of incense sticks for our Vietnamese ancestors, and a couple more for the strange American ghosts below."

Eccentric though my aunt may be, she is far from crazy. If in the East the wooden altar serves as a house of souls, the TV set in America has become our own version of a box of spirits, or a kind of electronic altar, if you will.

Fei Xiaotong, a world-renowned Chinese anthropologist who visited America in the 1950s, believes this country is void of ghosts.

Americans move about and form few, if any, permanent ties to places and people, he says. Americans look toward the future; Americans illuminate all parts of a room; how could ghosts have a place to dwell in America?

But the bright and shiny America that Mr. Fei saw in the '50s is long gone. The '50s cartoon heroes have long been replaced by Jason and Freddy Krueger. America of the psychedelic '60s, and the America that survived the defeat of the Vietnam war, the era of drugs and street violence and growing public distrust and disillusion, this America understands very well the language of nightmares, bad luck and ghosts.

Human ties may be weakening, but wherever we Americans go, we bring our "portable altars" with us. The altar with its magical screen gives us a two dimensional landscape wherein familiar faces greet us nightly like members of our own family. And sometimes, since we are often alone and isolated, they are more intimate than our own real intimates. At a push of a button, an array of well acquainted ghosts and spirits and sitcoms parade into our living rooms.

A friend of mine from Berkeley, a "Trekkie", has memorized every line Captain Kirk ever said on Star Trek. He repeats the lines with a kind of reverence one would expect from a devoted Buddhist monk reciting his sacred diamond sutra.

"The Brady Bunch's house is more familiar to me than my own family's house," says another friend. She lives alone and cannot remember very well the real things she left behind at her parents home. But she still remembers clearly where Cindy sleeps; where Peter leaves his bike; and Jan loses her locket. "Isn't that strange?" she asks.

The dead return. Not just movie stars but dead family members (( come back too, on video tape.

On the anniversary of my uncle's death, our large family gathered to watch him sing. The VCR image of Uncle Phat in his tuxedo at his daughter's wedding has been forever captured by a camcorder. My dead uncle sang his favorite songs in his warm soprano voice and once more he made us weep.

The ghosts that dance and sing on TV bring assurance to secular America. These American boxes, in some perverse way, serve to connect us to a large part of our past and form a kind of tradition. Plots are repeated; TV families live on; sitcoms we knew as children give us a sense of continuity.

"Rickiiieee!" the Lucy ghost cries. "Ay yai yai, yai yai!" the Ricky ghost responds. We, the living, laugh.

And so the American tragi-comedy comes to an eerie point here, at least through this Asian immigrant's view: Americans have come, at long last, to worship ghosts.

Andrew Lam is a Vietnamese-born writer now living in San Francisco. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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