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Washing Fingertips

Voices | October 28, 2019

I believe in aromatherapy. I believe that when I light incense and mix the ashes with jasmine oil, smearing the paste in a streak over the tops of window panes, the sandalwood scent of my ancestors settles into my hair and my space is cleansed.

I believe in acupuncture. I believe that when a dozen pinpricks break my skin and re-route the chi rivers of my body, my biological and queer ancestors are tracing my meridians with me, relaxing my weary bones and allowing me to exist to simply exist.

I believe in religion. I believe that when I reclaim the word “religion,” I am dissolving the colonial boundaries manufactured to trap my narrative in a Judeo-Christian framework; I am constructing a serendipitous way that invents myself as a future ancestor. I believe that, one day, following generations will venerate me in the same rituals I honor my ancestors in.

Every morning, I rinse my face and rub rose water into my skin. I feel like my grandmother as I wear her clothes and fastidiously apply foundation because every good refined Cantonese womxn must have a clear complexion. I always wash my hands after I apply foundation. I always wash my hands when I enter a holy space, and when I come home from errands. When I come home, I take off my silver, jade, and pearl jewelry—a watch from my parents, my great-grandfather’s jade necklace, rings from my godmother and grandmother—and allow my family to relax with me. I change from my street clothes into older, softer clothing, because every good refined Cantonese family has their house clothes.

The ritual I described for you is honest and true. Every morning, I grumpily splash water on my face to rinse off my acne medication, spray toner onto my face and rub it in so my skin doesn’t dry out. I always wash my hands after I apply foundation because I apply my face makeup with my fingertips. I take off my jewelry when I get home because it’s annoying when I lie down on my bed to scroll on my phone. My house clothes are old pajamas, flannel pants, t-shirts from high school clubs, and a pair of old slippers.

Is my daily ritual religious?

Your belief in the religiosity of my ritual is based upon my romanticized narrative of it—if I were to show you the bottle of my foundation and tell you it had a place in a “diasporic Cantonese Religious ritual,” you’d probably be incredulous, or deeply curious at the very least.

It is the ritualistic context that gives the foundation meaning, with its tension between traditional cultural practices and contemporary forms of gender expression, and the paradoxical fact that I couldn’t really care less about what others interpret as the religiosity of my daily practices.

The labeling of practices, objects, and phenomena as “religious” originates out of settler colonialism and its need to ‘other.’ By declaring certain things as “religious” and others as “idolatrous,” “animalistic,” or “witchcraft,” an exploitative binary is constructed wherein marginalized religions must adapt to the creation of the category of “religion” to prove themselves valid. In other words, marginalized religions either must define themselves along colonial Judeo-Christian terms or they will be cast aside as “idolatry.” I use the word “religion” to refer to my practices, though it is problematic, because it is a shorthand that people recognize.

The colonial need to study and define indigenous, minority, and local religions often manifests today as the pressure exerted on people of marginalized religions to justify their practices, communities, spaces, and worldviews. I often face religious microaggression when (mostly) white people ask me to define what I mean when I say I’m Chan Buddhist, Daoist, or when they ask me why I find certain practices or objects divine. I have a right to opacity, to not be transparent; I am allowing you to join me on my daily ritual, but you are only seeing a window into my practices. I control the curtain and blinds.

One day, my grandmother stopped applying foundation every morning, and that ritual ended. My daily makeup application has now been declining for months such that it is now occasional—because of the barriers of mental health and my nonbinary experiences of gender-fluid expression and dysphoria. The disruptions of this ritual have made me value its existence all the more. Even though this ritual is not quite “daily” anymore, I find that its transience allows me to define for myself what “religious” means. Religion for me means the habitual, the normal, the inconsequential. Putting on foundation and washing my fingertips is almost meaningless, and that’s the paradoxical point.

I believe that when we take a step back from defining what is “religious,” what is “ritual,” we become that much more liberated to enjoy and celebrate anything and everything as sacred, meaningful, or radically meaningless. Ultimately, I have no idea what my grandmother was thinking when she put on her makeup, when she put on the very same zebra-print blouse and silver ring I am wearing now. I believe, though, that there’s something deeply profound in sharing that ritual. Reaching across generations to occupy the same motions, fingertips to skin, wearing each other’s clothes: I become a future ancestor living in the present. 

I believe in whisking matcha, steeping tea leaves, brewing my grandmother’s instant coffee as my father makes her toast. I believe in the warmth of the first sip of a scaldingly hot drink. I refuse to believe that hot drinks stagnate my chi, because I am not a good, refined Cantonese Daoist, and honestly because I frequent cafes too much.