knees bent to the hard floor.
in certain angles of light, her hair glistens in a shade mixed between mahogany and burgundy.
autumn brown. maroon.
a necklace of black beads rests in her hand, as she feels its slick surface with her fingers, softened from work.
i wonder what she prays for. is it the same prayers i think quietly to myself in school hallways, in the restroom, over boiling water, and as i edge my way around her?
At some point during the bustle of yesterday’s Lunar New Year’s celebrations, my brother asked me “Do you remember what we did for New Year’s last year?”
I sat with my thoughts for awhile, picking my brain for vivid images of what my family did to ring in the year of the monkey, but nothing that I could associate with that specific time appeared. The only images that did appear were muddled. Time and memories blurred. I couldn’t remember what happened when. The only thing I knew for sure of was that we didn’t visit ah ma’s (maternal grandma) last year. We didn’t get to call lie ma (paternal grandma) to wish her a happy new year over the phone. But I still spoke to them in prayers, wishing for them to watch over us from above.
Since they both passed away at the end of 2015 (has that much time really passed?), the rituals and traditions my parents practice with us have developed even more significance for me.
Growing up in a Buddhist household as a second-generation Teochew American in San Gabriel Valley, I always saw our religion more of a cultural practice than a religious faith. The glowing red from the Buddha shrine was what I associated with being Chinese… or Vietnamese… or Chinese Vietnamese… or Teochew? An ethnic identity I’ve struggled with for years as a child. In certain ways growing up, I knew I was Asian — whatever that meant to little me. But the question of ethnicity? It came when I was asked to pack myself neatly into the boxes that school and government documents drew for me. I thought I could only choose one out of the few options they gave me.
When I was younger, I knew that we visited temple on New Year’s, in addition to a handful of other days out of the year. That when the adults knelt down and clasped their hands together — their lips moving to form phrases powerful enough to bring health, prosperity, and peace — I followed suit. We brought foods to lay on the red countertop, using the multicolor plates in varied sizes that the temple provided for us to stack our oranges and plop down our veggie baos. Our bows always came in threes. We held the incense high above our heads. I always smelled it in my hair hours after. Pockets of warm ashy scents buried themselves in my clothes and pillowcase, following me everywhere I went.
These are practices I have felt in waves of cultural pride, indifference, and shame throughout my life. I know enough and too little all at the same time. I’ve spent many years growing up paying little attention to the details of our prayers and our offerings, of why we do what we do. We just did it.
Every big day for prayer, ah ma would prepare a big meal to offer to our ancestors or the deities. For the day we prayed to gong (grandpa), she would cook some of his favorite foods. He liked drinking coffee and alcohol, she told me once. To this day, mommy offers him coffee when we visit his shrine at the temple. It sits next to ah ma’s cup of tea.
Her fridge was always full of produce, fish, and meat. During my gap year before returning to graduate school, I would tag along with mommy to visit her on Wednesdays. She always wanted to go to the supermarket to buy groceries, often forgetting her fridge was already stocked with things about to expire. This was a routine we repeated most weeks. Mommy would ask her if she was sure she didn’t already have food, but ah ma insisted.
Hawaii Supermarket. She walked through those aisles with a purpose. When we reached the meat section, she called to the butchers and pointed at what she wanted. I would follow closely behind her with the shopping cart, watching as she picked at the fish lying on their ice beds. With the tongs, she pulled up their fins to check if they were still red underneath. That’s how we check if they’re fresh.
When ah ma transitioned into hospice care in November 2015 after exhausting weeks of checking in and out of the hospital, she came back to her home. I don’t remember, but her fridge must have still been full of groceries. Everyday, there would be family members who visited and slept over. My aunties would cook and order big meals. Phở. Cá Nướng. Bún riêu. Between dinners, we sat in ah ma’s room to keep her company. It was some of the first few times in years that all our immediate families were in the same room, that my brothers, parents, and I joined the family gatherings. Navigating the space created by years of silence and distance took time. These last few evenings that we spent together reminded me of the Saturday nights we all used to spend at ah ma’s old apartment near Main Street in Alhambra when I was a kid. When I greeted her or said my goodbyes during visits over the years, I always looked forward to her sniffing kisses. Her hands always felt so soft under mine.
As I’ve grown older, my relationship with our cultural and religious practices have also grown.
The first day of this new year, we visited ah ma at temple. Bah (dad) had already visited two days prior with goo goo (oldest auntie) to offer vegetarian food and fruits. Each time we go to temple, I pay closer and closer attention to the words mommy prays under her breath, the ways both her and bah set the food on the table, the areas we bie (pray) and cha heeuoy (put the incense). Each week that we went during the 49 days after ah ma passed, I tried my best to remember everything in the temple — where her tablet is, where all of our names are, tracing the characters in my mind and repeating words in teochew.
I’m learning to take each prayer, each offering, each superstition as an important aspect of my identity, a mix of my culture and spirituality. I don’t think I knew what it meant to believe in something bigger than myself until this past year. To be able to place my faith in values and beliefs that are larger than me has been a large source of comfort when grief and pain continue to manifest in dreams and aches. My silent, yet loud neighbors. I remember looking at the adults in the room when we said our goodbyes to ah ma and lie ma, wondering what faith meant to them at a time when things felt so out of control. Then, I remember looking at the other kids in the family and wondering what the prayers meant for them now. For me. My hands clasped.
Every morning, I wake up in prayer. Every night, I fall asleep to prayer. My thoughts in Teochew.