My mother turned 70 recently, and though she remains a vivacious woman - Her hair is still mostly black, and there is still a girlish twang in her laughter - mortality is nevertheless heavy on her soul. After the gifts were opened and the cake eaten, mother nevertheless whispered this confidence to her younger sister: “Who will light incense to the dead when I’m gone?” My aunt shook her head and said. “Honestly, I don't know. None of my children will do it, and we can forget the grandchildren. They don't even understand what we are doing when we pray to the dead. I guess when we’re gone, the ritual ends.”
Such, alas, is the price for living in America. I myself can't remember the last time I lit incense sticks and talked to my dead ancestors. Having fled so far from Vietnam, I can no longer imagine what to say, or how I should address my prayers, or for that matter what promises I could possibly make to the long departed.
My mother, on the other hand, lives in America the way she would in Vietnam. Every morning in my parents’ suburban home north of San Jose, with a pool shimmering in the backyard, my mother climbs a chair and piously lights a few joss sticks for the ancestral altar which sits on top of the living room's bookcase. Every morning she talks to ghosts.
She mumbles solemn prayers to the spirits of our dead ancestors, and to the all-compassionate Buddha. By contrast, on the shelves below stand my older siblings' engineering and business degrees, my own degree in biochemistry from Berkeley, our combined sports trophies, and, last but not least, the latest installments of my own unending quest for self-reinvention — plaques and obelisk-shaped crystals — my journalism awards. What mother's altar and the shelves beneath it seek to tell is the narrative of many an Asian immigrant family's journey to America. The collective, agrarian based ethos in which ancestor worship is central slowly gives way to the glories of individual ambitions in a highly modernized country.
At the end of the Asian immigrant narrative, however, I will readily admit that I cannot help but feel a certain twinge of guilt and regret upon hearing my mother's remark. Once when I was still a rebellious teenager and living at home, my mother asked me to speak more Vietnamese inside the house. " No," I answered in English, "what good is it to speak it, mom? It's not as if I'm going to use it after I move out."
Mother, I remember, had this look of pain in her eyes and called me the worst thing she could muster. "You've become a little American now, haven't you? A cowboy." Vietnamese appropriated the word "cowboy" from the movies to imply selfishness. A cowboy in Vietnamese estimation is a rebel who, as in the spaghetti westerns, leaves town, the communal life, to ride alone into the sunset. America, it had seemed, had stolen her children, especially her youngest and once filial son. America seduced him with its optimism, twisted his thinking, bent his tongue and dulled his tropic memories. America gave him freeways and fast food and silly cartoons and sitcoms, imbuing him with sappy, happy ending incitements. If we have reconciled since then, it did not mean however that I had become a traditional, incense lighting Vietnamese son. I visit. I take her to lunch. I come home for important dates - new year, thanksgiving, Tet.
But these days in front of the family altar, with all those faded photos of the dead staring down at me, I often feel oddly removed, as if staring not at the present, but a piece of my distant past. And when, upon my mother's insistence, I light an incense, I do not feel as if I am participating in a living tradition so much as pleasing my mother.
We live in two different world, after all, mother and I. Mine is a world of travel and writing and public speaking; hers is a world of consulting the Vietnamese horoscope and eating vegetarian food on full moon, of attending Buddhist temple on the day of her parents death anniversaries.
But at her 70th birthday, and having listened to her worries, I had to wonder: what will, indeed, survive my mother? I wish I could say that I will pick it up as naturally as any Vietnamese in Vietnam would. I wish I could assure my mother that, after she is gone, each morning I would light incense for her and all the ancestors spirits before her, but I can't.
Yet, if some rituals die, some others have only just begun. I am, after all, not a complete cowboy, dear mother. Every morning I write, rendering memories into words. I write, going back further, re-invoking the past precisely because it is irretrievable. I write, if only, in the end, to take leave.
And this morning with the San Francisco fog drifting outside my window that it occurs to me that mine too, strangely enough, is a kind of filial impulse, an effort to reconcile between mother's world and my own. As I type these words, the sounds of my fingers gliding on the keyboard remind me, oddly enough, of the solemnity of my mother's morning prayers.