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This article is part of Mochi’s Summer 2022 issue, highlighting the Everyday Asian American. Media often covers Asian Americans who are exceptional and defying odds (hey Chloe Kim!) or, sadly, when tragedy strikes the Asian community. In this issue, Mochi is switching things up and celebrating what the everyday Asian American enjoys, what’s on our minds, and what life looks like for us. Check out the rest of our issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us by buying us a boba through Ko-fi.

In Vietnamese culture, I grew up with the notion that death is never the end of love and remembrance — it is just another state of being. Looking back, I am digging through how it has shaped my understanding of death and the love and care we put into our everyday ancestral worship and altars of celebration at home. I have noticed the contrast between American funerals I’ve witnessed firsthand and Vietnamese funerals I’ve heard about and seen through family photo albums. As I still navigate the understanding of the living as I progress through life, my mindset and humility with regards to death has definitely shaped my everyday life as a Vietnamese American woman. 

My grandmother passed away in 1986 in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam, a year before my mother came to the United States. They were all set to move to the US together but cancer took my grandmother before they were able to. I never knew my grandmother but I always had her picture on our family altar to look at and all of the stories my mom would say about her. 

According to my mom, Vietnamese create a great altar and two Buddhist monks to pray to in order to let the soul reach the afterlife. All family members wear specific white funeral clothing. Only the children wear white funeral headpieces, while extended family wear white headbands. Family members walk through the streets with a van of their beloved and their picture in the front. After they are buried, a picture of the deceased is given to the Buddhist temple and they place it with others in remembrance. Family must visit every day for seven weeks to pray to help the spirit: the first two days are spent preparing the body, altar, and rituals; the wake and burial in the cemetery is on third day; and the remaining 46 days are spent praying at a Buddhist temple. It can differ from family to family and how traditional their methods are. There is so much care and caution as ancestral worship is a significant part of Vietnamese culture. Families honor and mourn extensively, as even when loved ones pass, they are still with you, just in another form. 

The first time I personally had an encounter with loss in my family was in 2003 when I was 5 years old. My maternal grandpa had passed away at the age of 92, and my family had rushed over to California to attend the funeral. At the time, I didn’t understand the meaning of what it meant to be at a funeral or how to act. Unlike my grandmother’s funeral, it was prepared and executed in the American tradition. We all wore black and went to pay our respects in a church. I remember looking down at him and wondering why he was green and why everyone was upset. After a quick ceremony, we moved to the cemetery where he was buried. After all of that, we went home. Looking back on it now, I am in awe about how clueless I was and how I hadn’t grasped the concept of death yet. 

In our family Buddhist Temple back in Phoenix, we placed my grandfather’s picture up with the other deceased family members, including my grandmother and two aunts. Though he seems far away, buried in another state, I can still see him at our own family altar or at the Temple during times of celebration such as Tết. When I go to the Buddhist temple to pray or set up for prayer at home, I always ask for my ancestors’ knowledge and protection. I feel like I can ground myself and feel comfort in how they watch over me and all of their loved ones. Though we are far away from Vietnam with its more elongated and elaborate traditions, we still find the ability to keep our culture and beliefs in tandem with American living. We don’t do everything that they would have done back in Vietnam, but I feel like a comfortable meshing and cohabitation has been created by both backgrounds, especially for someone like me who is first-generation. 

Though most of my family live in the United States now, we are still an extended family who cherish our traditions of death and in turn, its celebration of life and remembrance. To this day, whenever a death anniversary comes around, we celebrate giỗ and we get together with special rites with food, incense, candle lighting and prayer. First we cook traditional dishes and provide fresh fruit and wine, which we offer to our ancestors first. Then we light incense and pray before eating our own food. There is also, of course, a lot of inebriated karaoke. It is never a sad or mournful time, and we get to see all of our family, living and dead, together in celebration for the lives that have been lived, for our own and for those who will come after us. I used to find it confusing and annoying to have to go and pay respects every birthday to people I had never met as a child, but as I grew older and became closer to my heritage, I now see how beautiful it is and appreciate it as a way to communicate with those who have passed. 

I believe that even as I go through my days and my life, this representation and thoughtfulness that comes from ancestral belief have greatly influenced my compassion and empathy. Especially now in the age of technology and the salad bowl that is America, I feel like it is always a good time to sit down, take a breather and appreciate one’s traditions and roots. When talking recently to someone about the death of their loved one, explaining my cultural traditions gave them a bit of comfort and a new perspective on how to approach their own grief, and in turn the celebration of a joyous life and soul. Everyone mourns and everyone grieves; we all carry our loads differently. What I always believe is until the end, no one is ever really forgotten and no one is ever really alone. 

Photo credits: Ngoc Nguyen

Author

  • Lily is a proud mom of Lucy the dog and Clover the cat. She was born and raised in Arizona by her mother and their extended family after most had settled down there after the Vietnam War. She is currently pursuing her artistic side as an art studio manager but has never lost her passion for literature and writing. In her free time, you will catch her browsing the internet to find new places to eat, places to hike or things to read.

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