Motherland

The past few days have been an adventure. Nepal alone has been such an exciting continuation of this Eat. Pray. Love-esque story that my life seems to be right now. And this chapter couldn’t feel more like a Hollywood film:

American travelers come to Nepal. There, they happen to meet and become good friends with a warm, welcoming local Nepalese guy, their age, with a large smile that when lit up, is complimented by a lone dimple on the left cheek.

The Americans want to learn the Nepalese language, the culture. The Nepalese guy knows perfect English and has experience teaching Nepalese. The American travelers come for a film project, the Nepalese guy happens to want to be an actor. The Americans want to learn more about the singing bowls, want to talk to the locals. The Nepalese guy is the perfect guide.

So off we would go, led by our dear friend Cigar, on a quest to find the truth about the singing bowls. And for that truth and the story of it, you will have to stay tuned for the actual film.

But this much I can reveal:

I found myself before an altar, head bowed in prayer, in a Buddhist monastery in the hills.

Breathtaking views from the mountain, so high up. Beautiful embellishments and details in the building itself, with bright colors and designs.

A quiet, kind lama—shaved head, typical monk attire—showed us around, brought us inside to pray.

He gave me the incense, and immediately I knew what to do:

I held it to the burning candle, and watched the flame join and transfer. With it, I ignited a new candle, watched the lively flame fade to a slow burn in the form of an orange glow at the end, as smoke danced in a delicate stream from it and into the air. I held it delicately between my hands, united, in the universal mudra of prayer. And as I closed my eyes and bowed my head, a wave of déjà vu came over me.

It brought me back to my childhood, to every Vietnamese holiday or death anniversary. My mother would set up an altar in our home: Mountains of fresh fruit upon large fancy platters. A large bouquet of brightly colored flowers, always to include yellow chrysanthemums. Lots of orange and red hues in the arrangement as well.

If it was for the death anniversary of my grandfather, his picture—large and adorned within an elaborate picture frame—would be at the center. And the same for my grandmother. I’d memorized these pictures, their faces.

My grandfather’s chiseled facial structure with my mother’s high cheek bones. The dark, thick hair. He was confident. Powerful, a leader. His look was severe, and I was always intimidated by his strict glare.

My grandmother’s round face, the button nose I see in my little sister; though her lips did not form a smile, the warmth in her being. Love and tenderness, but with strength and resilience; traits she passed on to their children, that I knew in my mother and in my Auntie and Uncle—the only two siblings I’ve met of the seven, who also now live in the States.

I never met my mother’s parents. When my mother left Vietnam for America when she was 18, she assumed, as we all do, that she would see them again. But she never did. My grandmother passed away not long after—a stroke, I believe. And a few years later, my grandfather. Also a stroke, if my memory serves me right. I know my mother has deep grief in her heart to this day at the thought.

I can’t even imagine what that would be like. Just as I can’t even begin to fathom half of the things she experienced, struggled through, in her childhood-to-teenage years. And that only includes the things she has chosen to tell me. So much remains a mystery, buried within the nightmares of her past. It amazes me that someone who has been through so much suffering can, in turn, be the exceedingly kind, loving, selfless person she is today.

There would be a cup filled with tea at the table, for each member of my deceased family to enjoy. All of my mother’s most elegant dishware came out from the cupboards on this day, among them a huge pot for tea—porcelain, beautiful, with matching cups to complete the set. Tall red candles held by grand, silver candle holders. I was nervous to come near them for fear I would knock something over. The area in general held a certain degree of fragility, formality. You felt, without being told, that you should be on your best behavior when approaching. To be serious, to be still. To be gracious. To be pure.

It was the altar, our offerings, to our ancestors. Whenever I would wake in the morning to the smell of incense, I knew that it was a special day. And it would be confirmed as I descended the stairs to see the impressive display at the formal dining room table, a room we seldom occupied aside from occasions like this.

My mother would invite us down. “Pray,” she would tell us. “Pray to Grandma and Grandpa, to your ancestors.” She would light incense, each for me and my sisters. And with them, peeking over with squinted eyes, we would follow her lead: close the eyes, bow. With a serious, earnest expression: pray.

Since I’d never met my grandparents, I remember thinking, especially when I was very young, that I didn’t know how to talk to them. I would stare into the solemn eyes of the black and white photo—they never smiled in photos—and wonder what to say.

Afterwards, when I felt like my head was bowed and I’d awkwardly filled the silence with my rambling prayer to the length of time appropriate, we would bury the end of the incense into the candle holder filled with uncooked rice. They would collectively burn for the rest of the day, and fill our home with the aroma that is now such a nostalgic association for me.

From a young age (probably from the Disney movie Mulan, to be honest) I imagined that my ancestors were all gathered around the table, enjoying the tea and fruits and rice cakes along with the rest of our offerings. And because they were sitting there, I would feel uncomfortable fighting with my siblings within sight of that table, or thinking any thoughts that they would disapprove of.

Now, fast forward to yesterday, as I bowed before Buddha at the monastery’s altar:

With the incense burning in my hand, I thought of my mom. I thought of her mom and her dad, and their parents and their parents.

And the prayer came naturally. And followed by that, emotions welled up behind my eyes.

Coming to Asia in general has been interesting. So many of the habits I thought were just unique to my mom, I have subtly observed around me. Influenced by the climate, or by the culture, or by the religious beliefs—all the things that shape a people. At 26 years old, I am beginning to learn more and more about my mother through traveling back to her home continent. A supplement, a key piece. Of course, in addition to growing up to this point of adulthood with her mind, her heart, her soul. Growing older, each and every day, it becomes more apparent how alike we are.

My mother and the rest of our family had originally planned to all meet up around Christmas time in Vietnam. It would be monumental—my first time, my sisters’ firsts. Plans fell through, though, so it looks like it won’t be happening. Not right now, not yet, anyway.

I can’t imagine experiencing it for my first time without her, without being in the home of my uncles and aunties and cousins, all of whom I’ve never met. Surrounded by the sounds—the inflections, the rhythms, the harshness, the passion—of the language that I don’t understand, but is so familiar; like an old song I know I’ve heard, but don’t remember the words to. A song that has been such a huge presence in my life for as long as I can remember.

Surrounded by the (absolutely delicious) food that I’ve loved for just as long. Surrounded by the people, the culture. Her roots, her traditions. Surrounded by the atmosphere, the energy, the spirits that are such a huge part of who my mother was, that has made her into the person she is today.

I can’t wait for more connections to present themselves as I travel closer and closer. I can’t wait to learn more about who she is, and in turn, who I am.

There are so many corners unknown, doors unopened within my being, just waiting to be discovered—ones that the experiencing her homeland, I am sure, will unlock.

 

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