San Jose, CA — “‘Til death do us part,” that age-old marriage vow, has always sounded a little, well, non-committal to Confucian ears. In Vietnam, for instance, where I come from, death is not the end of relationships, it only deepens them.
A traditional Vietnamese worships his ancestors. He talks daily to ghosts. Every morning, every night, he lights incense and offers food and drinks to the spirit of his ancestors, prays for protection and asks for advice. If he claims to have seen his grandfather’s ghost the night before, few would question him. More likely they would help decipher the meaning of the visitation.
If you travel along rural roads in my homeland, you will see rice fields full of old graves rising above the water line. In the gardens of some houses, people are buried among patches of vegetables and bamboo groves, where children play.
Life and death co-exist in close proximity in the Confucian cosmology — an intimate dance.
Though we have spent 38 year now in California, my family and I are still trying to live out some of these Confucian ideals, especially when it comes to the business of burials. This was most evident when we buried our grandparents on my mother’s side in San Jose, California.
My grandfather died and was buried in Saigon in 1972 — at the height of the war. My grandmother, on the other hand, died a few yers at the age of 98 in Silicon Valley.
If grandma had a single wish, it was to be buried side by side with her beloved husband. When grandfather died, she bought a plot of land next to his grave in a cemetery in the center of Saigon called Mac Dinh Chi. On his tombstone she wrote this poem which, translated into English, goes something like this:
Suddenly the zither’s string broke
and disrupted our sweetest harmony
yin and yang — apart in one stroke
‘lone, alone, trills the nightingale
her bitter threnody.
As a child I had memorized this poem and could recite it on command. I remember it well because almost every Sunday I would go with grandma and my mother to tend grandpa’s grave. There we would set new flowers in a vase, wash the marble tombstone, then light incense and burn paper offerings to grandpa. I also remember helping grandma weed the empty plot next to grandpa’s as she prepared it for her final rest.
Unlike most in their generation, my grandparents’ marriage was a love match — evident in the volumes of poetry they wrote to each other during their 55 years together. One of my favorite childhood memories is of sitting on a cool tiled balcony of their villa with my cousins and siblings during the Autumn Moon festival in Saigon. Grandpa and grandma would recite their favorite poems to one another as they drank tea.
Alas, grandma’s wish to be buried with her husband was interrupted when the war ended and we had to flee. Grandma was adamant about staying — “who will attend your grandfather’s grave if I leave,” she kept asking. In perhaps the most Confucian moment of their lives, my mother, uncles and aunts all got down on their knees and begged her to come along.
Grandma’s love of the living finally won out over her yearning for the dead. At the last hour, before the airport closed, she grabbed her purse and a few dresses and stuffed them in a plastic bag and came along with her children to America.
The years here for my grandmother were years of longing and regret. She regretted leaving Vietnam, and she missed the Sunday rituals of tending to her husband’s grave. Exile for her was a spiritual amputation — a tearing of her soul.
Worse, in America, grandma no longer dreamed of grandpa the way she did when she was living in Vietnam. As senility began to show, she often wondered aloud whether ghosts could cross the ocean and, if they could, why grandpa hadn’t visited her in her dreams. “Is the ocean too big,” she’d ask? “Has he gone to nirvana? Has he forgotten me?”
When news arrived from relatives in Saigon that the new government was about to raze the cemetery where grandpa was buried, we hid it from her. Full of southern elites, the cemetery was an eye sore to the northern rulers who wished to erase all memories of the previous regime. Our entire clan pooled together a large sum of money and sent it to a cousin still living back home to have grandpa’s remains cremated and placed in a Buddhist temple. When the Cold War ended, we sent yet another cousin in California back to Vietnam, and after working the red tape, he managed to bring grandpa’s urn to the U.S. In another Buddhist temple in Sacramento, grandpa’s urn sat, waiting for my grandmother to live out the rest of her days.
When she finally died, their two urns sat on a Buddhist altar amidst wafting incense smoke and chanting monks in San Jose. At the cemetery pulsing with birdsongs where we buried them, we cried. But we were inwardly glad, too. Grandpa and Grandma were united at last, and the living had performed their filial duties.
And finally, grandma’s nightingale can sing a sweet and harmonious melody.