On Grief, Paper Money, and Finding Tradition

Growing up, I was pretty assimilated for a child of an immigrant. Sure, we celebrated Chinese New Year every year with feasts and red envelopes, and I attended Chinese school every Sunday for six or seven years, but outside of these moments I didn’t always feel like I was Chinese. Christmas was the biggest celebration of the year. My household hosted Thanksgiving every fall. As I grew older, weekly dinners at my grandparents’ house became a good tradition, and one filled to the brim with good Chinese food and good conversation – often even in Mandarin. These weekly dinners were what it meant to be half-Chinese for me.

My mother and her entire family migrated to the U.S. from Asia. Ethnic Han Chinese (I think), my grandmother is from Burma and my grandfather from China (I think). My mother’s generation grew up in Thailand and Laos before moving to the U.S., bit by bit, eventually settling, bit by bit, in the suburbs of Phoenix. And speaking Mandarin, having red envelopes on Chinese New Year, and going to weekly dinners was what I inherited from it all.

When my grandfather passed away ten years ago, we found some tradition. I remember the funeral, a typical affair, but I also remember a steep learning curve when we prepared other ceremonies to remember my late gōng gōng (公公), and suddenly we were being very Chinese. I remember lighting incense and kneeling on a cushion, bowing three times while thinking of my grandfather. We miss you, gong gong. I remember watching my grandmother, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, even my father – midwestern and white as he is – bowing in front of the dining table, which had been converted into a prayer table. I remember there being a kerfuffle about whether everyone in the family  would participate, but it was unnecessary drama. We were family. That day, we lit incense together and we bowed together, and then – as usual – we ate together.

20160826_215604I remember folding thin sheets of paper into little shapes to make gold bars. I remember lighting fires in metal trays and pales in the backyard so that we could drop the paper money in the flames to send it to him. I remember being confused by the “Hell bank notes” that would allow my grandfather to pay for safe passage. I remember laughing as we unwrapped fake paper items to send to my grandfather on the wings of smoke that accidentally singed a tree in the backyard. There was a paper gray car, some paper dress shirts, lots of paper money – even a paper house that we cast into the fire that day.

Every time I had dinner at my grandparents’ house thereafter, my grandmother would prepare a small bowl for her late husband and set it by his portrait, lighting incense and praying before we started eating. On anniversaries of his passing and other important occasions, we burned more money and more incense.

I’ve never studied Chinese funerary tradition. I know little about why we do what we do every July first. I know it’s for my gong gong, and I know it’s for “the ancestors.” But I also know that – in addition to the language we speak, the food we eat, and those little red envelopes – these traditions became a part of what we do as a family. I may not feel the most connected to my heritage all of the time, but I feel it when I feel connected to my family. When we light paper gold bars on fire. When we get red envelopes. When we sit down to eat together.

My grandmother passed away last Saturday. My póa poa 婆婆 was one of the strongest people I ever knew – I mean this in terms of life histories: she raised a family spread across four countries and then raised most of us grandchildren too, but she also went to the gym more often than me right up until her last weeks, squeezing in 2 1/2 hour work-outs between dialysis appointments, thanks to my mom. She taught me Chinese all of my life, right up until her last weeks, too – when I called her last week, the first time we had talked in months, she corrected me a few times. I wish I could remember what words she taught me then. I remember that she was excited about her surgery – an operation to help her cope with pain and thus be more mobile. It didn’t work out that way, and she quickly went from slowed-down-by-pain to paralyzed-and-hospitalized, and now I find myself folding up paper money for her. I find myself debating cooking her recipe for dumplings, or maybe huang meng ji – her chicken wings and my personal favorite – even though I’ve never gotten either dish anywhere close to right. But cooking and eating together is our tradition, after all. Like speaking Chinese, or handing out red envelopes, or burning paper clothes.

We spent last night at my aunt’s restaurant folding paper, and this morning we’ll light some fires and send it to 婆婆. And tonight we’ll eat together.


A Southward Move

This  is my 500th blog post, apparently. While I admit that a quarter of that is probably link round-ups, nonetheless I’m going to use this occasion to make a small announcement:

This fall I’ll be moving to the DC area to begin the doctoral program in anthropology at The George Washington University. It’s a small program and I’m excited to be formally continuing on with academic scholarship. I’ve spent the last year teaching at a high school in Fairfield County, Conn., which I absolutely loved, but if I’m ever going to go through the grad school tribulations and make it out alive it’s now.

I will continue to focus on the LRA conflict, though I’m not 100% sure in what form. This means that I’ll continue writing about it here, and it’s probably a safe bet that you can find me in Uganda or its neighbors infrequently over the next few years.

The summer has been spent writing (or attempting to), so you’ll see a few things up here soon, and probably elsewhere as well (fingers crossed). This site itself will probably undergo some changes as well, as it hasn’t had a facelift in several years. Thanks for sticking around – I’ll keep writing if you keep reading (and even if you don’t, probably).

Quiet on the Front

If you’ve been missing your Weekend Reading fix, I am very sorry, but hopefully I can make it up to you soon. The last half of August has been a busy time – I’ve finished my small-time job at the library, started a new job at a secondary school, and packed up and moved across state lines – but I’m aiming to get back into the swing of things soon. This is just a terse note to let you know things are on the up and up, and hopefully the linkages, random posts, etc. will be arriving soon.

I recently began a long-term substitute job at a high school teaching freshmen and sophomores social studies, so expect me to slide back into my educator-type posts, as well as trying to keep up on the research/academia side of things. In the mean time, do your Labor Day forefathers proud and don’t work too hard. I’ll catch you after the revolution.

Last Week in Entmoot News

Bringing you the latest news from the meeting of Ents in Derndingle.

Ents meet at the Entmoot in Derndingle to debate a war resolution.

Ents meet at the Entmoot in Derndingle to debate a war resolution.

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U.S. Representative Leafhand Orofarnë (R-KY) shook leaves today when he went on an anti-immigration rant during a news segment on Westfold Today. In response to a question of whether undocumented youth should be granted citizenship, Orofarnë decried the idea as amnesty. “That may have worked in Lothlórien, but look where that got them – the Elves have all fled to the Grey Havens because of the immigrant problem. I don’t know about you, but I’m an Ent, and Ents don’t have a fancy oceanfront heaven like the Elves do. If you ask me, we should close the borders before we’re covered in Orcs or worse – Huorns.”

Orofarnë’s office was quick to walk back the statements, taking great ent-strides to explain what he really meant. “Representative Orofarnë is proud of America’s multicultural values and our immigrant history,” a spokesperson later said. “He was merely pointing to the Elves’ history and in light of what large numbers of Hobbits might do to our economy.”

When asked for comment, U.S. Representative Rowanoke Bregalad (D-KY) criticized Orofarnë’s portrayal of the DREAM Act as amnesty. “Some trees are growing Ent-ish, and some Ents are growing tree-ish, you see,” she said. “I’m afraid Leafhand has gone tree-ish of late. Hoom hom hoom.”

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In a rural townhall meeting in Dane County, U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) stated that the federal government has a spending problem. “We have poured money into higher education,” Johnson explained, “[but] we’ve made it so much more unaffordable.” He also called for more accountability on federal spending.

When asked how to do this, Johnson responded, “let’s not be too hasty.” He then chided his constituents for being rash. He ended the meeting with a loud, echoing “hoom” before stomping back to Oshkosh for a fundraiser.

*             *

In the House today, Representatives discussed the ongoing fighting between the Rohirrim and the Wildmen of Dunland in western Rohan. Some Representatives sympathetic to the plight of the Dunlendings have introduced a bill to authorize arms sales to the rebel group, but the non-interventionist majority of Congress questioned the efforts. In addition, a lobbying firm with ties to Dunland has accused Rohan of trumping up charges to justify further fighting.

Somewhere, Éomer Éadig turned his head and said, “warmongering?”

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The National Air and Space Museum was evacuated this afternoon after a drunk Huorn crushed several horses. Authorities would not release the name of the Huorn, but stated that a breathalyzer test found that he was stomping under the influence. “It’s amazing what a little too much Entwash can do to some of these younger tree-kin,” Capitol Police Officer Ecthelion IV said in a press conference.

The horses belonged to a group of Rohirrim visiting Derndingle on a school field trip. One of the teachers, Théowyn daughter of Thengel, has stated that the children may not make it home in time for 4th of July celebrations. Supporters have started a GoFundMe page to assist the school with transportation needs.

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The Office of U.S. Senator John McCain III (R-AZ) released the following statement today declaring his position on the prisoner exchange regarding Sgt. Bergdahl: Hrum, Hoom.

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After weeks of debate on the dangers of misogyny in the country, and in light of the recent #YesAllWomen trend on Twitter, New Jersey businessman and senatorial candidate Grassyfoot Ciryahir released a new controversial television ad blaming feminism. The ad depicts Ciryahir walking through the woods. “I haven’t seen an Entwife in decades, maybe centuries,” he says. “Now they come back and cry ‘misogyny?’”

The ad has drawn criticism from numerous women’s rights groups and even a protest outside Ciryahir’s Trenton campaign headquarters. “The fact that this Ent is running for elected office and he continues to refer to all women by ‘wife’ is a testament to his backward-thinking views,” said Salvia of Trenton, who was among protesters there. “I thought this was 2014 of the Fourth Age.”

*             *

On the 519th day of the 113th Congress, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) finished saying “good morning.”

To the Future

I have a horrible sleep schedule. I have a really, very horribly sleep  schedule, and it often results in me lying in bed thinking about my life. These thoughts often go in one of two directions: working in Africa, and high school teaching. If you’ve ever looked at my About page above, you’ll notice that both of these feature as Things I Want to Do with My Life.

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#433rds: 4/27/14

This is part of a month-ish-long blog/Instagram project. For more, go here.


It’s reading week.Wrapping up my semester (and my time here at Yale), I’ve been spending time working on my thesis, grading papers, and reviewing language study.

Obviously, this is pouring into my letter tiles. Although I don’t know where geology came from, as I have pretty much interest there. My interests lie on the left side of the image: war, rebels, language. So, pardon me while I get all thesis-y again in this blog project:

I think the language of the LRA conflict is an interesting thing to delve into, a thing I only mention in passing in my current project. The way that people are labeled, the way that actions are identified, they mean a lot of things in war. Perhaps the most important is the term “rebel” and how it is used (or not used) in the context of the LRA. Existing as a rebel group since 1986, for many years the government labeled them “bandits.” In the post-9/11 era, “bandits” was dropped as the LRA became “terrorists” in the discourse. This was just one part of the government’s effort to get in on the GWOT funding/training pie, and painting the LRA as terrorists placed the government, as the one fighting terrorism, in more exalted status.

But sometimes the rebels aren’t even rebels. For instance, when 11 LRA were recently captured by the UPDF, it was reported as 1 rebel commander and 10 captives. Everyone reports it this way, ignoring the fact that the commander himself was likely abducted in the past, and without mentioning if any of the captives were actively engaged in the fire fight. In the LRA, the labels of rebel, abductee, commander, and captive are very fluid. Many commanders are also captives, and victims of abduction and conscription have also perpetrated acts of violence. It’s a messy thing, trying to decipher the language of war, but it’s a necessary part of trying to understand it.

Maps and the Way We See Africa

A friend recently showed me a post at HuffPo’s Impact blog titled “8 Maps That Will Change the Way You Look at Africa.” Curated by an intern at The ONE Campaign, the short listicle includes eight maps that, well, don’t change the way anyone has looked at Africa in the past century.

In numerical order, this list allows one to look at Africa as 1) the place where most of the world’s poorest live; 2) the least wealth continent; 3) huge; 4) including a number of the few countries that still have slavery; 5) having an arid North and lush agricultural sub-Saharan region; 6) at high risk for water scarcity, especially in the northern and southern ends of the continent; 7) way behind (but growing!) in internet access; and 8) having little access to electricity.

The list was posted earlier this month, and I’m not the first to comment on it. So, rather than rant too much about how we don’t need to keep talking about Africa as a place of poverty and landscape (and I am glad there wasn’t a map of conflict), I’m going to post some maps that are also worth looking at below the fold. I know that there are others that have given me pause for thought, though I haven’t been able to track them down. Anybody have maps that influenced how they view Africa or parts of Africa?

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#433rds: 04/17/14

This is part of a month-ish-long blog/Instagram project. For more, go here.


The Beinecke Library will temporarily close next year. 50 years old and having never seen a good renovation, the building’s ugly innards need to be examined. I worked there for about a year and a half, deep under this modern stone-walled building. It is beautiful, it is elegant, it is important. It also needs to be gutted and strengthened from the inside out. It doesn’t need a whole reinventing, but it needs to a renovation.

As I whirl from the news of not getting into any PhD programs, I wonder when and where to apply again. How do I reinvent myself? What were my weak points? What were my strong ones? What schools would I be happy at? What schools would I hate? What do I do next? These are, of course, also existential questions that I use to string myself along.

Another thing that needs to be reinvented is the tenure track at Yale. One of the few universities where it’s still virtually impossible to move from tenure-track to tenured, Yale loses its junior faculty at what I assume is a faster pace than most places. At other universities, there aren’t even tenure-track positions to go through before being denied tenure. And yet, in a time rife with denial and rejection, I continue to try to be strong and persevere. I want to teach. I want to write. I want to get there.


#433rds: 4/16/14

This is part of a month-ish-long blog/Instagram project. For more, go here.

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I haven’t left the common room.* The stained glass overhead consists of an old man adorned in gold armor, holding a vessel aloft to an incredibly witch-like woman (off-camera); either a very cruel dentist hard at work or a man force-feeding someone a pair of pliers; and a couple with a dog at what could be a bar or a pharmacy or both. The images that adorn these windows dominate much of the otherwise gray wall space. For how diverse they are, the color palette is decidedly narrow: black and white and yellow dominate the images of farmers, wooly mammoth skeletons, and mermaids.

The images are rarely, if ever, a guide for me. I go where my friends go, I go where the outlets are, I go where I can see through the dust on my laptop screen. But I sit most often under the aforementioned mammoth and volcano, flanked by a forest, a woman, and Old Faithful. For how little these images figure in my everyday, I despise the people sitting under Old Faithful. They are my foes, as much as my coursework is. If I can’t sit under Ice Age fossils, nobody can.

Maybe I just need to chill, to feed myself, grab a drink. I should hit the bar (or pharmacy, as it were). If the Mammoth can’t be my Muse, perhaps the Dentist can be my Guide.

* This is a lie.

#433rds: 4/15/14

This is part of a month-ish-long blog/Instagram project. For more, go here.



I am about 3/4ths finished with my workload, but about 47/50ths done with the school year, which means it’s time I just buckle down and do it. Just do. Every tangent must be fought off. Every divergence taken out. Every source footnoted and image captioned. Everything that needs doing needs to be done.

Finding a place to be productive can be a challenge in and of itself. I’ve had productive afternoons in the graduate student common room. There are cozy booths to settle into, and stained glass figures mundane and exotic. The clang of metal appliances and the aroma of coffee from the little café that sits in the middle of the room. And the most ornate ceiling I’ve seen on a campus filled with details. It’s a place to admire, but it’s also a place to do work. Do.

Curiously, it’s not always a place one can go to do work. It closes prematurely in the late evening, even early evening on weekends and during school breaks. While college students here enjoy the pleasures of residential college common rooms and libraries that are open all day, all year, the graduate students are left with beautiful common room with a closing time. All we want is a cove to call our own. A place to do work whenever we want to. We’ve fought for student space before, the struggle has seemed endless, but the end may be near. Cost estimates are coming in, resolutions have been passed, reports published. All that’s left is to take the keys out and leave the door open so we can just do our thing.