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.