The lead up to Lunar New Year is the most difficult time of year for me, this year was even more so. For Vietnamese, the Lunar New Year, known as Tết, is Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year all rolled into one.
|This was on my 1st trip back to Vietnam in 1992. |
My three siblings were barely out of their teens, which was framed and
prominently hung in my parents' home.
On this same trip I got to meet most the cousins who were not yet born when I left in 1979.
I now regret for not having set everything aside to be there with my family during Lunar New Year, especially my mother, at least once. I visited Vietnam last in 2019 and already noticed her rapidly declining health, including what seemed like onset dementia. I had planned to be there again in 2020, but only to have the coronavirus get in the way.
|These two photos were taken on my last trip in 2019.|
As the pandemic drags on, my mother's health, as well as my father's, seems to have worsened. I shared my fear in an op-ed written for work on the state's vaccination campaign. In recent weeks, my youngest sister relays that my mother has begun to speak of me as if I were there. She speaks of me being in her dreams nightly. As for my father, I had to rush back to Vietnam in 2019 because he had suffered a series of minor strokes. They, like the elderly everywhere, have suffered the most in the last two years. I had hoped to visit them again in the fall of 2020 when I would have finished with the 2020 Census, which was scheduled to end in July, 2020.
Thích Nhất Hạnh's passing on January 22, ten days before the beginning of Tết, sent me on an unexpected learning journey. My knowledge of him and his teachings were cursory at best, so I decided to learn more about him, reading and watching online copiously, in both English and Vietnamese. (Will share my reflection on what I've learned about him in another post.)
For the next few days I read everything about Thích Nhất Hạnh I could find on the internet. The more I read, the more I wanted to know about him and his life. One particular video, a 26-minute long talk at Plum Village on 2014 Lunar New Year's eve. The talk itself is essentially about ancestral worship practices that all Vietnamese observe during Lunar New Year, but the words he used hit me hard, had me in tears as I watched it.
He begins the talk with "As we all know, trees have roots, rivers have headwaters (the original source), and people have ancestors... a person who's not connected to his roots, cut off from his ancestors cannot be a happy person." Oh, how much I wish I could be with family, my mother as I was listening to these words.
Who I am is firmly rooted in how I was brought up. My Vietnamese roots are not in question, but according to Thích Nhất Hạnh, Tết is an occasion to reconnect with and reaffirm one's roots, pay respect to one's ancestors, and acknowledge one's mother. Mother, the person who gives you life, to him is the source of your happiness. Happiness is not an individual's attainment independent of or without your mother also being happy. If your mother is suffering, so are you, and vice versa.
I then learned that the most emotionally-charged Vietnamese ballad about a mother's love was based on a poem written by no other than Thích Nhất Hạnh himself not long after he had lost his own mother. It's a song enumerating the many ways a mother shows her love for her child. It also urges those whose mothers are still alive to acknowledge their mothers for her love and suffering.
"Mother is a boundless source of love, an inexhaustible treasure. But unfortunately, we sometimes forget. A mother is the most beautiful gift life offers us. Those of you who still have your mother near, please don't wait for her death to say, "My God, I have lived beside my mother all these years without ever looking closely at her." Read more here.
A Chinese Merchant's Daughter Realizing that my mother would soon be suffering from dementia due her frequent memory lapses quite early on, I decided to find out more about her childhood and upbringing every time I visited Vietnam the past few years. She had also experienced quite a few traumatic episodes in her life, including my leaving Vietnam without her knowing. Based on my own recollections from as early as five years old and the many conversations I've had with her older sister, below is a snapshot of who my mother was, up until now.
Born into an ethnic Chinese merchant family in a predominantly ethnic Khmer/Cambodian Mekong town in Kiên Giang Province, my mother is Teochew on her father's side and Hainanese on her mother's side. In southern Vietnam, more so in the Mekong Delta region, certain privileges were (still are) afforded ethnic Chinese regardless of wealth. Up to 80% of privately-owned business and enterprises were in the hand of the Chinese even though they made up less than 6% of an estimated forty five million people that made up South Vietnam in 1970. Chinese ethnicity has been a class onto itself.
My mother's father -- among the many aunts and uncles -- owned a lumberyard and sawmill, then later on a fleet of intercity buses and freight hauling trucks.
When she was thirteen years old, her mother, my maternal grandmother, answered her "calling," entered a Buddhist monastery, heaving behind two teenage daughters and a six years old son. My mother, together with her older sister and their brother were brought up by a nanny after that.
My grandmother eventually became a well-respected and influential religious figure, but she always seemed to convey a sense of guilt for having abandoned her three children. A calling to be become a devout Buddhist may have been the result, but from what I had gathered, my grandmother suffered from the hardship of being a daughter-in-law as well as a series of miscarriages. Walking out on her family was perhaps the only solution to end her own suffering, and Buddhism offered her refuge.
My grandmother was the reason I chose to study social work and to become a community organizer, taking a vow of poverty working in the nonprofit sector.
My mother's older sister some years later also walked out on her younger sister, my mother, and her little brother. My uncle, whom I adored, was tragically killed in an automobile accident when he just turned eighteen. My grandfather was behind the steering wheel. I was also on that bus, which nearly killed my youngest sister. We were on a our way to a holy site to celebrate the Buddha's birthday.