A stout white tower rises from the mountainside. Sloping blue roof. Lotus fountains and twin temples at the base. We drive through the mist and into the heart of the mountain. Take an elevator up. We are greeted by long corridors of polished wooden cabinets, and the ocean-deep silence of the dead.
We seek my grandparents. We find them. My cousin unlocks a cabinet on the top row, and I can read my family’s name inside. Hello, A-ma. Hello, A-gong.
We speak without sound to the ashes of our loved ones. Their spirits listen. The language barrier doesn’t matter anymore, but still I wish I could offer something more than love and regrets expressed in the wrong tongue. Next time I will bring a note and leave it on the tiny golden shrine.
Next time it won’t be thirteen years since the last time.
Tonight we are celebrating. Celebrating my marriage. Celebrating the long-awaited return of my mother to her homeland. Celebrating four generations and countless branches of family.
Looking around the room, I see my mother’s chin, my grandmother’s eyes, my grandfather’s nose. Pieces of myself echoed in the faces of people I hardly know but fiercely love. Their voices make a strange song, loud and lovely. Their laughter is like wine, loosening my thoughts and filling me with warmth.
The lazy susans spin with an abundance of food. Lightly fried frog legs, and fish simmered in a golden sauce. Gelatinous sea cucumber, and a steaming bowl of abalone soup. Fat pink prawns. Crisp green beans. Soft taro. Fresh-cut fruit. It’s an endless dance of dishes. I’m dizzy by the end.
On Chinese New Year’s eve, we gather at my uncle’s house. My aunt has been chopping and stir-frying all day, and a savory steam fills the air. But before we sit down to eat, my mother leads me and my husband out to the living room. She hands each of us a slender stick of incense and then motions to the family altar. She wants us to bai bai.
My husband looks to me for guidance, but I’ve never done this before. I glance at the dark red lacquered wood, corners carved into dragons. The main shelf is crammed with sculpted buddhas and other deities. Red and jade and gold. There are fresh flowers, and two small urns with sticks of incense already burning. Smoke rises in thin, lazy drifts.
We step forward to light our incense, then press our palms together, trapping the incense in between. We bow our heads in prayer. I wonder what my husband is saying to my ancestors, or if he is speaking to his own.
That’s none of my business. I pull my focus back. I thank, and I ask, and I thank again. My hands rock back and forth, the glowing tip of the incense swaying with them. This is tradition. Foreign and familiar at the same time. Like my family. Like me.