Uncertain Ground

Grace Loh Prasad realizes that mourning is complicated when home and homeland aren’t the same place.

Grace Loh Prasad | Longreads | March 2019 | 16 minutes (4,021 words)

In early October, I noticed my Taiwanese and Chinese American friends posting photos of large family gatherings and moon cakes. Others posted photos of visiting the graves of family members. I felt a wave of panic and guilt. Had I missed Tomb Sweeping Day, when I should have been honoring my deceased parents? On the other hand, I remembered and looked forward to Dia de los Muertos, a holiday I hadn’t grown up with but learned about over more than 20 years of living in California. How could I feel such a strong affinity for a Mexican cultural tradition, while being so ignorant of the holidays observed by the Taiwanese and Chinese diaspora?

A quick Wikipedia search revealed that I had gotten my holidays mixed up. Mid-Autumn Festival celebrates the full moon at harvest time, with families reuniting for a traditional feast and moon cakes. Tomb Sweeping Day (Qing Ming) is one of several holidays to remember your ancestors, but it’s observed in spring. I could not remember which was which because my family did not really celebrate these holidays. Although I was born in Taiwan, I spent my early childhood in New Jersey, and then from fourth grade through high school graduation, we lived in Hong Kong.

We were a curious cultural hybrid: a family of Taiwanese origin living as American expatriates in a British territory where we resembled the local Chinese population, but did not speak the same language and had little in common with them. I attended an American school full of American and international students. One of the advantages of attending Hong Kong International School was that we got American, British and Chinese holidays off: Thanksgiving, the Queen’s Birthday and Lunar New Year.

I’m sure we learned about Mid-Autumn Festival and Qing Ming, but they weren’t as memorable as Lunar New Year, the biggest holiday of the year when everyone got a week off from school or work. Children and younger relatives received lai see (hong bao), red envelopes filled with spending money, and employees received their annual bonuses. I remember going with my parents to join the enormous crowds down in Causeway Bay, pushing for a spot close to the harbor to get the best view of the spectacular fireworks. Stores and restaurants tried to outdo each other with elaborate “Kung Hei Fat Choy” decorations and special menus and promotions. Everywhere you went, people were in a festive good mood.

Since we did not have any relatives in Hong Kong, there were no family obligations during Lunar New Year. It was only the four of us — my mom, dad, brother Ted and me — so at most we would go out for a fancy restaurant meal. We did not go from house to house with bottles of Johnny Walker or baskets of tangerines. We did not make hundreds of homemade dumplings or go to the bank to request a wad of crisp new bills to stuff into red envelopes for my younger cousins, nieces and nephews. My parents might have hung up modest decorations outside our apartment door, but I think it was just for show, so we would not appear strange to our neighbors.

Once I asked my parents why we didn’t do more to celebrate the Taiwanese and Chinese holidays. “Well,” my dad said, “it’s because we are Christian. From when we were little, we only celebrated Christmas and Easter. Your grandpa was very strict. We were forbidden from observing any of the non-Christian, Taiwanese traditions because that was considered superstitious.”

I was relieved that my ignorance was not my fault. But I still felt a void.

***

When we moved from New Jersey to Hong Kong in the summer of 1978, we visited Taiwan for the first time in seven years. I was only two years old when we left Taiwan in 1971, so I had no real memories of my birthplace. Everything was strange and new — the crowds, the unfamiliar food, the damp heat and smells of Taipei, and the sudden immersion in a language I barely knew, like being neck-deep in water without knowing how to swim. My relatives were shocked that I could not speak Taiwanese, though I understood a little, so they spoke in the loud, exaggerated tone reserved for preschoolers. How old are you? Are you hungry? Do you like Taiwan?

We were a curious cultural hybrid: a family of Taiwanese origin living as American expatriates in a British territory where we resembled the local Chinese population, but did not speak the same language and had little in common with them.

The summer went by in a blur of family visits. I spent a lot of time sitting quietly beside my parents, eating from trays of mango and guava, and reading comic books while they talked for hours with my aunts and uncles, catching up on everything they had missed during their years abroad. My cousins made half-hearted attempts to play with me, but quickly gave up; I was too weird, too alien. In the late 70s there were hardly any “foreign ghosts” in Taiwan, so I was seen as an aberration — not as someone who spoke another language, but someone who could not speak at all. I looked like everyone else but suffered from an invisible defect that made me incomplete, as though I were missing a chromosome.

While I wrestled with culture shock, my parents were relieved to finally be home after seven years. More than anything, my mom regretted not returning for her father’s funeral when he passed away in 1975. It was too expensive, and all but impossible with two young children to raise while my dad worked. I did not realize until I was much older that the real reason my mom didn’t go back was much more complicated.

In the late 1960s, my parents became close friends with an American missionary couple, Milo and Judy Thornberry, who also taught at Taiwan Theological Seminary. Their daughter, Elizabeth, was my brother, Ted’s, earliest playmate. The Thornberrys were an unremarkable family except for one thing: they were friends with Peng Ming-min, a prominent Taiwanese political activist who was critical of the Kuomintang, the authoritarian government of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Taiwan was under martial law at the time, which meant the KMT had unlimited power to threaten and harass perceived political enemies.

On March 2, 1971, the Thornberrys and their two young children were surrounded by KMT police at their house and detained against their will. Two days later, they were deported back to the U.S. for unspecified activities “unfriendly to the Republic of China.” Their expulsion was a major international incident covered by newspapers around the world.

In the months that followed, my parents knew they were being watched. Their friendship with the Thornberrys meant they were a potential target, so when my dad got a job offer to join the United Bible Societies in New York, he immediately said yes.

My parents didn’t dare return to Taiwan until after we had naturalized as U.S. citizens and had the protection of our crisp, dark blue, eagle-embossed American passports.

***

One of my earliest memories is of being taken to the main library at Princeton. I must have been three or four years old. I felt very small, dwarfed by the floor-to-ceiling bookcases of rare and unusual books. My dad led me to a corner of the library where there was a large standing globe. It was taller than I was. He spun it around, located a small, sweet-potato shaped island off the southeastern coast of China, and said to me: That’s where you were born. The speck on the globe was labeled Formosa — “the beautiful island.” Taiwan was no more than an idea to me at the time, so he did his best to make it tangible.

At that age, I didn’t distinguish between the many countries in Asia, and felt a sort of compulsory kinship with anyone who looked like me, even if they weren’t Taiwanese. One summer, a Chinese kid named Herman was the driver of our neighborhood ice cream truck. He was probably 16 or 17 years old, with an overgrown bowl cut and glasses; he looked like an older version of my brother Ted. I used to tell people Herman was my cousin; it seemed plausible back then that anyone who looked Asian could be related to us.

I remember clearly my few instances of exposure to Asian cultures in New Jersey, which I can fit into one paragraph. In New York’s Chinatown we used to buy sweet noodle cakes, dried cuttlefish, pastel colored shrimp chips, and other exotic snacks. Once or twice a year we’d have dinner at a fancy Japanese restaurant where the grownups ate raw fish, fried food and weird pickles while I refused everything except a steaming bowl of udon. I remember my mom obsessively watching TV news about the trial of the Gang of Four after the flameout of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and our whole family gathering in front of our black-and-white TV to watch a lengthy film adaptation of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado starring Caucasian actors in yellowface, a memory that now makes me cringe.


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It took me a long time to realize my family didn’t fit the typical immigrant narrative. We didn’t settle down permanently in the U.S. nor did we sponsor and bring over a large clan of relatives. But we weren’t alone either. We were part of a tight-knit Taiwanese American community that went to church, barbecues and birthday parties together.

All that changed when we moved to Hong Kong. There we were surrounded by Chinese and Asian cultures, although we experienced it inside of an expat bubble. My dad’s colleagues were Korean, Indonesian, Australian, Indian and British, in addition to locals from Hong Kong. We did not know any other Taiwanese families in Hong Kong, but visited our own relatives in Taiwan at least once a year. We had the illusion of proximity: Taipei and Hong Kong are only 1.5 hours apart by plane. Our cities lit up simultaneously with Lunar New Year celebrations and suffered damage and destruction from the same typhoons. But in retrospect, I think my parents were lonely. Although geographically close, we were further isolated from Taiwan.

Moving to Hong Kong flipped my identity to its inverse, like a film negative: I went from being a racial outsider and linguistic insider in New Jersey, to being a racial insider and linguistic outsider in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Either way, I was a misfit; I was always disappointing someone, always falling short.

***

My first close encounter with death was when I was 12 years old.

When we lived in Hong Kong, every Sunday we took two forms of public transportation — a minibus and the brand-new MTR subway system — across the harbor to attend Kowloon Union Church. KUC had an international congregation of people from all over the world attending worship services in English.

Moving to Hong Kong flipped my identity to its inverse, like a film negative: I went from being a racial outsider and linguistic insider in New Jersey, to being a racial insider and linguistic outsider in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Like Hong Kong itself, KUC was a revolving door of expats who came and went, rarely staying for more than a few years at a time. But I looked forward to Sundays because I got to see my best friend. Frances was from Switzerland. Although we were the same age, we attended different schools. Her father was a chef at a high-end hotel and her mother was an artist. I remember being very impressed that Frances was fluent in French and English. She had gorgeous wavy brown hair and a mole above her lip; she was obviously destined to be a beautiful young woman.

Frances and I used to hang out after church and go shopping, just the two of us, along the busy shopping district on Nathan Road known as the Golden Mile. We’d go to gift and stationery stores and buy Hello Kitty trinkets, or the Yue Hwa China Products store and buy black cloth Mary Janes or embroidered satin pouches. At age 12 we didn’t have a lot to spend but we had ample time to explore and enjoy our first taste of freedom away from our parents. They trusted us as long as we stuck together and came home by 4 or 5 in the afternoon.

In Hong Kong, we had to get used to using a gas burner for cooking and heating water. My parents taught me how to turn on the pilot light on the stove and how to turn on the gas water heater in the bathroom. They instructed me to always remember to prop open the narrow bathroom window whenever I took a bath or a shower.

One evening after dinner, my dad received a phone call from Frances’s father. I was doing homework in my bedroom so I did not hear what they were talking about. After he hung up, my dad asked me to come into the living room. I sat down across from him on the sofa and he delivered the bad news: Frances had suffocated while taking a bath because she forgot to open the window for ventilation. Her funeral would be the following Sunday at Kowloon Union Church.

I don’t remember anything about the funeral itself. What I do remember is going shopping the day before at Lane Crawford, Hong Kong’s fanciest department store, where I used all my allowance to purchase a small vial of Tea Rose eau de cologne and a Snoopy figurine, things that we had admired together on one of our outings. Even though I knew these items served no practical purpose, I wanted to buy Frances one last present to honor our friendship. I gave the gifts to her mother and said, “Please bury these with Frances.”

I have no idea what they did with the gifts, whether they respected my wish or dismissed it as a silly idea from a grief-stricken young friend. That was the last time I saw her parents. They soon moved back to Switzerland to avoid the painful memories of their time in Hong Kong and the loss of their only child. I imagine they must have brought Frances back with them, to be buried in their homeland.

***

My grandfather is buried at a cemetery on a low mountain ridge southeast of Taipei, not far from the Taipei Zoo and the Maokong tea plantations. When we visited in the summer of 1978, my mom’s side of the family had a small reunion at his tomb with my grandmother and all of their descendants — my mom and her three younger brothers, their spouses and children.

It was the first time I had ever been to a cemetery, but every year after that we repeated the same ritual: a caravan of taxis winding up the steep green hill; a short service of hymns and prayers I did not understand; and countless family photos. We never smiled.

I lived in three countries growing up. Less than three of those years were in Taiwan, yet it’s the only place where I’ve ever spent considerable time in cemeteries and around the rituals of the dead. Even after my parents and I had spent decades living abroad, there was never any question that this was the only ground that mattered.

My grandfather died the same month as Chiang Kai-shek, in April 1975. It’s well known that Chiang’s final wish was to be buried in his native Fenghua in Zhejiang Province, once China and Taiwan were reunified. His wish never came true, and his remains have been kept at a series of temporary mausoleums, most recently at Cihu in Daxi District, awaiting a future that may never come. His son and successor as president of Taiwan, Chiang Ching-kuo, passed away in 1988, and his remains are kept at a different mausoleum in the same area, with the same unfulfilled wish.

Both of their wives outlived them by many years and also died far from home. Soong Mei-ling, better known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek, left Taiwan after the Generalissimo died and emigrated to the United States. She enjoyed a quiet retirement in upstate New York and lived her final years in an apartment overlooking Central Park, where she passed away in 2003 at the age of 105. By custom she should have had the same resting place as her husband, but she too is in limbo at Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester, New York. Chiang Fang-liang, the Chinese name for Faina Vakhreva, was a young Russian worker when she met Chiang Ching-kuo at a machinery plant in Siberia. After marrying Chiang she went with him to China, learned the Ningbo dialect, bore four children, and then followed him to Taiwan where she was the daughter-in-law of the president, and then the first lady. She never again set foot in Russia and died in 2004 at the age of 89.

Politically, I have no sympathy for the Chiang family. And yet there is an indescribable sadness in being denied that final journey, when the soul is unable to return to its ancestral home.

***

The first time I experienced Dia de los Muertos was more than a decade ago, when someone invited me to the procession in San Francisco’s Mission District. Our mutual friend, Tim, had died in a terrible car accident not long before, and a couple dozen of his friends and co-workers gathered at the parade to share memories, drink beer, and take turns riding an elaborately decorated bike covered with flowers, flashing lights and smiling photos of Tim whirling around on the wheels. I found the painted skeleton faces, colorful flouncy attire, abundant candles and marigolds, beautifully decorated altars and photos of loved ones deeply affecting. It never occurred to me that mourning could be so vivid and joyful, that one could focus on remembrance, not just grief.

Years went by, and then the losses struck closer to home.

In 2010, I visited Taiwan with my husband and son in early January. My brother, Ted, was supposed to join us from Bangkok, where he had been living for more than a decade. But the night of my 41st birthday, just after we had eaten a meal of long-life noodles and cake, he called my dad’s cell phone to say he wouldn’t be coming after all. He explained he’d been feeling ill and went to the doctor for the first time in many years. The doctor discovered a tumor in his liver the size of a large mango. It was malignant.

I lived in three countries growing up. Less than three of those years were in Taiwan, yet it’s the only place where I’ve ever spent considerable time in cemeteries and around the rituals of the dead.

Ted began radiation soon after, and was ordered to quit smoking and change his diet to give the treatment a chance to work. He would have several normal weeks where he could do his job and all regular activities, but they alternated with periods of pain and lethargy that sent him to the hospital. He took a turn for the worse in September, so I bought a plane ticket to Bangkok in case that was the last time I’d be able to see my brother. My dad agreed to meet me there. By the time my plane touched down, it was too late. What started out as a farewell visit to my brother turned into a funeral.

We cremated him immediately after the memorial service, then went with his widow and three kids to scatter his ashes in Pattaya Bay the next day. We never talked about taking his ashes anywhere else — Bangkok had been his home for 16 years and it was where he intended to stay.

A month after I came home to California from Bangkok, I went to a Halloween party. The hostess and her mother made a Dia de los Muertos ofrenda and invited me to bring a photo of Ted to add to the altar, a gesture that touched me deeply. Even though my brother had lived for so long in Thailand, he had gone to university in California and was still American to his core. It felt strange to not have a place to visit and remember him in this country.

Four years later, on the evening of July 4, 2014, I flew to Taipei for my mom’s funeral. I remember sitting numbly in the airport while the smoke cleared from backyard barbecues and Fourth of July fireworks. The plane left after midnight, propelling me into the twilight zone between darkness and light, between the life I knew and the shadow world, suspended in time and air.

My mom had been sick for a long time — she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2000 — but her death still came as a shock. After a period of steady, slow decline, she wound up in the hospital one night with a fever, vomiting and high blood pressure. Unbeknownst to anyone she had been suffering from colon cancer, and by the time it was detected, it was Stage 4 and incurable.

After a few days, my mom was allowed to leave the hospital in San Hsia to go to the bigger hospital in Taipei to get a second opinion. She never made it out of the second hospital. Less than a week after the original diagnosis, she was gone.

***

My dad had chosen, in advance, the place where he wanted my mom’s ashes (and eventually his) to be

Photo courtesy the author

stored: a columbarium south of Taipei called Tienpin. For a year he kept my mom’s ashes in a light pink urn in his living room, and then on the first anniversary of her passing, he arranged for a memorial service at Tienpin.

We were transported there on a chartered minibus, which drove into a mostly unpopulated area of dense trees and vegetation. We descended down a narrow, steep driveway into a clearing where all the trees had been replaced by a manicured green lawn. The unusual building was tall and thin, with a pointy tower topped with a cross, and decorated with long painted panels shaped like skis. On the lawn was what appeared to be a flock of perfectly white sheep, which upon closer inspection we realized were actually sculptures. It gave the location a pastoral, peaceful look while subtly advertising its Christian affiliation. The landscape felt otherworldly, as though some unseen force had cleared the jungle and placed a mysterious monument there.

After my mom passed away, I returned home to all my usual routines. I did my best to appear normal but I was on autopilot, simply going through the motions while struggling with the enormity of the loss. Even though my mom and I had not lived in the same country for more than two decades and my memories of her were from another time and place, I was unhinged by grief. There was no grave to visit here, no church that would say prayers for her soul, no community of the also-bereaved. Everyone who was close to my mom lived in Taiwan. I came “home” to California where no one experienced her absence profoundly, where no one had to deal with canceling her prescriptions, washing her laundry, throwing away her unopened mail or staring at her empty chair.

My grief was overwhelming because there was no context or container for it. Its free-floating shapelessness terrified me because that meant it could strike anytime, anywhere, without warning.

One year later I went back to Tienpin to place my dad’s ashes next to my mom’s, and complete the engraving on the plaque that marked their final resting place. The day of my mom’s service, it had been bright and sunny. The day we brought my dad’s ashes to Tienpin, there was a violent thunderstorm. I was happy they were reunited, but my own grief multiplied.

In Chinese folklore, wandering ghosts cause the most trouble. Now I understand it’s because they want what we want – to be grounded, to be claimed. Grief works the same way. The more restless it is, the more damage it does. It too needs a home.

When I came home to California, I cleared two bookshelves and made an ofrenda with photos of my parents, paper flowers, candles, and objects that held meaning for them — a fountain pen, a water buffalo sculpture, origami cranes. Instead of an annual tomb sweeping, I visited the altar daily and kept adding decorations. Slowly I started to feel better.

***

I don’t know when I’ll go back to Taiwan. I haven’t figured out what will happen to me after I die. My husband and son are in California, but some part of me will always belong to Taiwan. This eternal ache is what it means to live in diaspora. Home, for me, is not an answer but a question.

* * *

Grace Loh Prasad writes essays and nonfiction about memory, language and loss, and her constantly shifting relationship to home and belonging. Her writing has appeared in Catapult, Ninth Letter, Jellyfish Review, Memoir Mixtapes and elsewhere, and she is currently at work on a memoir-in-essays entitled The Translator’s Daughter.

Editor: Sari Botton