Can Ghosts Cross the Ocean?

When we first came to America from Vietnam 22 years ago, my grandmother suffered a sort crisis of faith. She prayed and lit incense sticks and tapped the copper gong to call our ancestor's spirits, but she was no longer convinced that her prayers were heard. What caused Grandma's consternation was the fact that Grandpa, who had died during the war, had never once visited her in her dreams in America. "Son," Grandma would sometimes ask me, "do you think ghosts can cross the ocean?""I think so Grandma." I would answer quickly, if only to make her feel better -- but how would I know? All I knew was that back home grandma often had dreams in which grandpa would come and talk with her. Indeed, at times it seemed as if they were still a couple living together. When Grandma lost her jade bracelet, for instance, she prayed to Grandpa and he came in her dream and told her where to look. She found it the next day.Another time Grandma, who had given up writing poetry when she was young, surprised every one at breakfast by reciting a mellifluous ode to Spring and Autumn. When we applauded she pointed to the dark rose wood altar and said, "I had help. You should compliment Grandpa as well." The last time Grandma saw Grandpa in her dream was near the end of the Vietnam war. "You will go on a very long trip and we won't meet for a long time," he predicted. Grandma was perplexed. She couldn't imagine going anywhere but to join him and our ancestors in the spirit world. Grandpa's prediction made sense after communist tanks rolled into Saigon and my family and I had to flee our beloved homeland. When I was young, grandma's question struck me as a bit eerie. Now I find it tragic. After all, exile is a kind of spiritual amputation. Once we were bound to the land in which our ancestors were buried and we lived comfortably with ghosts and the idea of death and dying. In America our old way of life was quickly thrown out the window. America looks to the future, and not the past, it is moved by the ideas of progress and opportunity. And American people move about, from job to job, from city to city, restlessly. Indeed, where can one's ancestral ghosts dwell in a world of humming computers and concrete freeways and shiny high-rises?As time passed, Grandma's question came to seem irrelevant for most of her grandchildren -- we have gone on to become Americans. Some of us still light incense sticks and pray on certain Vietnamese holidays, but the ritual acts seem more like tribute, gestures to a distant memory rather than participation in a living tradition. I can't remember the last time I lit incense sticks and talked to my dead ancestors. Having fled so far from Vietnam, I can no longer imagine what to say, or to whom I should address my prayers, or for that matter what promises I could possibly make to my dead ancestors since the most sacred one of all-- that I should live and die in my own homeland-- has already been broken.Can ghosts cross the ocean? Perhaps I'll never know, but the other day, when I visited Grandma in her convalescent home, the question for her, at least, was resolved."I was sitting in the garden yesterday," Grandma told me in a happy and excited voice that I hadn't heard for a long time, "and there was this butterfly that kept flying about me. Suddenly, I just blurted out and asked: 'husband, if it is you then come land on my shoulder.' And it did, on both sides, and it stayed for a long, long time." A few days after my visit, Grandma collapsed and fell into a coma. The doctors said there was little chance of recovery. "She could go anytime now," they warned.Yet when I think of my grandmother it's not a decrepit old body sustained by a respirator and IV units that I see. The image that I keep safe is the one I did not see: A gentle old lady sits serenely in the rose garden at dusk, smiling happily. A flock of butterflies alights upon her bony frame, their wings forming a golden blanket for her in the last light. PNS associate editor Andrew Lam is a Vietnam-born journalist and short-story writer who lives in San Francisco.


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