Life, Death, and my International Family

On this, the eve of my 24th birthday, I have two very important people on my mind.
The first, my maternal Grandmother – in this photo, sporting a not-too-enthusiastic smile while surrounded by 4 of her obnoxious grandchildren (take a guess which one is me…).


My grandma immigrated to the United States from Ireland as a young woman, younger than I am right now. She packed up what little she owned and hopped on a boat and sailed across the Atlantic. If my own experience moving across an ocean has been any indication, I’m sure she was both incredibly excited and horrifically terrified. I hardcore struggled through the 15 hour flight to Japan without power outlets or seat-back entertainment. I can’t even begin to imagine how on earth she made it through however many days on a boat. That’s an awful lot of time to get sea sick and sit around thinking “Dear God, what have I done?!”

I couldn’t properly appreciate my grandma’s sacrifice and achievement for a long time. In February of 2013, I was a junior in college and 9000 miles away from home, my first time ever outside of the United States.

Now, I have to back-track a little further to get to the significance of this story. A year prior, in February of 2012, my grandmother passed away. I was away at school in Chicago, and the day of her passing just so happened to be the day of my 20th birthday. My mom decided to spare me the news until the following morning.

My grandmother passed away peacefully in her own bed, surrounded by her children, at approximately 3pm. At almost exactly that same time, 300 miles away in a dorm building in Chicago, I met the only Irish exchange student at my university. And by met, I mean we nearly collided in the hallway and scared each other half to death.

My new Irish friend and I enjoyed a brief chat, then went our separate ways. Having not interacted with many Irish folk outside of my own family, I thought fondly of my grandma. I wouldn’t find out about her death until the next day. But I can’t help but feel, even after all this time that she (or God, or the universe, or a gaggle of benevolent space aliens) was sending me a wee message that day.

Now let’s jump forward again to February 2013 in Vietnam. It’s once again my birthday, and also the biggest holiday in Vietnam, the Lunar New Year (colloquially known as Tết ). My Vietnamese roommate had invited me to spend the ten day holiday with her family, who quickly adopted me into their ranks. I was carted around and introduced to every family member and was massively overfed. It was ten days of constant bowing and pantomiming and trying to say “No thank you, I’m stuffed” but ending up eating two or five more helpings anyway. I wouldn’t trade the memories from those ten days for anything.

On the night of my 21st birthday, instead of going out and partying like an animal as most college kids in America are wont to do, I had tea with an old lady.

Ba Ngoai, my roommate’s maternal grandmother, was a tiny, frail little woman with a giant toothless grin. She didn’t speak a word of English. Instead, she spoke her own language; an amalgam of Vietnamese, French, and your general old-lady gibberish. I adored her from the moment I met her. Fortunately for me, the adoration was mutual. We sat down and she took my hand, and didn’t let go of it for the remainder of our visit.

ba ngoai1

I listened and smiled and nodded as she prattled on about her life, through the French occupation and the American War and the raising of her children, my roommate trying her best to translate what she herself could barely understand. Her grandma’s years were beginning to show not only physically, but in the pauses in her speech, the reorganization of her history, the random omissions and additions. At one point she started singing a French folk song, one she had learned in elementary school.

My grandma used to sing Irish folk songs while she made tea, while she bathed us as children, while she gave us foot massages in front of the TV. In her later years, she suffered from various ailments, and sometimes she’d launch into muddled and disjointed monologues about her life. I’d sit and listen and react appropriately, just loving her for who she was – the woman who’d sacrificed so much to travel across the world, who raised my mother and helped to raise me. Who, before I even grew conscious of the wide world beyond my backyard, was my strongest connection to it.

Suddenly, before I could register what was happening, tears were running down my face. Have you ever not noticed that you were crying? It was a first for me, and a startling one. My roommate and her mother noticed a few seconds later and were just as confused as I was.

Some base part of my consciousness had remembered it was my birthday and thus the anniversary of my own grandmother’s death. Something about that struck a chord. It hit me like a ton of bricks, as I sat there with my newly dubbed “Vietnamese Grandma” that I was on the other side of the world. My grandmother had made just such a journey once upon a time. Was she up there in the heavens, looking down on me now? What would she have thought, had she been alive to see me hop across the globe?  She probably would have thought I was crazy. Maybe she would have been proud.

At some point I gathered my senses enough to explain to my companions that I wasn’t having a mental breakdown, I was just remembering my grandma. They understood quite easily, because unlike in the U.S, the anniversary of a loved one’s death is a highly venerated holiday among Vietnamese families. Ba Ngoai patted my hand, grinned, and said something that my roommate translated as, “I love my American Granddaughter.”

I think of both grandmothers as I go about my day teaching a school full of rowdy Japanese youth. Both women, in their own ways, have had tremendous influence over the woman I am today and the way I see the world. One is hundreds of miles away and the other is across another figurative ocean that I hopefully won’t be crossing any time soon – but neither will ever be far from my heart.


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