The shifting significance of a family ritual.
Aubrey Vinh | I’m at the kitchen table, “studying” for the GRE, when I catch a whiff of something familiar. It’s the smoky, slightly sweet, slightly flowery aroma of incense. It reminds me of năm mời—Vietnamese New Year—and my grandma’s house.
Happy to leave my studies, I wander into the dining room. My mom stands in front of our dark mahogany bàn thờ, a sideboard converted into an altar of sorts. A slim stick of incense rests between her hands, pushed palm to palm as if in prayer. She glances at the frames on the shelf, and lets her gaze rest on each black-and-white face staring out from them. Finally, she bows and places the incense upright in a small pot. A line of smoke rises from the stick and twirls above the photographs of my ancestors. The smell mingles with the cinnamon scent of apple pie. She’s put two slices on the altar, next to more traditional offerings.
I break the silence.
“Why have you been lighting incense so often?”
My mom stands on tiptoe to dust a frame before answering.
“Because we have a lot to be thankful for.”
I nod and return to my GRE book. Midway through Chapter Seven: Math Review, I start reflecting on the practice of thanking our ancestors.
The bàn thờ has been a constant throughout my life. On holidays, my brothers and I line up in front of the pictures. We stumble through the traditional phrases that our parents often have to repeat to us multiple times. We bow, then hurry away. When we were little, we did this in áo dài, long, silky tunics worn over white pants.
Our rendition lacks the sincerity our parents bring to the ritual. Before the altar, they bow silently, and don’t simply default to well-worn expressions.
I consider the psychic weight those photographs carry—whole lifetimes of poverty, heartbreak, and sacrifice. When my mom talks about what we have to be thankful for in this moment, she’s referring to my brother’s recent acceptance to Princeton. Or that’s the easy explanation, anyway.
Acceptance letters are tangible evidence to her that generations of hard work have not been in vain. They bring with them the assurance that we will continue building upon the foundation established by those who came before us. But the truth is that I have very little context for this foundation, very little personal connection to my ancestors, very little thanks to say to them with meaning.
I appreciate the victories that have given me the opportunity to consider grad school, but I struggle to connect them to the men and women housed on the mantle. I try to picture the incense’s smoky tendrils rising high enough to reach centuries of Vinhs and Nguyens above. But it doesn’t do anything for me.
Thanking my ancestors feels redundant when I can phone my grandparents, help my dad fold the laundry, or write an extra nice card for Mother’s Day. The things I am grateful for come directly from the trials they have endured.
My mom escaped from Vietnam in what sounds like a movie plot. She left her house in the dead of night with her mother and sisters, boarded a shabby boat, hopped on a plane, cried as its failing engines sent it diving toward the ocean, thanked God as she emerged from the crash unharmed, waited several months in a Filipino refugee camp, and finally came to America. Her father, my grandfather, remained in Vietnam for the next twelve years, imprisoned in a concentration camp.
On her third day in the United States, my mom enrolled in high school. Her classmates made fun of her name, Hang, and pulled imaginary nooses tight around their necks as she walked by. She ignored them and earned a spot at Polytechnic Institute in New York. She gave up dreams of architecture for the stability of electrical engineering.
At Polytechnic, my mom met a nice chemical engineer. He had left Vietnam by boat after the war ended. Many of his childhood friends had been lost at sea.
They moved in together and were engaged for three years, waiting for my mom’s father to be released from camp. After the wedding, they relocated to the suburbs and had me.
Twenty-one years later, in front of the bàn thờ, I say, “Thank you,” still yearning for the validation afforded by a response of “You’re welcome.” Bowing before these pictures is one of the few Vietnamese practices my parents insist that we honor. And though my connection to the people behind those faded images remains tenuous, the ritual has taken on a meaning for me that I doubt any of them, or even my parents, would understand: bowing before the bàn thờ is a process of remembrance and thanks unmediated by technology.
It doesn’t feel this way on Instagram, where on Mother’s Day I post cute pictures of my mom and me with cheesy captions that dilute the gratitude I really feel for her. Or where, on my own birthday, I post “Wow! Thanks for all the birthday wishes!” only to sit back and derive satisfaction from the “likes” I receive. I find myself thanking for an audience.
Alone at the bàn thờ, I throw my thanks into what feels like a void. In one way, this seems more transient and intangible than a post online, where every last data point lasts forever. Countless scrolling friends can see that I baked my mom a surprise carrot cake, but there is no physical proof that I’ve stood at the bàn thờ.
And yet, putting things online doesn’t help me remember them. Indeed, it encourages me to forget—confident in the promise that my cyber footprint can store the memory instead. The bàn thờ does the opposite. The process is internal, forcing reflection from even the most reluctant.
Maybe this is one of the reasons my mom pulls out the incense at every opportunity, a routine that has become inseparably intertwined with my thoughts of home. Over the years, other Vietnamese traditions have fallen by the wayside—mourning periods, mid-autumn festivals, and other notable days of lunar months pass without my notice. But still, I find myself standing in front of the bàn thờ.