During this holiday season, I’ve been thinking about my Mom. About all the things she’s missed seeing since she passed away last year, most of all the birth of our first grandchild. How she would have adored little Levina! This past April, the Wall Street Journal published my article about bringing my mother’s ashes back to China. I wanted to share it with you.
My mother flew home to China in checked baggage.
Worried that TSA would confiscate her cremated remains from my carry-on, I pack the urn with her ashes into a suitcase filled with gifts for my Chinese relatives and entrust her mortal remains to United Airlines. Mom and I often talked about the trip we’d someday take together to the “city of eternal spring” where she was born. In Kunming, she said, the fruits are sweeter, the mountains are like Chinese paintings, and the weather is always perfect. I promised that I would go with her when my life was less hectic, but the years inexorably slipped past and suddenly, it was too late. As she lay dying, I made that promise one last time. Yes, Mom. We’ll go to China.
The Kunming I encounter is nothing like the quaint town my mother described. Instead I find an eight-lane freeway and a skyline studded with highrises. I also discover dozens of excited relatives I’ve never met before, waiting to embrace me and my American family as we walk out of baggage claim. Both my parents were Chinese, but I can’t understand a word these relatives are saying. It’s my half-Caucasian son Adam who translates for me. Adam has passionately embraced his Chinese roots and he easily switches between English and Mandarin while I can only nod and smile as I berate myself for never learning Chinese. Growing up in California, I was so determined to be American that I refused to attend Chinese language school, and this is the sorry result. I’m just another clueless foreigner, humbled by my ignorance.
On the day of the funeral, the relatives drive us out of the city in a caravan of cars, and we arrive at a neighborhood of dirt roads and crumbling buildings. I’m bewildered when someone hands me a black umbrella. Adam explains that we’re bringing Popo’s ashes to visit her parents, but she must make the journey in shadow. As Adam carries the urn, I hold up the umbrella to shade my mother. We climb a half mile up a dirt track, past stray dogs and chickens, and wade into a cornfield. Unprepared for this hike, I slip and slide in my sandals, and my feet are coated in mud by the time we arrive at my grandparents’ tomb.
The Chinese relatives reach into the many bags they’ve carried up the hill, pull out gardening gloves and hedgeclippers to clear away the weeds, and set my mother beside the tomb so that she can visit. They burn incense, plant colorful paper flags to ward away evil spirits, and lay out fruits and cakes and cookies for the dead to enjoy. I’m startled to see them also place two cigarettes beside my mother’s urn. Her smoking was a habit I long deplored, and I almost blurt out: “Take those away, they’re bad for her!” I imagine my mother’s spirit merrily puffing away in the afterlife.
After the visit, we carry my mother’s urn back down the hill. Another hour’s drive takes us into cool and forested mountains, to a serene Buddhist mausoleum where her ashes will be entombed. The relatives cheerfully point out all the niches of deceased friends and family, as if pointing out the homes of the living. In China, the dead are not forgotten.
Buddhist monks lead the ceremony, and although I claim no religion, I find myself dutifully bowing and chanting words that I do not understand. It is my brother’s duty to clean our mother’s eternal home, so he wipes down the niche and places the urn inside.
It is my duty, as firstborn, to close the niche and lock it.
I hesitate, my hand caressing my mother’s urn. I think of her turbulent journey to this place. How she escaped war-torn China, leaving behind everyone she knew and loved, and never again saw her parents. How she struggled as an immigrant in America, endured an unhappy marriage to my father, and nursed a lifetime of regrets. Now here she is, back where she was born. Home at last.
I am sobbing as I lock the niche and shut her away forever.
There is one final ritual to perform. Before you leave a cemetery, someone must call out your name and say: “We are going home.” You must answer: “Yes, I am going home now,” so the spirits know you are departing the place of death. The relatives queue up, waiting for their names to be called, and one by one they leave.
At last it is my turn. My son calls out my name and says: “We’re going home.”
But it is to my mother I speak when I answer: “I am going home now.”
To my own home, in America.