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Ji and grandmother holding handsMy Vietnamese grandmother (Bà ngoai) passed away a couple of weeks ago, on May 20th, to be exact. She was 96 years old. I didn’t feel anything until one week later. On that sacred seventh day, I suddenly cried.

I wasn’t touched by sadness, but by a powerful surge of love that my Bà ngoai carried throughout her life. She was a big lover of the Kuan Yin and so is my mother. The Kuan Yin was a reality in Laos, not just a spiritual icon. Grace flowed through that country, through the shutters of the Buddhist temple, and shone through the eyes of the people.

Something about Bà ngoai’s devotion to that Goddess of Compassion poured evenly throughout her being. She had a patient understanding of all beings and a total lack of anger.

There are many things I didn’t understand

Maybe because I’m Americanized and maybe because I’m me.

I didn’t understand that family matters, because all I’d seen in life was family mattering too much and destroying each individual’s authentic self and autonomy.

I didn’t understand why, when Bà ngoai reached her 80s, my mother flew to France to stay with my grandmother for three months each year, for the past 15 years.

When I asked my Mom why she did this, she said she wanted to be there in case Bà ngoai passed away. I didn’t understand.

I didn’t understand death, because I’d never had an attachment to this world. Death, to me, is a huge sigh of relief from the trouble and suffering of this carnival and hamster wheel we call life—of reincarnation—this constant struggle everyone must face, no matter how rich or poor.

I didn’t understand the value of my Mom forcing me to go to France for a never-ending summer, when I was 15 years old, with my little brother. He hated the trip because all my relatives were homophobic, calling him a “fag” and bullying him. But not my sweet Bà ngoai.

I didn’t understand the purpose of the two or three trips I’d taken to spend time with Bà ngoai, or what compelled me to take them … why I loved being in her presence, even if she was just taking a nap … why walking at a snail’s pace down the streets of Udon Thani in sweltering heat, shielding her from the sun with an umbrella mattered. I did this, patiently, and I didn’t know why.

I didn’t understand why I spent an entire month baby-sitting my grandmother in a lifeless, caged-in suburban home in France, surrounded by nothing but concrete, car dealerships and petroleum stations. All I did each day was watch my grandmother exercise, go through her daily routine, wash clothes, fold underwear and make tea.

I was bored out of my mind. Besides watching Bà ngoai, I did nothing but blog and write poetry. I observed my grandmother’s lonely existence among such a large extended family. Nobody had time to spend with her and after a while, she just became a trophy, ignored.

I entertained her by videotaping everything she did. I brushed up on my Vietnamese, cracked jokes to make her laugh and spent silent times observing her rituals.

Being “one-uncle-less”

family mealI shared her bedroom with her. I dreamed with her. I put up with a weird battery-operated device that chanted a Buddhist mantra in treble and annoyed the hell out of me. Around 3 p.m., she’d go to her room and pray to a framed picture of a young man on her mantel. I asked who he was.

He was an uncle I never knew, a soldier who died in the Vietnam War.

She pulled out her photo album and showed me images I’d never seen before, including a long funeral procession with my young mother as a teenager in áo dài, with the framed picture of my unknown uncle, her 18 or 20-year-old brother, held against her chest. She was sobbing, heartbroken. I’d never seen my mother cry before. I felt the pain of the entire world in that photo.

I didn’t understand that my mother had lost someone dear to her. I didn’t understand what it meant to be “one-uncle-less” because I’d never really known my relatives anyway. But when I saw my mother in that photo, I realized she’d gone through a deep loss.

When I visited Vietnam six years ago, I heard rumours, through a close friend, that my unknown uncle “looks over me.” I got upset and said, “I can look after myself.” I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand that when someone dies and there’s unfinished business, they hang around to show you their love.

I didn’t understand the values of my relatives and why they breed so much (they aren’t even Catholic), and why having a newborn is like winning the Mega Millions and your worth is measured by whether or not you’re married or have kids. If you’re gay or an artist—forget about it!

I didn’t understand why anyone would want to be part of a family if this meant playing strictly by their rules.

There are so many things I find oppressive about Vietnamese culture and its social customs, period. Maybe I feel this way because I grew up in America, where the extended family unit is broken and where, without a second thought, the elderly are sent to anonymous places to eventually die. Maybe it’s because my purpose in life is to create something larger. Maybe it’s because I’m an artist.

I didn’t understand why family meals with relatives mattered or why I subjected myself to three-hour ceremonies at Buddhist temples. Those things were important to my grandmother.

Love is an accumulative and qualitative thing

Ji and grandmotherNow I understand. I understand that the purpose of experience is to experience, even when nothing appears to be happening.

Now I understand. At the end of the day, the small, quiet imprints we make in life are what matters. Being present for others is all most people ask for. This could mean just standing in line next to a stranger or sitting next to them on a plane.

Now I understand. Being with my grandmother has taught me that Love is an accumulative and qualitative thing that consists of simply learning how to be with others.

This is a powerful thing to remember. One day, you’ll find yourself bawling your eyes out, because the beauty of love has suddenly hit you, and you’ll say to yourself, “Oh, that’s what love is!”

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When she’s not making films, she’s making word-pictures. Ji Strangeway is a director, writer, poet and executant of the ineffable. Made in Laos, former resident of New York, and creating in Los Angeles, she’s on the web at www.jistrangeway.com

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