May is Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) Heritage Month, and a question posed to me this week was, “When do you feel closest to your Asian heritage?”
As a multiethnic Asian American—I am Korean and Taiwanese—what constitutes my “heritage” wasn’t always clear to me. Up until this year, I thought that the way I expressed my heritage had to look the same as other East Asian Americans. I now realize that heritage is something that is unique to every individual — it is what you inherit from your family, by choice and sometimes unknowingly.
I inherited a belief in an afterlife from my Taiwanese grandmother, who passed away when I was in seventh grade. Her name was Chin-Hsia, but for the longest time I thought her name was Ama because that’s the Taiwanese word for “grandmother” and the only name we called her.
Recounted here are instances of Ama’s “sixth sense” – essentially, her ability to communicate across the divide between the physical and spiritual realm – that have formed the basis of my own belief in the spiritual. Her stories often resemble more widely held Taiwanese beliefs and folklore, and remind me that I am rooted in a much longer history and tradition than my immediate existence. For this reason, moments of awareness of an otherworldly presence are when I feel closest to my heritage.
I. The Taiwanese Ghost
Back in Taiwan, Ama worked in a shoe shop in Taichung City. It was far enough from her home that she had to bike there and back.
One day when Ama was biking home, my mom recalled, she saw a woman standing under a tree, combing her long hair. The weather was damp, gray, and faintly rainy — “Taiwanese ghost weather,” Ama called it.
Ama’s observation of the woman under the tree was of a certain half-perception — my mom described it as similar to the hazy awareness you might have when you’re just coming out of sleep and are unsure whether you’re still dreaming. Only after she’d passed the tree did Ama realize there had been something strange about the woman—she had no feet.
“That’s when she knew she’d seen a Taiwanese ghost,” my mom said. “They have long dark hair, long white dresses, and no feet.”
I asked her who these ghosts were.
“Tortured souls,” my mom said. Nothing else.
Now, whenever it is damp, gray, and faintly raining outside, I find myself noticing tall trees and strange shadows and wondering if I’ll catch a glimpse of a footless figure combing their long, dark hair.
II. Ah-Moh, Incense, and Bai-Bai
In their twenties, Ama and my Taiwanese grandfather, Agong, moved to Doylestown, Pa., where my mom would join them when she was six years old. Sometime after my mom left Doylestown for college, Ah-Moh, a spirit contained in a doll, appeared on the fireplace mantel in their home.
Ama found her in an antique shop in Doylestown – “Not one of those creepy ones,” my mom emphasized. Ah-Moh spoke to her from inside the doll. Ama left the store to finish her errands and then returned to pick up the doll because she felt it was right. She took the doll home, cleaned her, dressed her in silk and set up an altar for her on the mantel complete with candles and an incense holder.
“She basically deified the doll,” said my mom, who speculates that Ama might have been seeking to recreate the experience of going to temple in Taiwan, where there would be multiple altars set up for different deities. There, it had been a communal practice.
Ah-Moh would communicate with Ama from time to time. Once, she told Ama about a conflict that was happening between some of her relatives back in Taiwan. When they called her a few days later to tell her about it, they were stunned to find that she already knew.
Whenever we visited Ama when we were kids, she would have us do “bai-bai,” essentially a form of prayer and a way of paying respect to Ah-Moh. The ritual went something like this: First, we would take an unlit incense stick in both hands — at no point during bai-bai was it acceptable to hold the incense stick with only one hand if we had two — stand in front of Ah-Moh and bow three times. Then we would light the incense stick using one of the candles at either end of the altar and blow out the flame, so all that remained was an ember that would burn steadily for hours. Holding the stick with two hands, we would bow three times more. Then we would place the stick in the incense holder, take a breath and bow once again.
The smell of incense is still comforting to me because I associate it with Ama — yet it’s also vaguely sad and unsettling. My mom says that’s what the bridge to the other side feels like.
III. After death, and the 10-day mark
Ama passed away seven years ago after a long battle with breast cancer, yet her ability to communicate across both the spiritual and physical realms remains.
Ten days after Ama passed, my mom was still at her childhood home. Agong, which is what we call our Taiwanese grandfather, asked my mom if Ama had appeared to her that night; it is a Taiwanese belief that the dead try to return home 10 days after they’ve passed, but neither Agong nor my mom had seen her.
Later, my mom called my dad to ask how things were going with us in Michigan.
“He told me he’d had the worst night of sleep,” my mom remembered. “That was significant to me because he usually sleeps poorly. For him to remember having such a hard time sleeping, it must have been really exceptional.”
My dad said he kept hearing someone crying throughout the night. My sisters were five and seven at the time, so he thought that one of them was upset. He said it sounded like someone wanted something or was looking for something.
My mom realized that this had occurred on the tenth night after Ama had passed away. That’s when she realized Ama had come home — not to the home she lived in, but the home she had wanted to spend more time in when she was alive.
“She would’ve wanted to spend more time with you kids as you were growing up,” my mom told me. But Agong never wanted to travel, so they stayed home.
I was at Northwestern for a field hockey tournament that April weekend Ama died. It was the first tournament I played and won with my new club team at the time. My dad broke the news of her passing to me only after the tournament was over and he had taken a picture of me in front of some flowers to send to my mom.
Four years later, I was playing at the same Northwestern tournament with my club team. It was the end of my junior year and I had just about given up hope at being recruited to a Division I program. It was the best I’d played all year, and Northwestern field hockey reached out to me soon after to offer me a spot on their team. Though I left the program this past fall, I still feel like Ama had a plan for me. I think she meant for me to go down the path I’m on now, wherever it takes me. I have a feeling she knows where it’s going to go.