I’ve been a bit quiet on Olivia Oyster lately – unfortunately the blog has been on hold while I have had to figure out some important things in real life. One reason has been to focus on a big life and career goal, and I will have some really exciting news to share on that soon. (Yes, it involves an amazing travel destination too!)
The other reason was that my grandma passed away. I know it’s unusual to post about her life and funeral, but I wanted to celebrate her life and remember the old Chinese traditions that I grew up with. When I look back to compare her life to my mother’s to mine, I really appreciate what a unique and interesting family history I have.
My grandma was born in Chaozhou, China in 1922. She married my granddad at age 16, when Japan had invaded and was occupying more and more of China. There was mass emigration from China at the time, mainly caused by wars and starvation. In 1943, my granddad fled China by boat in hopes to start a new life in Malaysia, but he ended up in Vietnam (as you do). Just before the communists prevented large numbers of Chinese from leaving in 1946, my grandma also fled and reunited with my granddad in Ho Chi Minh (or as it was, Saigon).
Thirty odd years and eleven children later, my grandparents also watched Saigon fall to communist rule in 1975. That’s why my mother and aunt came to Australia as refugees. Eventually, other family members followed, including my grandma who eventually settled in Sydney’s Vietnamese community of Cabramatta, where she stayed until she died at the age of 92.
My grandma was very set in her ways, which played a huge cultural influence on my family. Even though she left China 70 years ago, she insisted on only speaking her local Chinese dialect. She was also highly superstitious and a devout Buddhist. We held a traditional Buddhist funeral in her honour, which lasted for days and followed with more rituals in the subsequent months.
The formal funeral took place on dates that had been auspiciously chosen by a monk. We gathered and prayed for three days. A group of monks led us while we chanted with them, sometimes praying to buddhist gods and other times praying to our ancestors. It went on all morning and evening. On the second day, family and friends came to pay their respects, bringing wreaths of flowers and burning incense sticks in prayer. Finally, we took my grandma’s coffin to a cemetery and laid her to rest with gifts to assist her in the next life.
I’m sure you are also wondering about the strange outfits. It is traditional for the family to wear white. My mum and her siblings wore white cloth and hessian mourning costumes. The grandkids (my cousins and I) wore white headbands and the great grandkids wore green headbands, all of them marked with dots to signify if our parents were still living or not. Later, the pieces of cloth were burned, as well as pieces of our hair. The buddhist chorus wore black robes. I didn’t take a photo of the monk, but funnily enough, he was the most ordinary role you would have recognised on the day.
Mum’s story is where it gets even more interesting, but that’s a post for another day.