Journey of faith
By Erin He
I haven’t stepped into a church for more than ten years, but I keep coming back to this one. It is a one-story beige brick block with a nave roof. It didn’t have any tall arches or high ceilings. The sanctuary can seat no more than 170 people. There were air-conditioners installed, but they don’t work. There are organ pipes, but the organ rusted away long ago. The few stained glass windows were small, old, and faded. Across from it is the parish house, a two-story farm house, where there were termites and mold growing in the basement. Connecting the chapel and the parish house is what the church council calls the educational building. On its flat roof is a black fence and attached to it is a drab silver cross. But it isn’t so much the building as what it is inside.
It is my uncle’s birthday. He is turning 60. We’re having dinner at a restaurant named Lucky Fortune, just like all the other restaurants in the area. Everyone has already arrived. At the door is Ardlin and Sabrina. They’re only three, but they seem like they were always there. I can’t remember how it was before they were born, before my cousins got married. Arjun smiles at me. When he smiles, his eyes curve up like tiny moons and his cheeks become perfect spheres, just like his father. Sophia hides behind her grandma.
It’s Arjun and Sophia’s grandpa. That’s what everyone in my family calls me. Dà mèi. Its literal translation is big little girl. I don’t get it either. People younger than me, the same age as me, older than me- they all called me that.
(Dà mèi, come here. Long time no see. You grow up so fast.)
“你不應該奉承她,” says my mom.
(You shouldn’t flatter her.) My mom nudges me. “快說謝謝。” (Quickly, say thank you.)
With a sigh I say, “Thank you.”
I walk inside. There, my eldest cousin “大表哥”, my second older cousin “二表哥”, and my third older cousin “三表哥”, are laughing about something I know I wouldn’t understand. They all grew up together in China before immigrating here in their teens. I was born here. Their wives stood by their sides with the beauty of a plum blossom tree.
“大妹,” they say when they see me.
I scuttle past them to the table. My dad’s younger brother, “叔叔”, his wife, “嬸嬸” or just Melissa, and their children, Grace and Danny are already seated. Grace and Danny shout to each other something regarding the iPad. Next to them is my dad’s eldest sister, “大姑媽”, and her son, Andy. His Chinese name is “伟杰”
“Hello,” I say. I sit down. Melissa nods and me and opens her mouth.
(Dà mèi, I hear you go to church often. You don’t really believe in Jesus, right?”
I look away. Everyone looks at me.
(Don’t you know? Beliving in Jesus does not make a living.)
It is the Mid-Autumn Festival, the second most important holiday on the lunar calendar. The apartment is filled with the smell of incense. It hovers close to the ceiling. Its pungent and sharp smell hurts my nose and brain as soon as it enters my nostril. Once lit, the smell spreads to every crevice. It clings as a leech does. One cannot escape from it. It crawls under closed doors, climbs over walls, seeps in between every crack. Believe me, I have tried for sixteen years.
Tan and round mooncakes that give a lustrous sheen under the light lay on the table. They are heavy because of their lotus seed paste filling. My mom has separated the ones with egg yolks inside from the ones that don’t. I only eat the ones without. Next to the cakes are baskets of steamed taro. They don’t have much of a smell or taste. They’re brown with dark stripes and look hairy. They’re unpleasant to hold in my hand. Its name sounds like the pronunciation for “luck is inside”. That’s the only reason why we eat them today. Next to the baskets of taro are a pair of coconuts. Next to the coconuts are pears. Pears and “separation” sound the same in Chinese. We eat the pears to avoid separation. There are many light-filled events with lots of people for the holiday, but in years past, we huddled together as a family in this tiny apartment eating these foods, talking, laughing… being a family. I love-
(Dà mèi, come bow to the God.)
In ancient times, an important part of the holiday is thanking the gods for a good harvest. It’s still part of the holiday today. I already know what’s on the offering table- duck, chicken, rice, wine, all headed by sticks of burning incense. We cannot eat any of the dishes before the incense has finished burning, signifying the gods have finished their meal. While the incense is still burning, my mom always called my siblings up one by one. We clasp our hands together and bow several times and ask for good health, family unity and good grades. But now her god is not the same as my God.
(What is it? Hurry, hurry.)
“I believe in Jesus.”
(What do you mean? Come now.)
“It means I can’t bow here.” My mom’s eyes bulge, her mouth hangs open. Then, her brows starts to furrow. Her face grows red, but her eyes start to water. She must be asking herself what she did wrong in raising me. What a wayward daughter I am. I cower and swallow. Guilt welts up inside of me, becoming bigger and bigger, claiming every cell of me. I want to say I was just kidding, but I’m not. That night, nobody ate.
God, I pray that my family will always stay together like the full moon.
I walk over to church for their Christmas Eve celebration. My family has never celebrated Christmas before. Will it be like the movies? Perhaps there will be eggnog, gingerbread houses and men, turkey… I walk into the parish house and open the door.
"Happy Birthday, Ellen!"
"You're finally seventeen!"
In the evening, I come home and find a package at the door. It is addressed to me, from Andy. I tear open the box to find a blue stuffed bunny whose left eye is bigger than its right eye. It was the size of my palm and wore a little plaid jacket. With him was a birthday card. The gift is juvenile, but cute.
Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for all the things you have given me. You have blessed me with so, so much.
I hear whispers throughout the apartment. “伟杰死了,” says my dad.
(Andy is dead.)
Huh? What’s happening? Why is Andy gone?
“我以为他在香港。” It’s my mom.
(I thought he was in Hong Kong.)
Did he disappear?
(He was. He committed suicide there.)
They hush themselves. Is it so they can keep this unknown to the rest of the world? Perhaps they raise their voice, some spirit might hear and tell others. But every secret is revealed eventually. I don't know what to say or feel, but one question remains: God, why?
Today is Lunar New Year. I should have woken up to loud, upbeat Chinese new year songs. I should have been greeted by my parents when I stepped out of my room, who would say, "恭禧發財," to wish me a prosperous new year. I should have received packets with money in them. The table should be filled with Ferrero Rochers because of their gold color. There should be dried mangoes, seeds and plum candies on display. The walls and doors should have red and gold pictures and signs hanging on them. But when I woke up, a heavy gloom wrapped itself around me. I knew there weren't going to be any festivities. Sometime during the day, I overheard Mom talking to Dad. They speak in the same quiet tone they only use when talking about Adam. “你大姐瘦了很多。她常常在伟杰的房里坐。”
(Your older sister is so thin now. She often goes inside Andy’s room and just sits there.)
(We won’t go visit her today. The festivities will just make her sad.)
Andy was born in 1982. He, as it turns out, had been suffering with depression. He was born in China but immigrated here when he was three. He went to magnet high school in New York City
and then went on to a business university in Manhattan. He was shy and reserved, but was friendly had many close friends. After college, he went to Vietnam. When he came back from Vietnam, he was different. He became a recluse. He shut off everybody, including his siblings and parents. He wouldn't tell anyone what happened while he was overseas. He had a hard time finding a job. His pride didn't allow him to work for his older brother. Years passed this way, until he couldn't take it anymore. I never knew.
Everything happens for a reason.
God is good.
God is good.
God is good…
“It is a sin.”
“You cannot throw away God’s gift to you.”
“People who commit suicide go to hell.”
“Pain will not be alleviated with death.”
“People suffer for eternity in hell.”
I see my extended family less and less. Dinners at relative’s places are things of the past, never to return. 大姑媽, my dad’s eldest sister, works more and more hours, and pedals harder and harder on her bike. How much weight has she lost? Five pounds? Ten pounds? Why do I still go to church? I start going to fellowship, to prayer meetings, to bible studies, but I can’t seem to talk to God alone anymore.
I look down to read Ernest Hemingway’s words, “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada;pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”