Growing up I was told about kiếp sau – the next/after-life. I was told that everything I did in this life would dictate and follow me in the next. If I didn’t finish my food, I should expect to eat all the wasted food in the after-life, mixed in with worms and insects. The thought of this scared me as a kid.
At a young age, I thought about death. Though all around us, from the leaves falling from the trees and fruit rotting away, I don’t remember the exact moment I became acutely aware of death.
Perhaps it was the subconscious, lingering feeling of sadness from seeing my parents work hard to live. When I was just 7 years old, I remember feeling deep pits in my stomach. Now I don’t remember what those thoughts were, but I felt its physiological effects that made some nights difficult to fall asleep.
Later in life, at 12 years old I remember asking my mom, “What will I do if I don’t have you as my mom in the next life?”. This scared me – how could I live a different life without my mom?
Would I really like to be reincarnated into a new person without any of the memories from this life? I didn’t want any of it.
Sometimes, I wonder if my parents hope for a better life in the kiếp sau. Perhaps, this hard life will transition into one that is simpler, kinder and feels more like home.
For the first time this year, I celebrated Lunar New Year on my own, away from my Vietnamese family and relatives. When setting up the table to cúng (pray), I texted my dad to ask about bà nội (paternal grandmother) and ông nội (paternal grandfather), “What fruits did they enjoy?”. He said to me, “We were poor, we never had any fruits”. And it made me think - imagine being so poor, you only get to enjoy fruits in your after-life.
For readers who don’t know about the rituals of Lunar New Year, a dining table is set up with a number of bowls and a variety of food, utensils, candles, and incense. Collectively, this is all part of what we call cúng (to pray). Once the candles and incense are lit and we’ve all had a chance to pray, our ancestors in the after-life are invited to the table to eat. At my house, we leave the room once the incense is burning to respect the privacy of our ancestors while they dined at our table. Once the burning of incense ends, we (my family and relatives) are invited to the table to eat.
In my adult life, I’ve been thinking more about where the concept of the next life comes from and what this means. Although not a devoted Buddhist, I often feel myself connected to its influence in Vietnamese culture and values. I continue to explore the idea of what life after death looks like.
I think about the cycle of leaves, perhaps their regrowth after winter, is their after-life. Perhaps for you and I, the after-life doesn’t mean consciousness, but rather a feeling that someone holds.
A feeling of hope that there is some sort of better life after you die. Or perhaps the hope is not for the individual that dies, but for the people that they leave behind. Whatever it might be, I think about this life, and what kind of things I want for my parents, and what things they want for themselves. For me, I want to see them heal. I want to see them find joy. I want them to know what it feels like to come out from the weight of their trauma. I want them to be free. I want them to see that it’s possible to obtain a happier life in this life, and they don’t have to wait for kiếp sau to have it.
Jennifer Truong (she/her) is 2nd generation Vietnamese born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She is the second daughter of refugee-immigrants from Huế/Sài Gòn and Đà Nẵng, Việt Nam. She is pursuing work in the mental health field to make it more accessible for marginalized, vulnerable communities. Her passions combine different mediums of art with mental health and community advocacy.