Sisters, Daughters, Spirits, Kin(h)
I used to only have two real memories of my aunt: when I met her and when I learned of her death. That is, until a few years ago when her spirit came to visit.
1997-1998: Displacement and Departures
“At the time, we were all very sad. But I think the saddest person of all was your father.” - Chị (“Cousin”)
For the longest time, I didn’t know her name. In my mind, she was simply “Cô” (“Aunt”). The youngest of my father’s siblings, she was beautiful and beloved by those who knew her. Having been born in Hong Kong, I didn’t meet her until 1997 when my parents and I moved back to Vietnam. I was too young when we met to remember the details of her personality beyond the meticulous way she styled her chic ‘90s hair. As a curious child, I sat in her room and observed this intricate ritual whenever we were together. She was poised and stylish, qualities I hoped to someday exude (still crossing my fingers). I wondered why one side of her face seemed to “droop”, but thought it would be rude to ask. I didn’t know she was sick, or that she had been for some time.
After a year in immigration limbo, my parents and I were finally approved to go to the U.S. With one large army-green suitcase between the three of us, we left Vietnam in June of 1998, unsure when we would see our relatives again. In a quirk of fate, we departed right before my birthday. I went to sleep on one side of the Pacific and woke up on the other, having turned five years old somewhere along the way. For years I thought of this as when my life truly began, though it turned out to be an ominous start. A few months after we arrived in the U.S., Cô passed away. She was only 23 years old.
For the first and only time in my memory, my father seemed truly broken. After we received the news, he didn’t go into work that day and didn’t come home until late that night, unable to move past the living room couch. Though I didn’t fully comprehend the concept of death or the reason for his grief, I cried because he cried. I realize now that my father was already very lost. Our new life in the U.S. was difficult and isolating, especially for someone as headstrong as he. It had long been his dream to chart his own path in America. Ironically, his search for self-liberation led to many years in Hong Kong refugee camps. The 1997 Handover of Hong Kong, from Britain back to China, might have forced us back to Vietnam but it didn’t deter my dad. After nearly a decade of being shuffled between countries and refugee camps, separated from his parents and siblings, coming to the U.S. was supposed to be his victory. Instead, it threw into stark relief all that he had lost. If leaving his homeland felt like being severed in half, I imagine his sister’s death was the irreversible loss of the half left behind.
For me, the thread connecting me to Vietnam—and to the family that remained—was delicate and growing more fragile every day. A few months can seem like a lifetime to a child, especially when assimilation is the key to survival. While I knew that Cô’s death was significant, I’m sad to say that I didn’t truly mourn her. When custom dictated that we avoid speaking Cô’s name aloud, but should instead “keep it in our hearts”, my memories of her soon faded into half-dreams, becoming as lost to me as she was now lost to my father.
2015: Skype Spirit
“I woke up late that night, ‘howling’ in a voice that didn’t seem like my own. I felt cold, my vision blurry as I looked around the empty room. When a strange hand tried to grab and keep a tight hold of mine, I quickly pulled away. Just then my brother rushed in, having heard my screams, and the rest of the family soon followed. They repeatedly called my name, trying to wake me from what they assumed was a dream. I was not dreaming at all.” – Chị
Life took a strange and circuitous turn in 2015. After seventeen years away, it was time for me to return to Vietnam and visit my relatives. So, a few days after my college graduation, I set off for the sweltering heat of the Vietnamese summer. All at once, I was bombarded with excitement, chaos, love, and disappointment. For years, I had dreamt of a momentous return and of the big family that would await me. But the reality felt more like waking up with amnesia, repeatedly being told that I should love these strangers and feel at home in this unfamiliar land. I badly wanted those things to be true, but there seemed to be something wrong with me. Our relationships were no match for the consequences of time and distance.
I was secretly glad to not be traveling with my parents as my relationship with my father had been strained for many years. Sadly, my solo trip didn’t stop our drama from bleeding into my time in Vietnam. We still found ways to argue and hurt each other, time difference be damned. He called me rude and ungrateful; I called him an overbearing tyrant. These clashes with my father, combined with the emotional blow of feeling so much like an outsider in my own homeland, with my own family, soured the experience. When the trip ended, I was emotionally wrought and more lost than ever. I flew back to New York and focused on my work as a way to recover from the events of summer. But, just like the last time I left Vietnam, death would soon pay a visit.
Shortly after I returned to the U.S., my parents called to tell me that my ông nội (paternal grandfather) had passed away. It had only been a couple of months since I last saw him in the small village he called home, and we still had so much to catch up on that I didn’t manage to fit into my brief visit. Now any opportunity for closure, at least where my grandfather was concerned, was gone. Instinctively, I worried about my father. In true working-class refugee fashion, the funeral service was broadcast live over Skype for my parents, since they were unable to fly to Vietnam on such short notice. I called my grandmother in Vietnam but couldn’t bring myself to watch the proceedings. Needing to witness happier times, I watched a recording of Ông’s 80th birthday celebration instead. The day passed solemnly until my parents called. My father was almost frantic with excitement:
Him: “Your aunt’s spirit came to visit the family.”
What proceeded was the most bizarre conversation I’ve ever had. My father described how the funeral procession was brought to a standstill when a cousin of mine (who I’ll call Chị) began to sob and scream. Coming from the mild-mannered Chị, this would have been troubling under any circumstance. What was most shocking to everyone present was the fact that it was not my cousin’s voice that was emerging from her body. It was the voice of Cô, crying over her dead father.
Me: “Are you positive? Are you absolutely sure that was who you heard? That was who you saw?”
Him: “Yes! I would know my sister anywhere. Everyone heard her. Everyone saw her!”
My mother sighed. Between her and my father, I considered her to be the rational one. She would know better.
Her: “It was your aunt. She was very upset and wailing over your grandfather. I don’t think she knew she was dead.
Her: “She did sound like your aunt, but I didn’t really believe it until I saw 'her’ face. Maybe you don’t remember her very well but she had a face that was slightly droopy on one side. I don’t know how to describe it except that it was your aunt’s face we saw. It was as though her image was transposed onto your cousin.”
Me: “I don’t know if I can believe this.”
Him: “What’s there to doubt? It was her. I know it was.”
After a tense and confusing day, I contacted Chị to try and make sense of this unbelievable story. Everyone in the family was saying that, at some point that day, she started to shout and cry erratically in a voice that belonged to the deceased Cô. My cousin only remembered waking up, feeling cold, and exhausted. I had no reason to doubt what Chị felt or what everyone else had witnessed. But it still seemed so impossible. In a way, I really didn’t want to believe. How does an atheist even rationalize spiritual possession? (As far as I know, we try not to.) I’d heard very little mention of Cô since her death, so I wasn’t prepared to even consider the possibility that her spirit was somehow communicating with us.
Something about this story was acutely painful to think about, though it took me some time to acknowledge the uncomfortable detail that had been keeping me up at night. What haunted me the most was the thought of a heartbroken daughter crying out for her lost father, not realizing they were already on the same plane.
2019: Twenty Questions
In the fall of 2019, I attended the New York City premiere of Susan Lieu’s first theatrical solo show, 140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother. Written and performed by Susan, a fellow Vietnamese American, 140 LBS tells the true story of how her mother went in for plastic surgery and died due to medical malpractice. The performance was especially eventful given the fact that Susan was heavily pregnant at the time. I found the entire show to be heartbreaking, yet hilarious, but one part rocked me to my core.
Without giving too much away, at one point Susan visits a spirit channeler in order to attempt contact with her deceased mother. What followed was a live portrayal of something I had desperately been trying to picture in my mind for years. This was not the first time I’d heard the term “spirit channeling”, but to hear it in the context of a Vietnamese story felt like pieces of a puzzle finally snapping together. It was moving and absolutely terrifying.
Of course, it’s not completely surprising to know that there are more stories such as my family’s out there. I just hadn’t been willing to open myself up to the possibility that any of them were real.
2020: A pandemic is a perfect time for obsessive introspection
“I think some people just have an openness that makes them sensitive to the spirits around us. If someone who’s passed chooses to speak through a living person, then it must be very important. Your cousin was chosen for a reason. I believe we need to listen.” - Mẹ (Mom)
Lên đồng: a ritual in which a person acts as a medium for deities found in various forms of Đạo Mẫu, the most famous of which is Tứ Phủ, or The Four Palaces
Đạo Mẫu: the worship of Mother Goddesses in Vietnam
Mediumship, a practice in which a person becomes a conduit for communication between the living and the nonliving, is not unique to Vietnam. It exists in various forms throughout many Asian, African, and Native/Indigenous cultures and religions. Despite a state ban on many religious practices following the end of the Vietnam/American War, there has been a resurgence of lên đồng in both local and diasporic Vietnamese communities.
Opening this Pandora’s box and trying to find answers has led me to learn more about the spiritual practices of my homeland. While my family's experiences fall outside the realm of Đạo Mẫu, finding this cultural context encouraged me to keep searching. Nothing I’ve come across in my research has conclusively “proven” that the spirit of my aunt spoke through my cousin, but proof stopped carrying weight a long time ago. My relatives know what they witnessed and I know that it deeply affected me. I have to let that be enough.
On the first anniversary of my grandfather’s death, Cô returned a second time to mourn with us. The story was very similar: my relatives heard a long-forgotten voice, Chị awoke not remembering anything, and Cô was still crying for her father, wishing he was alive. Once again, I was left with questions.
Though Cô has yet to return for the third time, I want to believe it’s because she and my grandfather have finally found one another. If so, I’m glad she can have this closure and hope that she no longer carries any regrets. I've accepted that there will always be questions, many of which will forever go unanswered.
I also can’t help but ponder my relationship with my own father, which often feels like a never-ending cycle of stubbornness and deep-seated resentment. Will there be a time when I finally call out to him, either in this life or the next? Or am I bound to live and die with regret?
I suppose that's for me to decide.
I want to thank Chị for her willingness to share her story, my mom for staying strong, Loan Nguyen for being generous with her time and guidance, Susan Lieu for inspiring my search, and my father for surviving. Most of all, I want to thank Cô for giving us the gift of her memory.
Note: Names of relatives have been omitted for their privacy. Conversations in quotations have been translated from Vietnamese to English for this story.
Saoli Nguyen is a filmmaker and artist living in Brooklyn, New York. She is also a producer and social media manager for the Vietnamese Boat People podcast.