The smells of rice balls and beef stew waft through the house — and if you pay attention, the faint smell of incense.
It’s the gio for my grandfather, the Vietnamese celebration of his death anniversary.
My grandmother is bustling in her kitchen, readying my grandfather’s favorite dishes. We place the food in front of his altar, beside the incense bowl filled with uncooked rice and ashes.
“Have you done lay yet?” my mom asks me.
I hadn’t. Lay is a gesture of worship that we perform to our ancestors at the beginning of gio, so they can have a taste of the food before we do.
I light a piece of incense and wave it a couple of times so the flame will die down. I clasp my hands together in front of my face, close my eyes and attempt to pray.
Usually, I count down the seconds until I finish. When I was a child, I used to have full conversations in my head with my ancestors. “I hope heaven’s treating you nicely,” I would be sure to say, not realizing my error: Buddhists don’t believe in heaven.
As an adult, I really don’t believe my ancestors are listening. Out of habit, though, I quickly tell my grandfather that I hope he’s doing well.
Then I bow twice and put the incense in the bowl next to the other three half-burned sticks.
I should be forgiven if my childhood idea of heaven was a little warped, given that I was raised by a Catholic mom and a Buddhist dad, who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in the mid- to late 1970s. My parents never taught me exactly how to pray to my ancestors, even though they both practice gio.
“You’re supposed to wish them good luck, good health and a happy life in the afterlife,” my dad told me when I asked while writing this essay. “Then you wish for them to grant you health or wealth.”
Our family’s practice of gio stems from Vietnamese culture more than religious tradition. Most Vietnamese families have an altar in their homes, regardless of religious affiliation — which is usually Buddhism or Catholicism.
Vietnam is a predominantly Buddhist country, although the incarnation of Buddhism many Vietnamese practice has some elements of Taoism and Confucianism as well. The Zen school of Mahayana Buddhism is the main type practiced in Vietnam, and it has been ingrained in Vietnamese culture for over 900 years.
“In Vietnam it’s a big thing to go to the temple . . . it’s a big event,” my dad told me. “I remember every time we went to the temple there’s a candy store in front of the temple, with special candies that the monks made.”
We barely go to the Buddhist temple here anymore. After my grandmother passed, my dad stopped regularly attending Chùa Giác Hoàng Buddhist Temple in Northwest Washington, so most of my memories of going to the temple are faint childhood recollections.
I always found the temple to be a bit somber, with its cold stone floors and the giant, looming statue of Buddha that adorns the dais at the front of the room.
I prefer the cozy little house that sits next to the temple. When I think of Buddhism, I remember how my sprawling family would try to squeeze into a 10-by-25-foot prayer room. Or I recall the games of tag my cousins and I would play outside by the Buddha statues.
Religion was rarely on my mind at the temple, or at the nearby Catholic church where we attended Easter Mass. These family outings brought no spiritual enlightenment.
I’ve learned I’m among the third of U.S. adults younger than 30 who are religiously unaffiliated, more than in any previous generation, according to a 2012 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The percentage of “Nones” among Asian Americans has steadily grown since the 1990s, according to a 2008 ARIS study; compared to the steady decrease in Asian Americans who identify as Christian and the plateauing of those who identify with an Eastern religion.
My parents never sat me down to learn about Catholicism or about the merits of Buddhist meditation. The only semblance of a religious education I got was from my grandmother on my mom’s side. She had converted to Catholicism when she was 17 and had always been the most devout of my relatives.
Catholicism was introduced to Vietnam in the 1500s much more recently than Buddhism, which arrived in the second century A.D.. Today more than 6 percent of the population is Catholic.
I remember my grandmother taking me to church with her on Sundays. While the priest droned on, I would usually read the picture books my grandmother gave me, full of Biblical tales.
Her attempts to convert me didn’t work, though. I lumped the stories about Moses and the Garden of Eden in with “Aladdin” or “The Little Mermaid.”
So my grandmother was a bit surprised when I asked if I could go to church with her a few weeks ago to report this story. She gave me her copy of the Bible, which I leafed through as we drove to church. It happened to be the first day of Lent, so on the way she explained some of the things the priest would mention in the sermon.
After the service, she asked me what I thought.
It was interesting, I said. But I was no closer to a religious epiphany than before.
“I was thinking that communion is like paying respect to our ancestors,” she told me. “Instead, you remember the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.”
“Like gio?” I asked.
“Yes, like gio. For gio you cook the favorite meal of whoever’s gone and it’s like a memory. They can’t eat it because they’re dead, so it’s the living who eat it.” The same with the wafer and the wine at communion.
My grandmother’s comparison surprised me. Why had I not noted it before?
When we went to the Vietnamese Catholic Church for my grandfather on my mom’s side’s funeral, my sister and I were the only ones who couldn’t take communion. We hadn’t been baptized Catholic.
I would joke to my sister that we were heathens, but she didn’t take it so lightly. She was a bit bitter that my mom hadn’t baptized us.
I later asked my mother why she hadn’t.
“I wanted to give you a choice in your religion,” she told me.
But despite my exposure to two faith traditions, I don’t feel the need for either. My spirit — if such a thing exists — does not yearn. I don’t dream of an afterlife or imagine my family communing with me there.
But I guess in a way I have chosen, however unintentionally.
So what’s my religion?