One stormy afternoon, Auntie sat with me at our kitchen table. I was in third grade and wildly enthusiastic about everything origami, eager to show off my crane-folding skills. Relieved at a low-key activity to partake in, my bookish Auntie started to fold a paper boat for my cranes to ride in.
Eventually, the rain took a break, and we tramped outside with our armada of boats, waiting to release them in the roaring river of the roadside ditch.
Best. Day. Ever. I learned something new with Auntie, and witnessed a playful side of her as we watched the current sweep away our folded creations. We placed bets on which boats would sail the furthest and exclaimed in victory and defeat as the current capsized the smaller boats, while the larger ones sailed onward, victorious.
I never imagined that 22 years later Auntie would drown herself — that the current at Galveston Bay would sweep her away as if she were no more than one of our folded creations.
Storm’s A Brewin’
The thing I remember most about Auntie was her laugh. Her eyes would sparkle and she’d tilt her head back, laughter rocking her whole body. It was a contagious laugh that you could feel in your belly.
That bag was her security blanket, preventing anyone from guessing how burdened she felt inside.
But as the years passed, there were no more paper boats. Instead, she would bring a bag of work to our house whenever she visited, with never-ending paperwork from the most recent job she was able to hold down. That bag was her security blanket, preventing anyone from guessing how burdened she felt inside. You could see it if you looked closely enough: the vacant stare while adults and children ripped off wrapping paper on Christmas Day, or the pursed lips and dejected eyes when we feasted on dim sum.
I would crack jokes and act silly to get her to smile. Sometimes she would, and there’d be a flicker of light behind those hollow eyes for the briefest instant. But then the wave of heaviness would crash down again, extinguishing the light. Every year, her bag of work grew more cumbersome, each bag more cavernous than the last. One year, even her daughters began carrying bags of schoolwork to family gatherings.
Eye of the Storm
Then, one day, I received a text from my brother.
The words read, “Auntie is missing. They found a body in Galveston that matches her description. Uncle is going to ID the body tomorrow.”
I hurtled down the interstate to my family, and I asked myself, “Are you surprised?” I’m not sure whether it was the question or my own answer that caught me off guard. I wondered how this moment had arrived. And yet, I wasn’t entirely surprised.
I let the hustle and bustle of Houston’s Chinatown momentarily sweep away my grief as I ran into the grocery store. I grabbed some onions and garlic. A head of Napa cabbage. A knob of ginger. I flagged down the butcher and ordered some ground pork in my broken Cantonese. I tossed some dumpling wrappers in the grocery cart before standing impatiently in line.
I arrived at their house with all the ingredients for making dumplings. In the history of my life, nothing brought our family together better than food.
Before opening the back door, the image of her working at the kitchen table with her perpetual stacks of paper flashed across my mind. There was a chance she was still alive. This was all a big mistake. God, please let this all be just a bad dream.
The back door banged open, shattering my reverie. I was ushered into the house with plenty of Cantonese commotion by my siblings, cousins, uncle, and PoPo. But there were no piles of papers on the kitchen table, no unfinished bag of work to be done.
Everyone said they were fine.
Why didn’t anyone do anything? Why is it so shameful in Asian culture to seek counseling or help?
As I unpacked the groceries, I found myself furiously gripping a bulb of garlic. Why did they let this happen? Why didn’t anyone do anything? Why is it so shameful in Asian culture to seek counseling or help?
I smashed the garlic cloves, channeling my anger at questions I didn’t dare ask aloud. As I grated the ginger, my anger lashed out in an imagined conversation with Auntie. How could you? How could you leave your daughters? How could you abandon your family?
But as I lined up the green onions on the wooden block to chop, I felt the wave of anger subside, and guilt rushed in like an undertow.
I kneaded the ingredients together, the thoughts of “how could you” mixed together with the “whys”. “If onlys” peppered the mix. If only I could have made them understand there is no shame in asking for help.
I called my siblings and cousins to the kitchen table to begin folding dumplings together. Our heads bowed as we concentrated on forming each dumpling. A fly on the wall might have thought we were gathered around the table in prayer, in mourning.
We filled those dumplings together, the neatly folded pleats and plump forms contrasting starkly with our hollowed hearts. I watched one cousin struggle to seal her dumplings, her scoop of filling overwhelming the thin wrapper. The filling oozed out at the seams as she doggedly attempted to shove the filling back in.
I prayed the curls of steam would rise up into the sky and Auntie could see us missing her, as we struggled to begin unfolding the layers of grief together.
“Here, let me help,” I said, scraping away some of the filling into my empty wrapper.
To cut the embarrassment of lumpy dumplings, I shared a happy memory of Auntie folding paper boats. Genuine laughter filled the room as the last dumplings were pleated and plumped.
Finally, the sizzle of dumplings in a hot wok. Watching the curls of the steam rising from the wok, I pictured incense smoke rising to the heavens. As we sat around the table to eat, I prayed the curls of steam would rise up into the sky and Auntie could see us missing her, as we struggled to begin unfolding the layers of grief together.
At her funeral, I learned Auntie devoted her time to the new immigrants of the church.
At her funeral, I learned Auntie devoted her time to the new immigrants of the church, advocating for children on behalf of their parents when English was a struggle for them. I knew she was dedicated to her church, but I never knew this was the work she did. All I could remember was the difficulty in trying to find a date for family holiday get-togethers that would work for her because she was always at church.
Yet in another breath, I learned one of my cousins almost died in childhood because my Auntie was determined to pray away the fever instead of taking her daughter to the doctor. “God will heal her.” Luckily, my PoPo intervened and insisted my cousin be taken to the doctor immediately.
There is an anecdote about God that reminds me of my Auntie and her family:
A man is stuck on his roof, with the floodwaters rising and no way out. A man with a boat comes along to rescue him, but he waves the boat off declaring, “My Lord will save me.” He does the same to a helicopter that flies by to rescue him. Eventually, the floodwaters overtake him and he drowns. At the pearly gates, he meets God and angrily confronts him. “Why didn’t you save me, my Lord?”
God replies, “Dude, I sent you a boat and a helicopter.”
Mental illness has a cause beyond the spiritual and it will take more than prayer to help.
The drowned man’s thinking is not unlike my Auntie’s, or the conservative Asian church’s view on mental health. We have legitimate treatment to help with mental illness like depression, but it begins by accepting that mental illness has a cause beyond the spiritual and it will take more than prayer to help. And there is no shame in that.
The belief that mental health and illness are only spiritual in nature, reflecting the depth of your relationship and commitment to God, perpetuates the solution of just needing more prayer to cast out the demons and be “fine” once again. Pray harder, have more faith, and Jesus is your way out of depression. This way of thinking can be deeply flawed and can have catastrophic consequences.
Pray harder, have more faith, and Jesus is your way out of depression ... This way of thinking can be deeply flawed and can have catastrophic consequences.
In the three years since Auntie died, I’ve watched my family members try to move forward with their lives. One cousin abandoned ship for a completely different life. Another cousin started opening up to friends in her church community. My uncle sold his house and started dating. Everyone says they are fine.
I’ve gone to counseling to help me unravel the emotions and family dynamics that surrounded this traumatic event. It isn’t my fault I couldn’t persuade Auntie or Uncle to take counseling seriously. No amount of statistics or scientific research could convince them therapy was worth the perceived shame and loss of face. Not even my own personal stories of learning to ask for help.
So how do we remove the shame and loss of face?
“If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees.”
For myself, it began by shining light on it. Writing about it. Talking about it. “The less we talk about shame, the more power it has over our lives”, Dr. Brene Brown explains in her book “Daring Greatly”. “If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees.” Silence leads to continued shame and suffering.
You don’t need water to drown.
When you drop dumplings into boiling water, they sink to the bottom of the pot. Over time, they become transformed. The ingredients meld together as they cook and the dumplings rise to the top when they are done. Given time and proper healing, grief can also transform us.
Much like the labor of dumplings, to grieve alone is to do the work alone.
I can count on one hand how many times I’ve made dumplings alone. It’s so much work. Much like the labor of dumplings, to grieve alone is to do the work alone. Grieving alone puts you in the position of capsizing when the waves of grief crash down.
Every year, around the anniversary of her death, I gather folks to make dumplings with me. This year, a crowd of local PAAC (Progressive Asian American Christian) folks gathered in my home and folded hundreds of dumplings. They thought I was teaching them how to fold dumplings. What I was reminding myself was this is how I get through it. This is proof I’m surviving, thriving even, and that the undertow of grief hasn’t drowned me.
Making dumplings has become associated with Auntie’s death. What was a gut reaction in the grocery store became a piece of my family’s history. A memory of togetherness in a time of unspeakable pain. It’s a reminder that family comes together in times of both happiness and sadness, mourning and celebration. The togetherness envelops us. Lifts us up. Helps us survive. Reminds us that we love and are loved and will continue sailing forward. Together.
By Marsha Ungchusri
Illustrations by Kimberlie Wong
Marsha Ungchusri is a Chinese-Thai-Texan-American living in the D.C. area. Marsha holds a masters in Clinical Nutrition (grocery shopping is her shoe shopping!). When she isn’t tinkering with new cooking techniques, she can be found teaching hot hatha yoga. She is convinced the meaning of life can be found in a pot of just simmering stock or in the stillness between yoga asana. You can find her cooking stories at princesshungry.com.
Kimberlie Wong is a freelance illustrator currently based in Hawaii. She is the co-founder of the collaborative ceramics studio, Two Hold Studios. Kimberlie’s work can be found at kimberliewong.com. Follow her creative journey on Instagram @kimiewng and @twoholdstudios.