We’re not a religious family. Once, when my Christian friends in elementary school asked why it was that I slept in on Sundays rather than attend church, I shrugged and said, “I go to Chinese school on Saturdays.” 
They stared at me blankly and said, “Yes, but that’s not the same thing.” And hearing them talk about their church activities and romances and holiday festivities, it didn’t sound like the same thing. They seemed to enjoy church and I, at least on Saturday mornings before I arrived, did not enjoy Chinese school. It was not my religion. It was the linguistic and utterly necessary (now when I look back) facet of my culture. That wasn’t a distinction I was wise enough to make as a child. 
So my friends went to church on Sundays while I slept in. One Sunday (or perhaps it was another day, but for narrative’s sake, let’s pretend it was Sunday), I asked my father, “Why don’t we go to church?” 
Without looking up from the TV he said, “You can go if you like.” 
“I know,” I said. My parents were very open that way. They encouraged me to try this and that, at least my father did, because it meant I would have less time to pester him during the Taiwanese news.
“But why don’t you go to church?” 
“I don’t need it,” my father said shortly. I didn’t see him move, but I detected a slight increase in the volume of the television. A young, pretty Taiwanese news anchor rapidly announced the evening’s headlines. It never seemed strange to me that my father was always watching the news in Taiwan. Because we had a fancy satellite dish, we got it in real time. I grew up with the sharp voices of young female anchors in the background. 
I asked my father what was then, for a 9 year old, a very thoughtful question, “You don’t need church or you don’t need religion?” 
“Neither,” he said, “But if you want to go to church, go.” He raised the volume one notch more before I could ask another question. I’m sure my father would have asked me to go to Church at that moment juts to stop bothering him. 
Later, I posed the same question to my mother, who answered more thoughtfully: “I’m not religious, but if I had to align myself with a particular faith, it would be Buddhism.” 
This made perfect sense. We celebrated Christmas, but not because of Jesus or anything, and I think the only times my mother stepped inside churches were weddings or the time she visited Europe. “That’s all they have in Europe,” she said, “Giant churches that all look the same. And pigeons.” A few years later, when I was going through a shoebox of photos from that trip, on which she’d gone to 8 or 9 different countries, I asked her where a few of them were taken. “It’s written on the back,” she said. I turned the photographs over and saw that she’d written “Europe” on all of them.

Aside from Christmas and the odd Easter dinner at so and so’s house, we really didn’t do anything else remotely religious. At least not in America.

Rene Magritte Golconde ,1953 Oil on Canvas. Houston, Texas, The Menil Collection

In Taiwan, we are religiously, a different family. This came to head when my grandfather passed away and suddenly all of us Ho’s became almost monkish in our devotion to the temple where our name plate was displayed. “Name plate” is a rough translation – a more direct one would be “ancestral name placeholder.” Basically it’s a small, standing plaque with our family name on it. You pay “rent” (actually I don’t know why I put that in quotes. It is actual rent) to the nuns at a temple to have it displayed (either prominently, which means more rent, or less so) and it represents the souls of your ancestors. I think it’s a convenience thing, as going to a local temple to worship the plaque is a lot more convenient than driving to the actual grave site, normally located in the countryside.

Apparently you have more than one plaque, because families, as you know, can be quite complicated. We had one for my grandma and her aunt, an old woman with no teeth who came to Taipei from Shanghai and helped raise my dad and uncles. They called her, in Shanghainese, “Nn’na.” I think their plaque is under “Hu,” my grandmother’s maiden name (some day my parents will read this and tell me, ashamedly, that I got everything wrong).  For many years their plaque was displayed at a temple that wasn’t very good about the upkeep. As happens with limited storage space, more nameplates kept on crowding in because other people in other families kept dying and pretty soon the “Hu” plaque was pushed back to a dark, dusty corner of the display case. Also, people weren’t too good about paying their rent – either that or the nuns at that temple were just lazy jerks and just let things fall to the wayside. Whatever it was, my grandma’s spirit was getting really sick of it. My grandma wasn’t a flashy woman, but she had been the proud matriarch – mother to three well-to-do sons and the third wife of a well-to-do customs’ agent who, even if he didn’t bring home too much bacon, made enough so that she could invest it in property. The property passed down to her sons, who built things on it and sold the things to people who needed such things (namely, housing and office space) and yeah, she was kind of proud of all that.

It made perfect sense that a woman who had built a small fortune around property should be in want of good real estate, even long after she’d left earth. She was disappointed with the set up her sons had left her in and decided to do something about it.

This is where things get weird. In Chinese numerology people born on certain days at certain times are said to be “lighter” in spirit than others. Their spiritual “weight” is lighter than average, meaning they can, if they’re not careful, drift to and fro between realms. I’m not explaining it too well, but I’ll quantify it with two stark examples. If 1 were extremely light and 10 was extremely heavy, my father, the man who doesn’t need religion but isn’t quite an atheist, would weigh in, spiritually, at around 7 or 8. Oddly enough, he studied numerology on a whim in his late twenties and, when my brother was born, predicted his son’s future physical attributes and certain personality traits quite accurately. By the time I came around he’d lost the instruction booklet.

Rene Magritte The Beyond, 1938 L’au-dela Oil on Canvas Private collection

But with children and the responsibility that comes with, my father more or less planted his already firm feet more firmly into the present, earthly life. When his father passed away, he worshiped at his grave out of respect to the rest of the family, still living, not because he actually felt my grandfather could hear what he was saying. (Indeed during a particularly long chanting session – I’ll more into detail about that later – my father fell asleep while kneeling and almost keeled over until a nun came to nudge him awake. My family was embarrassed. My father said, “What? What?”). My mother on the other hand, despite her relative poopooing of western churches, is extremely open minded to religious practices and other matters of the heart and spirit. She is not only receptive to Buddhist teachings, but also, on the whole, a spiritual person. She is the one that first brought to my attention the idea of Kharma – that what you do in this life could very well affect your next life – and while I know some people who resign themselves to this idea that their life now sucks because they’re paying for something bad in their past life, I don’t buy it – or at least try very hard not to. But on the spiritual weight scale, my mother is probably a 2 or 3.

If a spirit floated into the room where my mother and father sat watching television, the spirit would have a better chance getting my mother’s attention because a.) my mother doesn’t really watch too much television and b.) my father would, should the spirit successfully make faint contact, just turn up the volume. Even if the spirit happened to be his own mother.  

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