My family has never been particularly religious, with more emphasis on general kindness and decency than any sort of doctrine, and I probably gained my spiritual beliefs as much from the Chinese dramas I watched as from anything else. My exposure to Christianity was limited to the illustrated Golden Book of Bible Stories (I’m not sure where that came from, possibly a relic from my mother’s family’s time with missionaries in the refugee camp in Thailand), and to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who would sometimes come to the door in the middle of the day when I was home from school during the summer. I was agnostic before I knew that there was a word to describe it, but I always held a vaguely skeptical belief in karma and reincarnation.
Before she passed away, Grandmother H said that she wanted to come back as my second cousin’s child. Cousin L was pregnant at the time, and I’m not sure whether we knew the sex of the child yet, but I remember the wonder that came when little N was born: two of Cousin L’s siblings had only boys. My Aunt S said that it was related to how many men were lost during the Khmer Rouge regime, that these boys who were born to our family were making up for them. N was the first girl born to our family in at least ten years.
I’m not sure whether anyone truly believed that N was my grandmother reincarnated, but I do know that as she grew into a toddler, she exhibited some startling similarities to my grandmother. At two years old, she loved to eat the same foods that my grandmother had loved, eating fish heads without a blink, gobbling down fermented-fish omelets, and she even walked with her hands clasped behind her back the way the my grandmother used to.
Religion is a difficult issue. We all need something to believe in, and we all fulfill that need in different ways. What is Truth doesn’t matter to me as much as what brings comfort and guidance, what spreads kindness throughout the universe.
I wouldn’t call myself Buddhist, nor would I say that I believe in reincarnation. It’s in my nature to sit on fences, I suppose, to wander in the gray zones. In my mix of skepticism and superstition, I have to admit that I don’t believe that N’s similarities to my grandmother are entirely coincidental.
Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only harnessed and redistributed. It’s a scientific fact. I can’t help believing that as the energy left my grandmother’s body–traveling out into the air, into the ICU, into the universe–some of it, some of who she was, helped make N into who she is. Call it reincarnation or call it the law of conservation of energy.