The fish must eat, but who will feed them?

The tradition is to eat sticky rice wrapped and steamed in bamboo leaves. 

The story is this: over 2,000 years ago, a young poet, banished to political exile, killed himself by jumping from a cliff into a lake. The villagers near the lake mourned his death. Out of deep respect for him, they made sticky rice wrapped in leaves and tossed them into the water. They hoped the fish and other creatures would feed on the rice and leave the poet undisturbed. They hoped this would keep his body from desecration.

Growing up Chinese, you learn strategies and ways to stack the universe in your favor. This usually boiled down to avoiding death. 

We position the bed so our feet do not point toward the door; that’s how dead bodies are carried out. White and blue are associated with death; we are discouraged from painting rooms in shades of blue. We do not leave chopsticks sticking upright in a bowl of rice; it would resemble tombstones.

For all we do to dodge death’s grasp, when it inevitably happens, it takes up a large space for the living. 

The living family members are responsible for keeping their dead warm, fed, and entertained. The care for relatives, especially for the older generations, does not cease after they pass from this world—quite the opposite, actually. We sweep their tombs, burn paper to send the deceased money so they could afford what they want in the afterlife. 

After a death, we build a shrine in our home where we display fresh fruit as an offering to the newly deceased. We burn incense and kneel before the shrine. We each bow three times. Ba calls this “sending off” the deceased into the afterlife, like accompanying a traveler about to set out on a long journey into an unfamiliar land. You accompany them as far as you can—up to the gate, to the end of the velvet rope, to the dock as the ship unmoors and drifts towards the horizon. 

***

One of the few times I have seen Ba cry is when his father died. For several nights, he paced on the sidewalk in front of our house. Back and forth. Back and forth. Occasionally, he would pause, softly muttering under his breath. I read in my room and tried to mind my own business. If I glanced out the window, I could quickly locate him by the ember glow of a cigarette tip, a singular light floating in the suburban dark that swallowed neighborhoods whole. 

At the shrine, we knelt together as a family and bowed so our foreheads touched the floor. “Come,” my dad said, his eyes red-rimmed. “Let’s send your yeye off.” 

By that time, we were churchgoers and considered ourselves Christian. My mother did not approve of this practice. Privately, she told me that we do not believe in worshiping our ancestors. But, that day she knelt alongside Ba, her head bowed low. 

Ba was in touch with his brothers in the days leading up to it. He learned that the day of, his father laid in bed and scanned the room. Once, then twice. He spoke no words. Then, he died. Ba understood that his father was looking for him, the only one of his children who was not present.

In the following days, Ba picked up cigarettes for the first time since he quit abruptly after moving to the States. I did not ask him to stop or snatch the box out of his hands, as I did when I was little and was considered endearing to the adults. The soft glow of the cigarette and its ashes kept him company as he paced in front of the house and dusk turned to the ink-blue deep of night. 

From her window on the ground level, our Italian landlady wrung her hands, worried that my dad would keep up with the smoking and that she would find cigarette butts, scattered in the grass and sidewalk all around the house. 

***

 We moved to Westchester in 2004, into the first house my parents could call their own after pouring most of their resources into paying for it. They took on a mortgage and Ba set to work building my mother’s clinic in the lower level, where she continues to practice acupuncture. 

When the clinic was completed, Ba began building the fish pond. He started by digging a hole in the backyard. It was 2011 and Hurricane Irene swept by in August of that year, and though her fury was overblown, my mother’s worried patients asked about the pond when they came in. 

The pond survived, now teeming with koi and goldfish that overgrew the tank. These days, I can find Ba in the backyard tending to the fish pond. The fish greet him like he’s their benevolent, approachable god. The pond is outfitted with a picturesque small red bridge that is functional, a waterfall over a rock sculpture on one end that cycles the water as oxygen pumps through. 

Ba works on the backyard at least once a day, trimming, watering, pruning, replanting, repairing. He frequently wanders over to the pond, sometimes squatting by the edge to take a closer look. There is one goldfish in particular with brilliant, creamy mother-of-pearl scales, with strokes of fiery orange dashed across its spine. Its tail, twice as long as the other’s, drifts behind her body dreamily. Ba points her out to me, calls her his “movie star.”

Over two decades and several heartbreaks, my parents have learned how to care for the fish. They stopped buying koi and kept less costly goldfish so their deaths would sting less. They learned not to add too much nutrient at once, after a fatal dose that killed all the fish. Ba added removable netting to cover the pond and protect the fish from swooping hawks. They know the fish will survive the winter, spending those months silent and still at the bottom of the pond as a thick layer of ice hardens the surface. When spring comes, our hydrangeas bloom and the ice thaws. The fish stir from their repose and Ba begins to feed them again. 

We were walking around the backyard one afternoon when Ba made an offhand comment. After he was gone, he said, the fishpond would go too. I stopped, surprised. I responded immediately, childishly, that I could carry on taking care of the pond. Ba, not one to overvalue being right, just smiled gently. We both knew I didn’t know enough to carry on maintaining it after he could no longer be its caretaker. 

On weekend visits, I ask Ba to teach me something about the pond – how to change the filter, how to deal with a rupture, how to tell if a fish is unwell. I gather this information in pieces, slowly, one visit at a time; I hoard it like a beginner’s collection of something precious. I do not know if I will have enough pieces to guide me in going from caretaker to caregiver. I cannot know yet if I will be able to navigate an inter-tradition rite, to accompany a loved one gently into the other world. If I can successfully manage a final goodbye, one of the most significant ways to honor a loved one. 

I don’t know how to ask my father or my mother how to do this thing for them. Instead, I ask my father about his fish pond. I observe how he circles the pond, how he notices each fish, how he tends to them consistently. How he trusts now that they will survive the winter and thrive in the summer. How he no longer aches with regret if he loses one. He is caring for them as best as he can.

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

We have grown since then, putting out bimonthly issues (we are contributor powered: apply to write for our next one!), and weekly reviews of culture, and news that is important to us.

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We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.

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