Last June, Tom Levinson, a Harvard Divinity School student, completed his religious education by touring the country in his 1994 Nissan, looking for conversation about faith.

Four weeks into my pilgrimage, on Labor Day, 1999, I found myself sitting with Sokha Diep at her kitchen table in Lowell, Massachusetts. I asked Sokha how she had met her husband, Tony.

"Meet?" she asked, as her hands, the color of varnished wood, darted up from her lap to cover her mouth. "Oh, funny. He believe in Chinese fortune-teller. He looking for wife. So he went to Chinatown in New York, and he met this fortune-teller, this Chinese guy." Sokha dipped her head slightly, a gesture informing me that she had found this method not altogether authoritative. Sokha, about 5 feet tall, appeared taller sitting upright against her straight-back chair. A black-and-white-striped scarf with yellow flowers was wrapped snugly over her head.

"And you know," Sokha said, "the Chinese guy take chopstick that has some certain word written on it, and put it in a can, and he shake, shake, shake." Sokha, imitating the diviner, moved her hands as if mixing a drink served in a coconut. "Whatever chopstick falls on to the ground, then they pick that and read your future. So they said, 'If you looking for wife, then you come up this way.'"

"So the fortune-teller was right?" I suggested.

"Yeah," she conceded, giggling. "The fortune-teller was right."

Sokha Diep arrived in the United States 18 years ago, a 16-year-old survivor of the war in Cambodia. Like many of her country's refugees, her immigration was sponsored by a church group. She learned English in high school, eventually attending community college near her home in New England. After moving to Lowell, she entered the health-care field as a kind of cultural mediator, advocating and translating for Cambodian patients in local hospitals, advising them how best to synthesize traditional medicines with Western care.

Lowell has long been a center for immigrants. That legacy, founded at the beginning of the century, continues at its end. The immigrants used to come from Eastern and Southern Europe; now they are Laotians and Chinese and Cambodians like Sokha, who have settled here by the thousands over the past 20 years.

"Cambodians usually hang their children's pictures, their family, on the wall," Sokha continued. "My mom hung my picture on the wall. I'm not even there yet. Tony saw my picture and he fell in love with the picture. He said, 'Who's that girl?' She said, 'Oh, that's my daughter. She come back every summer.' So he wait for me."

"Cambodians and Chinese people also hang pictures of grandparents and great-grandparents, right?"

"Oh yeah," Sokha replied in her clipped, high-pitched voice. "It's tradition. You want to see them everyday, even though they're gone. If you put them in an album, sometimes you go years, believe me, without seeing them. So when you see the pictures, you say, 'Oh, it's time for ancestors.' After they die, they count seven days, funeral; 100 days, funerals again. Then certain years, they do funeral again, so the ancestors don't get mad at us. The old people now, they still believe that."

She paused for a moment. "I used to believe that. I still believe in Buddhist, but certain things, not everything, because now I know better." Sokha sat still for a moment, resting her arms, fleshy and smooth like a newborn's legs, on the table. "I still know the way they taught me, but now, do I follow or not? Am I flexible a little or not?"

"Is it since you've been in the United States?" I began to ask, but she apparently knew what I was asking. "Mm huh..." she nodded.

"Pick and choose?" I summed up.

"Yep, pick and choose," she said. "Like, for example: When I get sick I go to the doctor, I get medicine. I also still follow the traditional healing: coining, cupping, pinching to make myself feel better. But I don't believe in fortune-teller, and I don't believe in witchcraft. I don't believe in that anymore after I learn about scientific way in the United States.

"But I remember when I come to refugee camp. We went to the forest to cut some trees to make some hut we could stay in. And that night, I got very sick. I almost died. How come I get sick? It not the food; everyone eat the same thing.

"My aunt said I must have cut some certain tree that I was not supposed to cut because the spirits live in there. So my aunt prepared this offering of a certain food to the spirit, so the spirit don't get angry at me, so the spirit will calm down and forgive me, and I'll get better. She get chicken, candles, incense, and brought it to the place where I cut the tree, and then the next day my fever was gone. Everything gone, back to normal. So that made me even more of a believer. Next time I want to cut down even a small tree, I have to ask for permission. I didn't ask that time. I didn't know."

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus