2016-06-30
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."

Prodded in equal measure by awe and skepticism, I asked, "Looking back on that now, do you see what she told you as--?"

Again, Sokha anticipated my curiosity. "I don't know," she admitted, the quickness of her reply not entirely camouflaging her uncertainty. "I'm kind of confused. You know? It's like, do I believe in that or not? Like right now, I am on chemo treatment."

She tugged at the front of her scarf, taut over her shaved scalp. She is 34, and she has lung cancer. "Sometimes I get very sick from the chemo. My friend, she very Buddhist, she comes and she tell me to meditate, to pray to Buddha for help. And when I see my mom, she tell me to pray to Jesus, because she converted to Christian. She completely converted. So I say, 'Which one do I pray for?' She said, 'Pray for both. It can't hurt.' And I did that."

If the physical benefit of making a poultry offering to a tree's bruised spirit was immediate, I wondered, had these prayers had a similar effect?

Sokha shrugged. "I don't know. I don't know if it's going to help. But I have to believe, so I pray for both.

"Sometime," she continued, "I sit and try and concentrate and pray for one God. But I couldn't. I have to pray for two. I never tell my friend or my mom because I don't want to hurt their feelings. For me, I think it's one God. Why? Because they all believe in good path, in good way. They teach you to do good things, to be kind, to help people. So I say it's only one God."

"My mom," Sokha said, "she doesn't believe in ancestors anymore. Like my father, he disappeared during the war. We don't know if he die or live. But we assumed he die, right?"

"So my sister and brother," Sokha kept speaking, "we thinking during the new year we want to prepare a special meal, and then we burn candles at night, and we believe his spirit will come and eat that food. My mom, she wouldn't participate with us, because she didn't believe in that anymore. She doesn't believe in Buddhism anymore. My mom not in that traditional practice. She just ignore."

As the recounting of her family's struggles lengthened, a pair of questions suddenly struck me: Had Sokha's mom chosen Christianity as a rejection of Buddhism, leaving her heritage in the dust? Or had she sculpted her own amalgam, a Buddhianity, if you will, from her sadness and struggles?

America seduces with its newness, and saves too. For Sokha, like the Pilgrims, like my own immigrant forebears, America had offered an invitation to leave the past behind. Yet with this new life comes a complementary kind of death. When Sokha and her siblings called to invite their mom over for this commemorative ritual, only to hear her regret to inform them that she wouldn't be making it, it must have been a terrible moment. "No, no thanks, I'm going to church," maybe, or "I'm going to market," or "I'm watching TV." Is this, ultimately, the kind of rebirth America permits, an amnesiac kind?

"Do you believe in reincarnation?" I asked.

"Me? Yeah, I do," Sokha said, giggling, a machine-gun type of giggle that could puncture an inflated balloon. "It's strange," she added, almost apologetic. "I know it's strange."

"Sometime," she said, "I say that to myself: 'I try to do good things in this life, why I get sick? Why I have cancer?' I don't understand. I say, maybe past life, I do bad things. This life, I try to do good things. Maybe next life, I won't have this anymore." With the possibility of this consolation, she smiled, not awkwardly and not even self-pityingly, a gesture that led me to wonder whether this calm was Sokha's, or Buddhism's, or characteristic of both.

I asked Sokha Diep to explain the meaning of her name to me. She put her fingers to her mouth once more, stifling laughter. "Sokha means 'Live forever, happy, healthy forever, no obstacles.' Sometimes they believe if you name your kid certain way, it will help that kid to survive, get healthier, rich, never sick. But it's not that way," she revealed, giggling.



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