Andrew Lam is a Vietnamese-Born American writer who immigrated to the United States at the age of 11. Now a fully integrated American, he visited his mother on her 70th birthday and in the course of the party asked the question "Who will light the incense to the dead when I'm gone?" (Lam) Lam's aunt stoically answered her question with what can be condensed to "I guess when we're gone, the ritual ends." (Lam) Andrew Lam wrote the essay "Who will light the incense when mother's gone?" In an attempt to reflect on the cultural changes which take place in people's lives when they immigrate to the United States.
The essay opens at Andrew Lam's mother's 70th birthday party surrounded by her family, when his mother laments on the question of who will light the incense for their dead ancestors when she is no longer among the living. This question is not only about one particular cultural ritual, but is actually a discussion about how people's lives, and their cultural beliefs change when they immigrate to America. Lighting incense for the dead is a ritual that is part of traditional ancestor worship. In some Asian countries, where Buddhism is present, there is the belief that the dead can be sustained in the afterlife by the actions of the living. Vietnamese traditionally burn incense at their family altars on special occasions as a means of sustaining the dead, but also for the living to remember their departed loved ones. When Lam's mother asks who will light the incense for the dead when I'm gone, she is also asking who will remember and sustain me in the afterlife when I die?
Andrew Lam comments on his mother's predicament by stating "alas, such is the price for living in America." (Lam) But goes on to admit that he himself has not performed the traditional rituals in some time. Living in America has changed what is considered important to him, but not to his mother. College degrees, journalism awards, and other demonstrations of success are what is important in America, not performing traditional Vietnamese agrarian-based religious rituals. His mother even had a word for someone who had embraced American values and rituals: "cowboy." But in the end Andrew Lam could not promise his mother that someone would always sustain and remember her in the afterlife, his transformation to American is too complete. He does not seem believe that the spirits of the dead can be sustained by the actions of the living. But he does console himself with the fact that "if some rituals die, some others have only just begun," his writing for instance. (Lam)
As a 35-year-old African-American woman I immediately associated myself with his mother, and looked at my children and wondered if they will have the same values that I have when they get older. Will my children maintain my memory, my values, my teachings, and my beliefs? Everyone would like their children to maintain the values…