A Vietnamese tradition inspires a genealogical journey

February 20, 2022 | 07:46 pm PT
Mark A. Ashwill Educator
"The past is never dead. It's not even past." - William Faulkner (1897-1962)

Ancestor worship, an ancient practice introduced during the earliest and longest Chinese rule of Vietnam (111 BC to 938 AD), is rooted in the notion that those who have come before us have an interest in the affairs of the living, meaning you and I in the here and now. Secondly, we have the sacred responsibility to provide for them in their world in various ways in ours, including prayer and offerings of food and other items.

Like all Vietnamese, I too burn incense and pray at the family altar for those who have come before me. I am here because they were there in another time and space. I honor my father and grandparents on their death anniversary, or memory day. I remember that day for other ancestors, most of whom lived and died long before I took my first breath.

I'm not appropriating Vietnamese culture; rather, I have a sincere desire to connect with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins I knew and who lived many generations ago. Sadly, in the West, many families rarely speak of those who died, including parents and grandparents, let alone acknowledge them on a regular basis. Some don't even bother to visit their graves and pay their respects.

A logical leap

The marriage of ancestor worship and genealogy represents an innate connection to the past that complements my lifelong interest in history in the spirit of "what's past is prologue", a line from William Shakespeare's play, The Tempest. This powerful combination is what inspired me to begin conducting genealogical research as a hobby.

While some people become interested in genealogy as a byproduct of aging, and others to find their roots, for me, ancestor worship was a catalyst for showing love and respect for my ancestors, and to learn more about the past, both my family's and the world's.

Thanks to the internet, vast databases of documents and artificial intelligence, I can trace many of my ancestors to the late Middle Ages in Europe, roughly from the mid-13th to the 16th century. A DNA analysis simply confirmed what I have found in my research: England and Northwestern Europe: 34 percent; Scotland: 26 percent; Sweden and Denmark: 23 percent; Germanic Europe: 15 percent; and the Baltics: 2 percent.

In the case of England and Scotland, many of my ancestors were members of the aristocracy and royal families whose descendants chose a new life in British Colonial America. (Princess Diana and Queen Elizabeth II are distant cousins.) The Scandinavian influence is likely the result of intermarriage between locals and Vikings who began to settle in Great Britain after the first of many invasions in 793 AD.

Settler colonizers, New England, and Vietnam

William Cuthbert Faulkner, whose signature quote I use to kick off this essay, one of the most lionized writers of American literature, is a distant paternal cousin. Our common ancestors crossed the Atlantic from Lincolnshire, England to Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s.

Like Faulkner, most of my ancestors emigrated to British Colonial America in the 17th century, which later became the United States, starting as early as 1610 and 1620. In a sense, my family history is the good, bad, and ugly history of the U.S.

I touch on this range of good to evil in a recent essay "From New England to Vietnam: Settler Colonialism in Cross-Cultural Perspective", a cross-cultural look at Vietnamese history and the Native peoples of what became New England, who were confronted with similar challenges.

I have often thought about the fate of the people whose ancestral lands were occupied by my ancestors and the country I have called home since 2005. Both fell victim to foreign invasion and occupation, the former by the English and the latter by the Chinese, French, and U.S. Americans. New England Native American tribes were quickly overtaken by forces beyond their control while the Vietnam – often against all odds – survived, their culture fundamentally intact.

Throughout its millennia-long history punctuated by invasion, occupation, and war, the Vietnamese people have accomplished an unparalleled feat: they managed to retain their culture and their sovereignty.

This is in diametrically opposed and tragic contrast to the Native American tribes of New England, the seeds of whose destruction were sown beginning with intermittent contact with murderous, disease-ridden, and slave-trading European explorers and elevated to a foregone conclusion with the arrival of the Mayflower in November 1620 and the Great Puritan Migration that followed.

This ignominious history is not only academic but also intensely personal, as I am both a permanent resident of Vietnam and a direct and collateral descendant of settler-colonizers who arrived in their New World in 1610 and 1620. If they hadn’t been there at that fleeting moment in history, I wouldn’t be here in this unique genetic form. That said, it is a painful reality that gives me pause.

Coming full circle

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana (1863-1952)

For better and for worse, my extended family ties to the U.S. elite, of which I'm not a member except as someone who has benefited from WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) privilege, run deep and wide because so many ancestors on both parents' sides emigrated to their New World nearly 400 years ago.

For worse, because so many of my forebears were involved in the mistreatment, persecution, enslavement, and genocide of Native Americans, bought, owned and sold African slaves, and exploited workers for profit. And, as is often the case in divided countries, they fought on both sides of the U.S. Civil War from 1861-65.

When I mentioned to an acquaintance in the southern U.S. state of Georgia that I shared some strands of DNA with a family of slaveowners there, he replied that I am "living proof of evolution to a higher state of being!" While that simple truth put a smile on my face, it also offers a glimmer of hope that more people in conflict-ridden, divided countries such as the U.S. can learn about and overcome the past to ensure a brighter and more harmonious future.

For better, because many of them, including artists (painter Winslow Homer), business leaders (Bill Gates and John D. Rockefeller), important cultural figures (Susan B. Anthony, social reformer and women’s rights activist, and Benjamin Franklin), entertainers (comedian Johnny Carson and singer Janis Joplin), explorers (astronauts John Glenn and Alan Shepard), inventors (Thomas Edison; Orville and Wilbur Wright), musicians (composer Samuel Barber), poets and writers (Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway), and political leaders (Abraham Lincoln, 16th U.S. president, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd U.S. president) made lasting contributions to their country and the world.

While Buddhism teaches us that we should live in the moment, one key realization that stems from ancestor worship is that the past and present exist concurrently. I have Vietnamese culture and its people to thank for kindling my interest in this fascinating and rewarding way to learn more about my past as prologue and history that informs the present.

I am because they were.

*Mark A. Ashwill, Ph.D. is the managing director and co-founder of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company established in 2009. The opinions expressed are his own.

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