Essay by kingbobo100High School, 12th grade January 2008

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A narrow path ran between the rice paddies an hour outside of Xiamen, a southern city in China. It meandered up a mountain shaded by broad, green leaves. My eccentric and eclectic family trudged along this dirt trail under the blazing summer sun – grandpa and grandma wearing loose traditional Chinese clothing, my mother, brother and I melting in our shorts and t-shirts. We wound our way to the grave, ducking under branches and swatting at gnats that buzzed around our heads. As we plodded into the clearing, we gazed up at the fifty-foot granite slab engraved with scarlet characters that marked the tomb of my mother’s grandmother.

By then, my mother had begun to cry, salty tears streaming down her face and dripping from her chin onto the small altar that held a pot of sand for the smoking incense sticks, a faded photograph, and some shriveled, brittle flowers.

With reverence and familiarity, she kneeled on the dusty ground, clutching the incense sticks between her hands and bowed three times before the grave. She beckoned my brother and me to join her and handed us each a few smoking sticks. Together, we kneeled and touched our heads to the ground.

I leaned with the incense between my fingers, trying to mimic the smooth grace with which my mother bowed. She burned stacks of feathery paper bills to ensure the wealth of her amah in the afterlife and set off strings of firecrackers to frighten away any demons that threatened her grandmother’s soul. Next to her, I stood gasping in the blue-gray smoke from the flames, choking on the overpowering smell of incense.

Watching my mother uproot weeds and dead flowers as she cleaned the gravesite, I realized that although I had felt awkward partaking in the ritual, part...