A great-grandchild of Lin Chin-Lien at Lin's funeral in Taiwan. A portrait of the family matriarch stands outside the family home where her funeral was held. (Alberto Buzzola / For The Times)

My grandmother never liked my name.

Her eldest son, my father, had given me his name, though everyone knew that was taboo in Chinese tradition. So my grandmother insisted on calling me by the name she had given me: Lin Da. Last name first, in the Chinese way. Loudly, in her way.

I called her Ah-Ma -- Taiwanese for grandma.

When I didn't understand what she was saying, which was often, she would utter a few sentences in Taiwanese that I knew from years of repetition: "Why don't you understand Taiwanese? You are so American!"

In truth, I was a mystery to her and she to me.

It was only after an unexpected loss shook our family that I finally began to understand her and what she had given me.


Like many children of immigrants, I grew up in a household mindful of its roots but determined to grasp the American experience.

My father occasionally took me to the Buddhist temple near our home in San Francisco's Chinatown. My mother took me to summer camps to connect with Taiwanese culture.

But Thanksgiving and Christmas were the big holidays in our family. English was the dominant language in our home, and my parents didn't even mind that, as a child, I didn't know how to use chopsticks.

Each summer beginning when I was 9, though, I was taken to Taiwan to see my grandmother.

I remember that she rarely smiled, and her clothes smelled of Si wu tang, a mixture of Chinese herbs.

During my visits, she would rise before daybreak and head to the market to gather the ingredients for her bamboo-and-clam soup, ginger tsai-guei squash and pan-fried, black-bean fish.

For lunch, she opened clams for me. For dessert, she poured out generous scoopings of Aiyu jelly, a yellow gelatinous dessert cut in cubes and eaten in syrup with ice and sugar -- much better than Jell-O.

On holidays, she burned yellow bits of paper, representing money, as an offering to gods, ghosts, or our ancestors, depending on the occasion. Before we could eat, she first asked their permission. My father would often translate for us. But when he left, the room would fall uncomfortably silent. "That was delicious," I'd say in Taiwanese, exhausting my vocabulary.

Throughout her life, my grandmother was guided by a set of beliefs -- drawn from Buddhism, Taoism and Taiwanese folk religion -- that were baffling to me.

I wasn't particularly religious, and death wasn't something I thought about. That changed last November, when my 7-year-old nephew, Trevor Ron Lin, was infected with the H1N1 virus and suddenly died in upstate New York.

I was distraught. I found myself at the Hsi Lai Temple, the large Buddhist temple east of Los Angeles. It was the first time I had been alone in a Buddhist place of worship, and I didn't know what to do.

There were statues representing Buddhas and bodhisattvas -- enlightened beings on the path toward becoming Buddhas. Which one was I supposed to pray to? How many times was I supposed to bow? What were those words my grandmother mumbled when she prayed?