My First Pesach

Diasporic offerings of sorrow and hope.

April 10, 2017
Originaly published on 2010/04/01 

Guest blogger, Malissa Phung, writing from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

I would like to dedicate this piece to Max Haiven and Alyson McCready.

Surrounded by friends, friends and family of friends, I attended my first Passover this spring. On that first night of Passover, we sat in a circle and took turns reading sections of the Haggadah, the guide to the Seder ceremony that one of our hosts had rewritten years ago for a graduate course on diaspora. At any point during the ceremony, we were encouraged to interrupt the service with any questions, comments, debates, and especially jokes. We were also invited beforehand to share our own creative work or works of inspiration that related thematically to any of the sections of this unconventional Haggadah, unconventional for its radically politicized, anti-racist, anti-Zionist, and anti-every-other-oppression-ist bent.

For the section on remembering our losses, called the Zecher, I welled up with tears when I shared this poem that I had written last year about my late stepfather who had died in 1998:


Everything I know
about Buddhism
I know
because of you.

I was only a child
then–I believed in you
I believed, I believed
in every word
you said.

One night I sat, cross-legged
and prayed, in front of
the altar because
told me to.

That night
instead of going to bed
that night because
told me to

I chanted
I chanted
a thousand
and one prayers:

Quan The Am Bo Tat
Quan The Am Bo Tat
Quan The Am Bo Tat

I was too young
to understand
the journey.

I have lost my way since
the night you left me
the night
Quan Am passed me by.

What struck me about everything leading up to that moment was the generosity and creative impulse of my hosts to recreate and re-envision this Passover for themselves and their friends, most of whom were politicized non-Jewish folks affiliated with the English and Cultural Studies department, most of whom, like my hosts, had moved far away from home to go to grad school. Being around these folks on that first night of Passover and hearing about the pains and losses associated with migration and historical oppressions triggered an acute awareness of my own diasporic losses. In that one moment as I welled up with tears, I realized that I had been mourning.

For the longest time, I had been mourning the loss of my stepfather and all the good and bad memories of him. I realized in that melancholic moment that his death had closed a definite part of my life: a life of speaking primarily in Vietnamese, a life of daily prayers and the burning smell of joss sticks, a life of family meals and reliable intimacies, a life of ritual and satisfied bellies.

As a child, my stepfather had always spoken to me as though I were an adult. We would stay up late and talk for hours about things I could vaguely understand. In an ironic turn of events, I find myself today—as a Gen Y Chinese Canadian female literary scholar approaching thirty—only capable of speaking to my family with a child’s vocabulary. This language barrier entails more than just late-onset assimilation. It entails a loss of family connections and intimacies. It leaves me feeling lonely and isolated.

Overfilling with melancholic grief, I still managed to leave the Passover with an incredible feeling of hope. I left amazed at how my hosts have made this hybrid Jewish ceremony so meaningful for themselves and their friends for the past five years, and that it evolves and changes every spring. But after completing their dissertations this year, they will be moving back home to Halifax. Another hybrid ceremony will have to be created to help fill the palpable absence they will leave behind.

Malissa Phung

Growing up in Edmonton, Alberta, Malissa Phung was born in Red Deer, Alberta to Sino-Vietnamese refugees.  She now lives in Tkaronto (Toronto), Ontario, where she teaches English literature and Communications as a sessional lecturer at Sheridan College and Trent University.  Having recently completed her PhD dissertation--Reaching Gold Mountain: Diasporic Labour Narratives in Chinese Canadian Literature and Film--she is currently exploring concepts of indebtedness as a framework for guiding and imagining Asian-Indigenous relationalities. 


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