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Tomb-Sweeping Day

How Pauline Yeung-Ha got the Chinese community to talk about death and disability

Published in 2022 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine

Pauline Yeung-Ha knew they weren’t listening because they kept playing mahjong.

In the early 2000s, Yeung-Ha was visiting senior centers in Chinatown to talk about wills, estate planning, and powers of attorney, but she was getting nowhere. The elder residents, often sitting four to a table, would listen for a while, then return to their game.

It wasn’t that her pitch wasn’t direct and to-the-point; it was too direct and to-the-point.

“I don’t know if you know about the taboo that exists in the Chinese community if you discuss anything related to death or disability,” says Yeung-Ha, an elder law attorney with Grimaldi Yeung Law Group in Brooklyn. “It’s considered bad luck; it’s taboo to even talk about it. So they tuned me out completely, because they’re thinking, ‘Why are you talking about this? This is not a topic you’re supposed to talk about.’”

But Yeung-Ha knew the dangers of not talking about it.

Her parents had immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong in the 1970s and brought their extended families with them; and when Yeung-Ha was in high school, her grandfather had a stroke. He needed caretakers 24/7, and they wound up coming from the family. “We would rotate,” Yeung-Ha remembers. “My cousin would rotate with me and my brother. And my mom would be rotating in just to have round-the-clock care for him.”

It went on for years. It wasn’t until Yeung-Ha graduated from law school and joined Judith Grimaldi’s firm that she realized they could have applied for benefits and gotten help. The burden didn’t have to be completely on them.

Which led to another realization: “Maybe this is the field for me, because no one [in my community] knows about these things,” she thought.

So how did Yeung-Ha finally break through the mahjong games? Indirectness.

“Now when I’m doing a presentation, I don’t necessarily say, ‘What happens if you die?’ I don’t use the word die. I say, ‘What happens if you are not around?’ It’s a term they can accept.

“I don’t say, ‘What if you are disabled?’ I say something more like, ‘What if you cannot do this anymore?’”

The state Bar and Department of Health also created elder law handouts in Chinese. “Simple documents help,” she says. “When they’re listening, they ask questions. That’s when you know they’re engaged.”

One of her first cases demonstrates how much her talks were needed.

The client, Yeung-Ha says, was a woman in her 80s whose husband was 100 years old. “He was living at a nursing home facility in Queens and she had been paying privately for three years. She’d exhausted all of her money and went into debt—she was paying with credit cards. She owned a condo with her husband. She didn’t know whether or not to sell the condo to pay his bills.”

So Yeung-Ha did a deep dive into the woman’s finances. “Medicaid requires an explanation for all the transfers made and whether or not they are considered exempt,” she says. “And I see some went to her son. And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. Any money going to your son is going to disqualify your husband for Medicaid.’” It took more effort, and more time, to uncover the fact that the woman’s son was disabled. That changed the whole picture, since such transfers are exempt.

“I told her, ‘You don’t need to pay the nursing home. You can stop.’ … She said, ‘If I’d known you, I would’ve saved three years of money.’ At that time, she’d spent about $100,000 a year.”

For this work and more, Yeung-Ha has won many awards over the years, including Brooklyn’s Woman of Distinction in 2017 and a state Bar innovation award in 2020. This spring, she accepted an award from the Brooklyn DA’s office as an honoree of Women’s History Month.

Her effort to counteract Chinese taboos surrounding death doesn’t mean she doesn’t participate in Ching Ming Festival, or Tomb-Sweeping Day, a time for tending graves and revering ancestors, which dates back thousands of years. Every year she and her family go to the cemetery in Brooklyn where her grandparents are buried, and, per the tradition, burn paper items for them to use in the afterlife. “We burn paper money,” she says. “We burn fancy cars, Rolex watches. We burn anything they like, like nice clothes, too. And we burn mahjong.”

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