The year was 1947. My grandfather’s company sent him to the province of Taiwan for a conference. He brought my grandmother along for a bit of vacation. Their first born, my uncle Edward, still in diapers, was left with his grandmother, my great-grandmother. Then the news came. Stay. Don’t come home. Shit is hitting the fan. Later they would smuggle Edward and great-grandmother out of the newly Communist China.
It is some time in the new millennium, China has been open to visitors for years, and my grandparents have returned many times to visit and sightsee. I am in Taipei, alone in an elevator with my mom and I used the word Communist in the conversation. My mom didn’t quiet understand that particular English word so I said it again in Mandarin. She immediately hushed me, “That is not a word we use!” She then felt a little silly. It is the new millennium, Mao is dead, and we are in an elevator in the democratic nation of Taiwan. No one is listening.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I meet a handsome stranger holding a copy of National Geographic and we are boarding the same flight to Hanoi. He chats me up. We have dinner and trade war stories. The following phrase were uttered: remote trek, last hide out of the Khmer Rouge, poachers turned park rangers, leeches, very few visitors. Before we are through with the first round of beers, he raises an eyebrow and asks, “Do you want to go?” Yes! Yes of course I want to go. Every one of those phrases he uttered is an aphrodisiac (okay maybe not the leeches), adrenaline laced what if moments on the edge of life that I live for. It looks like I found a new co-conspirator! I bought a ticket for Cambodia within 24 hours and started to make a list of editors who might be interested in the story.
The morning after I bought my ticket, I get an email from my mom, “Grandfather’s blood pressure is below 80, and the doctor says he has a few more days at best. Come home before the funeral.”
Being the second oldest granddaughter from his only daughter ranks low on the totem pole of gender-relation-age based hierarchy of the Chinese mindset. If we lived in Imperial times and I had an eye on the throne, I would have to literally murder everyone in my family, including my younger cousins (lineage comes before age), before I would be crowned Empress. There is not a deep catalogue of cherished memories of Grandfather and I to reminisce on. He did his thing and I did mine. Tradition ruled his heart and his love and I’ve long understood my place within. Despite of it all, I canceled my ticket for Cambodia and re-routed for Taipei. Duty and honor is something they bottle-feed you with from day one. Duty before all else.
Mom greets me at the airport. I slip my hand into hers and the infinitesimal amount of disappointment-resentment on the canceled Cambodia trip / possible article fades. The mountains will wait for me. I came home for my mom.
The next two weeks is a strange mixture of being intensely broiled in family drama and watching everything as if it is a NatGeo special; a simultaneous experience of extremely personal and cool detached sociological observation.
Observation No.1: Origami skills and hot glue guns are necessary in a Chinese Buddhist funeral.
A ridiculous amount of origami needs to be created for the multiple days of service. Lotus flowers and the pedestal it sits on, gold and silver nuggets (think origami boat without a sail). Hundreds, I’m not exaggerating, hundreds and hundreds of these extremely labor-intensive paper creations needs to be made for the service. Some of them are for the alter. One hundred and eight of the paper lotuses are hot glued on to a polyester cloth, creating a “blanket” that drapes over the coffin. They will all meet a fiery end. Symbolism aplenty, arts and craft skill required.
Observation No. 2: Made in Taiwan.
All of my uncles owned factories. Three of them manufactured sunglasses and another runs a leather shoe factory. I had my first job on the assembly line at the age of 5, putting tiny “Made in Taiwan” tickers on the lens of knock-off Ray-Ban, putting them in plastic bags and sorting out a dozen per box. When hundreds of something needs to be made, the family defaults to its manufacturing roots. Everyone does a single step in the process and pass it down the line. There is even a complete version of the paper lotus in the center of the dinning table as “SAMPLE.”
Observation No. 3: Pick your god before you are dead.
For the last few years, my grandfather has been asking various aunts and uncles about where he will be living after he’s gone. He wanted to see what is available, cremation is most popular in Taiwan and the ashes are interned, and at what cost. Not an unreasonable request for a man who is well into his 90’s. Except everyone keeps on telling him, “don’t worry, you have many good years left ahead, there is no need to think about it now.” It took several years and finally my youngest uncle, who could no longer ignore grandfather, inquired about what is possible at the Buddhist monastery he frequents. Of course, the monastery was more than eager to sell grandfather a spot.
We are cultural Buddhist with a healthy dose of Taoism and Confucianism blended in. My mom and grandmother are converted Buddhist, but everyone else is pretty much categorically agnostic, including grandfather. The problem with wanting to have your ashes interned at a Buddhist monastery is that you have to be a Buddhist. Grandfather reluctantly converted in the 11th hour and secured himself a tiny cubbyhole in a monastery by the sea. Thus we proceed with a Buddhist burial rite, sending him to a god he had just meet.
Observation No.4: Who cares about the living, lets fuss over the dead.
The days alternated between origami and attending prayer sessions conducted by monks and nuns from the monastery. If we were not busy folding, we were busy standing-kneeling-standing at every mention of the word Buddha in the scripture. Some say that ritual is helpful with grief; it gives the living something to do. We pray every day for grandfather’s ascension to the afterworld, to not linger and get stuck in this one. Except the multiple days of service and the repetitive tasks just annoyed my uncles and made me secretly envious of the cousins with the 9-5 jobs who are excused. How are ancestors supposed to watch over us and provide guidance when they are treated like an idiotic child by the living? Go on now, don’t linger, this world is full of sin, go on now! What about the living who are grieving, the sense of loss unconsoled by origami?
Observation No. 5: Pro / Con on the spirit world.
The Chinese never had an equivalent to The Age of Reason where magic became a burnable offence and only tangible, rational, proven facts are real. Nope. In the Exotic East, we still believe in fairies, consult fortunetellers and believe in all manners of things unseen. This means my mom can casually say things like, “I didn’t feel grandfather’s spirit during the prayer session today. He didn’t come.” Or when a black and white butterfly flutter into the room where the family is picking through grandfather’s bones, putting his ashes into the urn, the family can wonders aloud if the butterfly is bearing a message from grandfather. No one fears the straightjacket or preface their musing with, “Please don’t think I’m crazy, but…”
However, the limited imagination of the living still pollutes the realm of the dead. My uncle thought it would be a good idea to include a flashlight in my grandfather’s coffin. In his remaining months, he used a flashlight when he got up in the middle of the night, he didn’t want to turn on the light because it wastes too much electricity, and he stockpiled batteries. In the afterlife, wouldn’t grandfather be healthy, standing over 6′ tall like he was with good eye sight and hearing, and not the withered old man, bent in half, suffering osteoporosis he died as (assuming that he still retain recognizable form)? Call me crazy!
The family wanted to make as many origami gold / silver nuggets as possible so grandfather would have plenty of money to spend in the after life. You can also buy paper houses, cars, servants, mahjong sets, Apple computer, iPads and a sleuth of material objects to burn and send to the afterworld. None of us knows what is on the other side but I assume it would be lovely and free of pesky concerns of this realm such as money. If there is a heaven, I hope it would be so wonderful, I would never need to hear the ding preceding the gray Apple start-up screen ever again, much less worry about a dirty house. Devotion and duty gets perverted and expressed in the most bizarre and interesting ways.
Observation No. 6: Death rituals in the East are nothing like what I learned from Six Feet Under.
Remember those scenes where Nate and David would be sitting across from distraught family members who just lost their loved ones and console them in their grief? Scene from the service where the mourners are encouraged to take their time saying goodbye? The hours David spent in restoring the deceased into some sort of presentable version of himself for the viewing? Nope. None of those apply in a Chinese funeral.
Never once, in multiple days of service, did a funeral director or the many monks and nuns express any sentiment that sounded remotely like “I’m so sorry for your loss.” They are not concerned with us, the living; they are worried about whether grandfather travels onward or not. And being a newly converted Buddhist, extra prayer sessions are recommended incase he did not accrue enough karma points while alive. There was no real life David Fisher restoring grandfather to his younger self for the viewing. Grandfather gasped for air during his hospital stay because of the lung infection and his last facile expression is akin to a famous Edvard Munch painting. The funeral directors rushed us through the service, escorted us out and the halls were stripped, changed over for the next one with the urgency of a long set change during a short intermission.
Deprived of the space to grief, overburdened with origami, prayers presented as duty, everyone acts out and is on their worst behavior. Sometimes it is easier to grant strangers compassion and give them a free pass than it is to forgive family. Observation number 7.
During the official funeral service, all of us dressed in identical black crew neck t-shirts (one of my uncles thought it would easier if we all wore same thing) and blue jeans, looking like actors from a high school rendition of Grease, I thought about Mao and The Culture Revolution. The entire family has now spent over two weeks preparing for grandfather’s funeral. After the interment, there’s still 6 more days of prayer service, one day per week, before it is done. Mao was right. It is too much. It gets in the way of the living. I never thought I would agree with Mao…and to have such a thought at my grandfather’s funeral, who is an exile of the revolution…is that thunder I hear?!
My father showed up to pay his respect. It has been 26 years since my parents divorced and it’s been even longer since he last saw my grandparents. He didn’t have to come. No one was expecting him. He bowed and kneeled and prayed and did everything as if he is still part of the family, as if he is still the son-in-law. He said to me after, “he was my father-in-law once, nothing could change that. Once you are family, you are always family.” My father played the cold-hearted villain in the story I tell of my youth. Somewhere along the way, he started to surprise me. Maybe he changed. Maybe I grew up. Maybe we both did. The depth of emotion and his sense of duty towards an in-law from another lifetime touched me. Observation number 8, it is really nice to be surprised by your parents and the story changes.