December 25, 2007

Songs of the Fetid Season

Filed under: culture — Kim @ 11:14 am

Well, thank fuck the fetid season is nearly done for another year.

I have had Christmases in Japan, Thailand, and China now…but these non-Christian countries give no shelter from Yuletide idiocy. The tinselly decorative schmaltz is faintly annoying, but what really gets my goat is the accursed piped music in all the supermarkets. It’s not just a bad case of “Bah, humbug!”…I think I am becoming allergic to Xmas songs. I find it depressing and almost physically sickening to be forced to endure Frosty the Fucking Snowman and Rudolf the Shitfaced Reindeer etc etc every time I want to get some groceries in.

I keep myself sane by singing along to these songs with obscene ad lib lyrics of my own. Many of my students labour under the extremely misguided delusion that I am “an English gentleman”, yet could they but eavesdrop on my version of “Frosty the Snowman” as I stomp through my local Tescos, they would be promptly disabused.

If the spirit of Christmas ditties was personified it would look and act something like Cliff Richard…need I say more?

Cheesy, smarmy, maudlin, tasteless tacky tripe.

I am considering a stint in Saudi Arabia next December. Anyone who plays Xmas songs there presumably gets their head chopped off, which sounds about right to me.

Merry Christmas!

December 19, 2007

Ashes to Ashes

Filed under: China — Kim @ 5:15 pm

Last week Lao Lao died. (姥姥 Lao Lao means maternal grandmother in Mandarin.) She was 88, which was -as we sometimes say in England- a good innings, but she had been so hale and hearty for 87 and a half years that most of her family felt fairly sure she would reach a hundred, so actually her death came as a bit of a shock. My wife was very close to her as, in the Chinese way, Lao Lao had basically brought her up while my wife’s busy parents worked.

Lao Lao’s life gives a glimpse at how much China has changed…she had bound feet, for example, and, even more surprisingly perhaps, she was sold off as a child because her family couldn’t afford to keep her. I didn’t know her much and couldn’t really talk to her but she smiled at me a lot and was happy to welcome me into her family. Even though she was very conservative in lots of ways, she didn’t think that the fact that her little granddaughter had married a bignose was any problem at all.

In any case, last Friday was my first Chinese funeral and although funerals are not perhaps typical events to blog about, I thought this was sufficiently interesting to share.

The day started very early as the family gathered at her death bed at 5 in the morning and performed a ceremony that involved breaking a pot to release Lao Lao’s soul from the room. I stood outside. We then drove to the mortuary to make sure we arrived in good time for our 6.15 allotted slot. The roads are fairly empty at the crack of dawn so it was in good time that we drove up the beautiful mountain road to the big red brick buildings.

There were a fair few cars already there, and as we entered the crematorium I was immediately confronted by two of China’s inescapable characteristics. The place was heaving with people and the air was thick with cigarette smoke. Most families in China when confronted with death rites of a morning like to indulge in a few comforting cigarettes, it seems.

We blinked our way up the stairs and waited our turn outside the room where the body is presented to the family for the last time before being carted off to be burnt. (Is there a name for this room? The Ultimorgoptitorium perhaps?) It was, needless to say, a rather solemn subdued atmosphere, and although I was the only foreigner there and was being stared at a bit, at least I wasn’t getting any “Hello!”s. I was just sitting there with my Chinese family waiting our turn when the brass band began to warm up in readiness for the first ceremony of the day.

Now, during the actual ceremony the four-man band trundles in for a minute and plays “Auld Lang Syne” (at least that’s all I heard them play that morning) before trundling out again. But when they are warming up of a cold winter morning their tune of choice appears to be “We wish you a Merry Christmas.” So sitting there in a North-East Chinese funeral house listening to that “Xmas classic” made for quite a surreal moment, and I was actually quite alarmed to think that they might send off the cadavers all day long with this spectacularly inappropriate festive ditty, but thankfully they do not.

The “last viewing” ceremony is kept fairly quick, probably because there’s simply so many people in China, and we were second in line that morning so we sat and waited our turn. Soon after the band had warmed up, the first session began and…and I stood up sharply as I became witness to an outpouring of noisy raw grief such as I have never heard in my life. Other than on the TV perhaps during reports of fighting in Palestine or something similar.

It’s visceral and it’s high-volume and it gets to you, even if – like me – you are not grieving very much. We don’t do group grieving like that in Britain any more (not sure if we ever did) and when it started up I thought that something had gone dreadfully wrong or that a huge fight had broken out, but as I looked around I could see that nobody else thought anything strange was happening, so I sat back down again.

Our turn came round soon enough and we filed in, closely followed by the band who I have to say were wearing suits that could well have come from the dustbins of a charity shop. Grandma was wheeled in shortly after, the band played “Auld Lang Syne”, the officiator said something, we all bowed three times and then we walked around the body. Then the men edged back to let the women crowd around the coffin and I bit back my tears as I watched my wife’s face contort and as the sounds of grief filled the room. The volume reaches a crescendo as the body is wheeled away…and then everyone staggers out.

We walked down the stairs into the fuggy lobby and waited for the bones and ashes to be delivered. More people had arrived and most of the men were smoking. I sat there for about ten minutes before heading out to the cold winter dawn for some fresh air…and a lovely sunrise as it happened. The valley setting for the Dalian Municipal House of Death is serenely beautiful with evergreen trees covering the mountainsides. I was reminded of the time, very early on in our relationship, when I took my wife to Kensal Green Cemetery for a walk around what I consider to be one of London’s most peaceful and scenic spots…and of her startled reaction. Like most Chinese women, she considers that cemeteries should be absolutely avoided unless absolutely necessary, and my idea of an afternoon stroll in one was simply bonkers. Ah well, cultural differences eh, but to her credit she heeded my urgings to put aside her prejudices and walked through Kensal Green boneyard with me that summer afternoon 4 years ago. But she didn’t like it and wouldn’t go back.

And I couldn’t help wondering how much of the clamorous grief I had just witnessed was down to missing a loved-one and how much down to fear of death. An impossible question to answer perhaps, and certainly not an appropriate one to be asking anyone present.

Time to go back inside to the smoke and the wailing. As I took one last look at the mountainside I saw a single magpie atop a tree. One for sorrow…was it trained to sit there and be so appropriate?

When the bones (well some of them) arrived they were in a casket with the ashes and we took it to a side room. The bones were then laid out on a table and the next part of the ritual involved all family members…including me…picking up some of grandma’s bone splinters with chopsticks and placing them in a red velvet bag. I hadn’t been warned about this and found it rather spooky. When the bag was full, it was placed in the casket and off we went with it to the top of a hill where we made a big bonfire out of ghost money with which to burn some of grandma’s clothing. Bonfire over, we bowed three times more and headed back down to deposit the casket into its final resting place in the vault of ashes.

The vault room for the urns and funerary caskets had a big “No Smoking” sign outside, which was ignored. The vaults were intriguing in that each one had little guardian figurines and knick-knacks adorning them. These often displayed what the rester had been fond of in life and so some had mini cars, some had mahjong tablets, and I was particularly pleased for some reason to see that one had a kind of mini bar stocked with Maotai and The Famous Grouse. That bird had flown a long way from home.

And an awful lot of them had packets of cigarettes. Ashes for Ashes.

So we deposited Lao Lao and left. It was 11 by then and time for me to go to work. The rest of the family had taken the day off and went to eat together. So that was that.

Well, I am an atheist and “I believe life ends with death, and that is all” as the British poet Tony Harrison put it, but of course we need these customs for our rites of passage, and I found the Chinese funeral ceremony I attended to have been moving, appropriate, and beautiful.

Goodbye Lao Lao.