Friday, June 24, 2011

Haven't stopped writing for long . . .

Life just gets in the way. More to come soon. We have the rest of the week to document.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The China Funeral PART 7

The post-funeral luncheon begins later than originally planned due to our stop. Most of the family has already arrived and is waiting in a private room. I arrive with the Benefactor Cousin in his Toyota Land Cruiser. A plush ride in China, certainly. During the ride, I keep trying to recall if Toyota even HAS a Land Cruiser in the U.S. these days. I hop out while the cousin parks or rather what passes as parking in China which is to find a space on the sidewalk, pop the curb and stop. Land Cruiser indeed! 
The restaurant employees are obviously surprised to see me walk in alone. The hostesses flash big smiles towards me. I look around for any bathroom sign then approach and ask with a smile “W.C?” One understands and one doesn't. I am led directly to it by the one who does. Perhaps, it's finally time to learn where is the bathroom in Chinese. 

In China, you can be in the nicest restaurant in town, but they still have the filthiest bathrooms you have ever laid eyes upon. This one is fair enough. Unsurprisingly, smoke is billowing from the tops of 4 out of 5 stalls where men inside are squatting over the floor in-laid squat toilets. I think to myself how much skill that takes. I can’t even use those things without taking off my pants. If I was smoking too, I’d burn something! 
Washing my hands at the sink later there is a surprise. Soap! Liquid soap! During this visit to China, I was happy to see soap being provided at public facilities more often than not. But in many restaurants (including this one) there is still a comb laid out for public use. Not in blue Barbicide (or as I like to call it, Barbercide) but just laid out there for free use and exchange of whatever creepy crawlers the comb-users have in their hair. Ick.
I find Ying and the rest of the family. Upstairs we go. Another fancy relief sculpture adorns the wall of the landing.

Inside our private room snacks are already  being eaten. There are 5 large tables with around 10-12 people at each one. I am placed with the Benefactor Cousin, his wife and his brother and his wife. FeiFei’s parents and DuoDuo are here as well and another cousin. The weeping auntie was just too sad to come. Ying  sits with Baba’s family. Baba is with his friends. Brother is with some assorted relatives that I am honestly not sure which side of the family they belong, though I recognize all of them. 
The food begins coming immediately in small waves upon being seated. The beer and baijiu begin flowing. Smokes are passed around and even I inhale. A disturbing dining trend this visit is first observed here. That is making starchy vegetables look like ice cream with delicious sweet-looking colorful toppings and even going so far as to serve the concoction in ice cream sundae glassware! I was fooled twice. There should really be a law.
The eating and drinking went on for 2 hours. We, the immediate family, went from table to table pouring drinks and thanking relatives and friends for coming and their support with a “gambei!” Mostly they were drinking baijiu. I stuck with the beer. I learned to loathe baijiu after my China wedding. The selection today was the same almond-flavored high-octane fermented sewer water that very nearly destroyed me 3 years ago.
After lunch, it’s time for Ying and I to check into our hotel. This is the same hotel we stayed at when we first visited Zhangjiakou together in January of 2008. Time has not been kind. What was the nicest hotel in Zhangjjiakou is probably still the nicest hotel in Zhangjiakou but is now well-worn. The restaurant has stopped revolving on the top floor. Strange off-color patches litter the ceiling. Carpets are filthy. Stale smoke hangs in the air. 
Immediately we take a shower. The bathroom has no tub. Two drains are in the bathroom floor. Half the bathroom is a shower, though this one did have sliding shower doors dividing the small room. I have seen them plenty of times without. They don’t help much. The water still ends up everywhere on the floor. That’s why there are two drains! Well, two clogged slow-draining ones at least. Over the floor is a flood of water. Ying calls and tells the Fuwuyuan our shower water is not going down the drain. The solution? She arrives minutes later with a homemade broom to sweep the water towards the drain. I think we should have been more specific. Maybe something like “The drain is clogged. Please bring Drano and a plunger.”
They allow us to change to the room next door that has a shower and a tub. The tub freestanding and is also a jetted model. All the plumbing is exposed. Unfortunately, the water still goes everywhere and we are back to the original problem. Water on these slickly polished marble floors is so dangerous. In these situations, I throw down my towel and let it get soaked after I dry off then remind Ying to stand on it. Ying is quite upset with the quality and goes on a long rant. To be honest, it’s just how I remember it from past trips. She never complained before, then she experienced American bathrooms!
We have an uneventful dinner later at Baba’s sister’s home. What is amazing is the cab ride back to the hotel. Something happens that has never happened before. The taxi driver begins speaking English with me! And he is really quite good and excitedly talks a blue streak. When I break in to say something he responds. “Sir I am sorry, but I don’t really understand you. I can speak English and anticipate what you are going to say but it’s hard to totally understand you.” Well, comprehension is a lot of the language, well, any language. He continues on and asks me about gun ownership in America lamenting the fact that he can’t own one in China. Then he says something even more amazing! “I like America! You killed Mao’s son in the Korean war. if Mao’s son had lived, he’d be in charge, not Deng Xiaping and China wouldn’t be what it is today!” He was smiling ear to ear when he said this. I can only imagine what might have happened to someone for expressing that particular viewpoint back in the Cultural Revolution.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The China Funeral PART 6

Our weary group walks back across the vast concrete sea. This time I carry DuoDuo. I do not understand the boy, and he certainly can’t figure out why I am not answering him. We both keep talking to each other, perhaps hoping something from of our respective languages will sink into each other’s heads. He’s a smart little guy and a real chatterbox. I am not around small children often, but the weight of our nephew and his curious nature reminds me that he is turning three soon.  And this inevitably leads to a darker area of my mind where I recall that if our 12 week miscarriage back in November 2008 hadn’t occurred, Ying and I would, today, have a child nearly two years old. 
Ying went through all hell and back in that ShenZhen hospital. I’ve always felt we were so lucky that she was not be maimed or dead from the experience. I’m not one to dwell on such things or ask a bunch of unanswerable questions, but the experience has always troubled me more so than any other in my life. Why did we lose the baby? Why did my wife needlessly go through so much pain and suffering? Why did we even have to make a little mistake and get pregnant!? Suddenly in a tidal wave of thoughts rushing into my brain, I had an answer.
In Chinese culture, the mom comes to take care of the daughter when pregnant and after the baby is born as well. It’s expected. She cooks. She makes culinary choices according to centuries of tradition. She cleans. She makes her daughter stay in bed and avoid anything cold. Mama took a train from Zhangjiakou to ShenZhen to do these motherly duties and more. Ying was able to spend a valuable two months with her while pregnant and after losing the baby. So here it was smacking me in the face. A reason I could finally accept. If this tragedy hadn’t happened, the summer of 2008 would be the last time Ying might have seen her mother. Instead she (And me too. I always enjoyed my morning walks in the park with Mama.) got to spend two extra months with her before the K1 visa interview and move to the U.S. That time is now priceless.
Grandma takes the boy out of my arms and off to a waiting taxi. Ying and I follow the cute handler to pay the bill. The billing staff even offers us free water at the counter in my favorite plastic cups. China is home to some of the thinnest plastic cups ever invented. These are only one chemical bonding step away from being a plastic bag. I am always astounded how they don’t collapse into themselves. And often, I’ve had accidents when holding a beer in one too enthusiastically!
The bill is amazingly inexpensive for a funeral at around 1600 U.S. dollars. Ying tells me we aren’t finished yet and we should return in two days to collect the ashes. Ying inputs her PIN for her Bank of China account. And with that, you can almost see the handler sigh a little sigh of relief as she holds her breath until payment was approved. 
We walk out towards the parking lot. It’s time for the post-funeral luncheon that must be standard in any culture. Only the food differs. Ying stops me in mid-step, obviously troubled about something.
“Honey. The people that left aren’t coming to the restaurant.”
“Well, they didn’t stay for the burning of stuff either, so yeah, I didn’t expect them to be there.”
“They need to come. They are family. I have to fix this, but I don’t know what to say.”
So I dig deep for some nugget of half-believable wisdom to explain away Brother’s angry words.
“OK, here’s what you say. It’s a hard day for all of us. Tell them not to take Brother’s outburst personally. You understand that it’s hard not to take it personally, but they just can’t see it that way on a day like today. Brother is sad. He is mourning his Mama. His expression of grief that moment took the form of intense anger. And unfortunately it was directed at his Auntie. Her expression of grief for her sister is loud crying. Neither way of grieving is wrong or incorrect. They just met head on at an inappropriate moment. Feelings were hurt. Tell them deep in his heart, he doesn’t mean the ugly words he said to her. “
We go over this a few times and Ying seems pleased with the explanation. 
We arrive at the parking lot. Brother is driving his father-in-law’s car again. FeiFei, Ying and Baba are in the back seat. Brother has a guilty look on his face. This is a man who has lost face today. He knows it. Ying makes the apology phone call. At first it seems the explanation isn’t working. They hang up on her. A few more tries and the conversation is longer and less intense. We still aren’t sure where they are today. Brother is slowly driving around the area we think they are staying. Finally after 45 minutes, permission is given to come over for a face to face apology. 
The apartment complex is one of the new ones in Zhangjiakou. The high rise buildings are finished, but the roads, park-like areas, parking spaces, and underground garage which I see in the scale model later are not yet complete. Right now to get to any apartment building, a 4x4 vehicle would be helpful. Dirt. Mud. Rocks. They are everywhere. I never understand why so many apartments are left like this for so long in China. Either pave it over, or make it pretty like the model! Don’t leave it dirty and so difficult to drive or walk to your home!
The new apartment turns out to belong to the Auntie’s daughter who also works as an agent for the complex. It’s completely modern in the China sense, and likely over the top luxurious in the Western sense. Sparkly chandeliers hang. Purple furry rugs are on the shiny new marble. Metallic gold and purple paint make a round design on the wall above the new flat screen TV. Centering the room, a bright red couch out of a modernist design book forms an L shape and is complete with throwback lace doilies adorning it that wouldn’t look out of place on my Grandma’s old couch. The old and the new. That’s what we always hear about China and here it is again represented with a couch!
The Auntie is still weeping. Her nephews are milling about sternly looking at Brother. Baba has a smoke with a cousin I am not very familiar with. He looks like he wants to steer clear completely of the controversy. Ying and I walk over to comfort the Auntie. I take her hand and Ying hugs her. Ying goes into the explanation we went over before, this time just for Auntie. Suddenly, Brother drops to his knees and begins slapping his own face, crying and begging to be forgiven. These are hard slaps, not some half-hearted affair. He gets four good ones in and Ying’s benefactor cousin grabs him. He gives Brother what I can only assume is a stern lecture. Brother tears up, bows his head and slaps himself a couple more times. And again they hold back his hands. My mouth is gaping at this point. I have never seen anything like this. He apologizes to Auntie again and sits silently on his knees the rest of the time we are there. The problem feels resolved. Now everyone is back to just being sad. 
Ying is the daughter. Not a position that traditionally sees a large amount of respect in Chinese culture. But clearly she is in charge of fixing the problem today so her immediate family doesn’t lose face from her Brother’s outburst. I believe she gained even more respect from her mother’s family in the process.  I am so very proud of her. 

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The China Funeral PART 5

It is time now to burn some things for Mama’s use in the afterlife whatever that might be. During the course of my stay in China this most recent time, I felt like these concepts were being made up as we went along. I am certain something was lost in the translation somewhere. This is just another example of Chinese culture this dense laowai doesn’t “get.” Discussions of her particular afterlife range from living in another space for eternity that I interpret as heaven, becoming a ghost, and reincarnation. 
We walk as a group (sans Mama’s side of the family who fled Brother’s earlier outburst) to a separate building on the far side of the funeral home’s property. There we continue up steps to a vast empty concrete walled area at the top. The wind is whipping around us as we trek across the concrete to the furnaces against the far wall. I said it was vast. The walk is probably a minute and a half. Brother is still holding the picture of Mama and will place it on top of her furnace.
I ask Ying, “So what’s with the military style funeral? Mama wasn’t in the military was she?”
“What was military about it?”
“Just the guns going off. That’s sort of a salute in the U.S. to fallen military members.”
“Oh really? I thought you guys always did it too. It’s just a sign of respecting. DId you like it?”
“Sure! It was just a surprise.”
As we approach the line of furnaces I see that each one has a corresponding carving of a Chinese zodiac sign above. Mama’s furnace is the Tiger. Her picture is balanced atop the furnace and the burning begins. The bag is opened and what seems like the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars is being lit on fire and tossed inside the furnace. The aforementioned plastic fake gold plated watches and trinkets are being torched still in the plastic wrap in which they were purchased and placed inside. Thousands of pieces of brownish tissue paper with 12 holes cut out of each one representing a coin are burned a fistful at a time. Every family member pitches in with Brother and Baba staying and facilitating the full experience. There is some standing water and the blowing ashes quickly make an grey sludge-like mess. 
None of Mama’s clothes are burned here and presumably this will happen at her final resting place. A couple of years ago, it came up that we have donated my grandparents’ clothes and belongings to the Goodwill after their deaths. I’d speculate this is a common practice in the U.S. unless the surviving family members are hoarders or something has sentimental value. Discovering this provoked some anxiety in Ying’s mind when we were doing a little bargain shopping there or later at one of Austin’s many vintage stores. But she got over it and moved on and has bought several outfits at these places.  I don’t think it’s something she would ever tell her family.  
I do my part in burning the money and gold, although, I fail to fully grasp the practice. That comes from being a westerner. Although, I am one who is not religious, I can’t deny the Judea-Christian influences over the course of my development. No matter how well-off one might be in life, I can’t imagine anyone in the U.S. feeling that material goods or money are needed in whatever they believe happens next.  How does a blank piece of tissue paper get burned and work as money in the afterlife for Chinese? There is the belief that smoke is the way to transport it to the afterlife or even a way to communicate with the dead. But then I question, why not foolishly burn real money? Who designates this blank tissue paper works in the afterlife? It boggles my brain if I think too much of it all. 
I notice some activity around the far corner. Some of the large flower arrangements as well as several smaller ones have been carried there. I walk over to a raging fire in an even larger furnace. The flower arrangements are being shoved inside, again presumably for Mama in the afterlife. I begin helping the cousins with this task and am honestly surprised how quickly the flowers burn. I nearly singe my arm at one point. 

I look around and we are finished. No more arrangements. This is perplexing. We didn’t burn nearly as many arrangements as were on display in the room. And then I realize what has happened. We rented at least 3/4 of the flower arrangements on display! Most of the family members don’t have the resources for expensive arrangements. They had probably already given Baba a little money as is the custom anyway. 
A quick question to Ying confirms my suspicions. And again she looks at me like I should know this sort of thing. Her final response on the matter, which I hear several more times over the coming weeks: “You KNOW that anything is possible in China!" 
Yes, yes I do, dear.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The China Funeral PART 4

For the past 30 minutes I was not sure where my wife went with the “handler.” I peek out of our waiting room and see another group emerging from their services room. Suddenly, FeiFei comes running towards me in her odd shuffling manner I had forgotten until just now. She says in staccato, “Michael. Lei Ying. This way! Follow me!” 
We find Ying paying for flowers in the middle of the building. These 3-4 feet and some even 5 feet wide arrangements are in round patterns. I give Ying the scoop on her Auntie in the waiting room and suggest she stop in for a minute. Ying does and the Auntie is comforted briefly. But there are still more preparations to be done. We walk briskly to the far side of the building where the service is to be held. This is the first time I have seen the room. Just outside the doors, we hang a basket full of candy that mourners will take upon exiting. I am surprised to see the flower arrangements already set up along three walls of this large room. I suppose to myself that the flowers had been ready for a while and we just paid for them later. Several more arrangements are brought in to fill in a little more space. There are banners across them with Chinese writing. Mama’s picture is being projected on the far wall.

The monks are now arriving with prayer books in hand. The mix of five male and female monks come in and talk with Ying for a moment and then get into formation. Two are on one side of the room and three on the other. This is when Mama’s body is wheeled in on a gurney by two men dressed in medical scrubs. I am not sure how much of the typical funeral home preservative work was done on Mama. With cremation pending, any amount seems superfluous to this Western brain. Her bloated face is caked with make-up.  A cloth covers her body from the neck down. Ying has already told me Mama has new clothes. We will not see them. 
What I initially believe to be a pedestal holding up a cylindrical glass topped coffin for a body turns out to be a hollow contraption that swings away at the rear with hinges. The rear of the plexiglass top  is attached to this door too. The gurney with the body is wheeled snuggly inside and everything seals up to give the illusion of a body lying in state beneath glass. I am oddly reminded of various deceased Communist dictators.
Before all this is accomplished, however, brother collapses to his knees crying and wailing. So does Ying. Suddenly I realize my mission here. Give my family the support they need. Pick them up and hold them when they need it. Brother pounces up and begins to approach the body being wheeled inside the pedestal. I could see this being a potential disaster. The two medical scrub men look his way sternly. FeiFei and I hold him back while he cries out “Mama!” After that situation is under control I go to Ying, pick her up and hold her. She cries into my chest.
Now, it’s time to return outside. The whole family is gathered near the guard booth. The cute handler still in the hot pink coat but now with an equally inappropriate giggly smile on her face too, is directing us into positions in line. Brother, DuoDuo, Baba and FeiFei are first. Ying and I are second. At least 75 other family members and friends are behind us. A six piece marching band has been assembled in front to lead all of us. The members of the band are wearing uniforms that appear to be military formal dress. Their demeanor is not very military-like, however. Instead of standing at attention, they are looking bored and hanging all over each other as I tend to see young Chinese youths do. 
The smiling handler says something and we begin our long march back to the services room with the band playing an unrecognizable (to me at least) dirge along the way. Suddenly on my right I notice cannons. 

There are at least 10 of them and I’d describe them as looking like quarter scale howitzers. They begin firing the loudest explosives out of their barrels. FeiFei covers DuoDuo’s ears. And it dawns on me that this is sort of modeled on a military funeral. Did Mama have a secret life I didn’t know about? I make a mental note to ask Ying later.  Now we must concentrate on getting through this and into the room. She collapses several times. Baba helps me pick her up. At the end of the long march, I am nearly fully supporting her. 

Just outside the services room, i notice an odd relief sculpture on the wall that looks more Egyptian to me than Chinese.

We enter the services room. The monks have already begun chanting. Most of the mourners seem to know the words and follow along. We, the immediate family, and a few close nieces and nephews are the only ones that need to be bowing. We take directions from one of the monks on when to get on our knees, bow, get back on our knees, stand up, bow standing, get back down, stay down and then mostly down and bowing repetitively. This all happens on a hard marble (of course! it’s China! Marble is cheap!) floor. Twenty minutes later my knees are killing me. Thirty minutes later and I’m about to lose it. Selfishly I wish for the knee pads I own from doing the house remodel. Then I realize this is a great example of filial piety that I taught 14 year olds in World Geography in what seems like a lifetime ago. Concepts like this can seem so foreign and distant in the classroom even to an instructor, but here it is, a part of my life now.
Ying is inches away and looks over at me. “Honey, you can sit.”
“Are you sure? I don’t want to offend anyone.”
“Look back.”
Sure enough. Older relatives are sitting. Others are on their knees.  Not sure I want to be classified as older yet. I can’t even use the excuse that my knees hurt from some old football injury.
Ying has tears in her eyes. “I love you. Thanks for being here for me.” she whispers.
I nod and mouth the words back to her as I sit.
Ahhhh . . . that feels much better. I can tell now the service is coming to some sort of a conclusion. The chants are getting faster. We bow a few more times and I am able to join in after my brief rest. Not so bad now. Maybe my knees are acclimated.
Everyone now stands. We, the immediate family, lead the mourners around the pedestal  and body. Auntie and one of her daughters, that I never met before, are wailing louder and louder as we walk around multiple times. Ying, brother and Baba are crying softly. The chanting stops. The mourners break-up and begin to disperse out the door. I finally see Baba’s sister and my favorite Auntie and drinking buddy when she was healthier. She comes crying and hugs me tightly. She stays with us. This time one man in scrubs emerges from the back door to retrieve Mama. As she is pulled out and being wheeled through that door, Ying again collapses. I tend to her but look up. Brother is stepping towards the gurney whispering Mama over and over. Again, FeiFei and I find ourselves holding him back. Mama is wheeled away. The door closes.
Ying is off the floor again. Through her cries she says to me “Oh, they are going to burn her. It’s so horrible. Does she feel anything?”
“No, she couldn’t possibly.” 

When I consider some of the Chinese ideas of ghosts and spirits, I am not sure if she honestly thinks it is possible or this is shock manifesting itself. I am reminded a few years back when discussing options for ourselves, I brought up cremation, suggesting we spread our ashes on the mountain we had climbed during my first visit to see her. She was horrified with what I thought was a lovely idea. She instead suggested that we buy a plot and be buried together either in the U.S. or China for all eternity with me adding “or at least until eminent domain does us in a second time.” She may not have realized then anything other than cremation was not an option . . . at least in Zhangjiakou.
Duties in the services room are complete. The monks are packing up and leaving. The relatives are waiting for us outside in the hallway munching on the candy.  The Auntie is still wailing and crying loudly. Something unexpected happens. Brother angrily shouts in Chinese what I later learn is roughly translated into English as “ If you old bitches don’t shut up now, you are going to have to leave!” Silence falls over the crowd. Ying’s benefactor cousin collects his wife, brother and his wife, his auntie and cousins and whisks them out the door. To say he did this with a cross look on his face would be a major understatement. This is one chap I do not want to make angry. 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The China Funeral PART 3

The slow grueling car ride through Zhangjiakou ends with finding the funeral home on the outskirts of town. You can even see the toll booths for entering and exiting Zhangjiakou. Not only is this funeral home on the outskirts, but it is the only game in town. Whether that is by a local government order or that the Chinese don’t wish to have an “in your face” dealing with matters of death, I don’t know.  Perhaps it’s both. On the same train of thought, over the next few weeks during our travels, many Chinese asked me what I was doing in China. Business or pleasure? When I told them my mother in law passed away, they got a blank look on their faces. Subsequently, they didn’t really change the subject but just continue on with the conversation as if I’d replied that I was a tourist. I didn’t expect anything more or less. It’s the culture. But it was an interesting dichotomy to the westerners I would meet who asked the same question and when I replied they offered the familiar “Aw, I am SO sorry. How is your wife holding up?” And whether or not that response was offered up with earnest, I don’t have the answer either. 

The Zhangjiakou funeral home facade is a mix of China’s typical marble construction with a bit of Greek Classicism thrown in with a smattering of columns and rotundas. There are what looks to be multiple entrances and exits all with marble steps leading up to the doors. Is that for the really busy days? Out in front is a series of arches resembling horseshoes  which I was curious if we’d walk through later. We did not.

We park in a dirt lot across the street. I recognize some cousins sitting in a van nearby. They obviously know the schedule for things as they stay in the van and out of the cold wind. 

Brother opens the boot and I find out the contents of one of the many bags. Ying has made white cloaks. At first glance, they appear to be white sheets for a cheap ghost Halloween costume or worse . . . costuming for a D.W. Griffith film. There were even white hats and sashes. One of rope and one of the white material. After I felt the material, I realized there was no way this was a sheet they had just lying around somewhere. It’s a very rough cloth. 

“Do I get one?”

“Only Lei children wear them. And FeiFei. Because she is a Lei now too.”

“But you are a Boyd now.”

“But, I am still a Lei.”

“OK, so do I wear anything?”

“This rope and white piece of cloth around your waist like a belt. I hope I cut it big enough, honey.”

Jeez. She knows. She knows I have had a nightly diet of beer for the weeks she has been in China. I am in trouble later.

Brother retrieves Mama's picture. It's his duty to carry it in front of him the rest of the time now.

Walking to the guard station I am reminded again how the Chinese love to gate places off with those silver skeletal retractable gates. Hmm . . . HOA says I need a new fence. What would one of those look like in front of our house? 

Ying pokes her head in the guard booth and asks if we can wait out the cold inside. They say no, momentarily. Then they notice the laowai and their tone changes. We go in and I am offered a seat on someone’s bed. Before my bottom even begins to warm the mattress, a cute big eyed girl in an amazingly inappropriate hot pink felt car-coat with matching hot pink hand bag rushes in and begins conversing with Ying at a 100 KM an hour. Oddly they seem like old friends warmly exchanging a hug. After 5 minutes it dawns on the dense laowei: she is the funeral home rep, essentially our handler to make things go as smoothly as possible. And of course  . . . coordinate the billing and up-sell the services. She looks at me and smiles. She doesn’t speak English and cautiously says “Hello.”

Ying looks at me and flawlessly breaks into English. “She has been waiting to meet you. I told her yesterday I was married to you. Be nice, say hi!”

“Uh . . . hi! Really? Me? That’s flattering.”

“I have my eyes on you. I know she’s cute”

“Seriously? I am going to hit on a girl at my mother in law’s funeral?”

“What? You think you’d be the first?”

We walk towards the funeral home and up the steps of the middle left entrance. Coming towards us is FeiFei and her parents. Our nephew DuoDuo is in his remaining grandma’s arms not really knowing what’s happening. He will be turning 3 next week. FeiFei busily dons the white outfit. DuoDuo gloms onto me. We haven’t seen him since he was 3 months old. But he has seen pictures of us. He knows who I am because I am, as he says, “the one who is different.” Ying on the other hand he confuses with several cousins. This irritates her to no end since he also thinks they are the ones who buy him all the toys. 

Ying, brother and FeiFei run off to complete some last minute tasks before the service. I am left in a waiting room with DuoDuo and his grandma. Grandma thinks DuoDuo is bothering me and scoops him away. He starts to cry so I give him my iPhone. It never fails. An iPhone is instant entertainment for any kid. I flick through and find Wall-E for him to watch. Thinking it’s a game, DuoDuo touches the screen trying to “control” Wall-E. He has obviously has experience with his Dad’s unlocked iPhone. Data roaming is off. I don’t think he can do much damage. He is now quickly flicking through the apps. 

Cousins start to trickle in. Mama’s second oldest sister arrives with several of her children, wailing. Tears are flowing. Nobody is around, so I go to comfort her. I’m not good at this sort of thing. She looks up at me, clutches my hand and says something I don’t understand. I only catch my name “MyKal” as they verbalize it with a hard “K.” I have a flashback to my Grandfather’s death after a horrendous car accident back in 1984. My Grandmother is clutching my 13 year old hand at the hospital, and wailing “Oh Michael, what are we going to do without Grandpa. What are we going to do!” Maybe this is sort of what Auntie is saying.

I notice the oldest sister is nowhere to be seen. A few years ago my mother and she got to know each other by sharing various hand creams. Her son is there and comes to greet me. He is the one who straightened out the hospital and also was Ying’s benefactor during college. I firmly believe without the financial assistance of this generous and kind man, the two of us lovebirds might never have met. He is actually only a couple of years younger than Ying’s mother but went down a completely different road in life. “Membership has it’s privileges” to quote a formerly popular credit card tag line.

The China Funeral PART 2

We awoke around 5:00 AM. Even with the drinking we felt rejuvenated and relaxed. Thank you foot massage. But I wasn’t exactly prepared for the climate still being wintery. We’d had spring-like temps in Austin for a while before I left. The wind was bone chilling exiting the hotel.

Before leaving the town, we stopped at a Sinopec for gas. Here is where one of the great China mysteries for me got solved. Five trips to China and I did not have the answer to the question “How do the Chinese get gas?” Seriously. I had no clue. Never until today had I been in a car that needed gas. Often the gas stations I have seen look deserted. And I have never been able to discern a credit card reader on the side of the pumps while driving by. What if a car needs gas in the middle of the night? This early in the morning the station looked closed. Brother pulls in, leans on the horn a few times and a sleepy looking girl in a blue smock emerges to pump our gas. Wow, question answered. We leave this town whose name I never caught and traffic was light on the highway to Zhangjiakou.

First stop is my in-law’s. I walk in and find Baba’s favorite nephew. Baba’s brother is quite a bit older, so his son if probably only 5-6 years younger than Baba. He’d been helping Baba with preparations today. He comes over to greet me. I fumble around with the cigarettes I’d picked up duty free in Dubai and offer him one. Damn, I don’t have a light. Ah he does. Of course he does! 

Baba then comes out of the back crying. He grabs me and we hug each other tightly. The days have taken their toll on Baba. I can see he hadn’t been sleeping. He has circles under his eyes.

Around the apartment are bags of Mama’s belonging to be burned so she can use them in the after life.  And not only belongings are there, but the blank representations of money in bill and coin form. Plastic gold toy watches resembling cheap party favors for American children’s birthday parties and other objects were also in bags awaiting their fiery fate.

This is when Ying says “Honey, you want to see the chicken? We have to take it to Mama’s grave.”

Oh sweet Jesus I think. “Baby, are we going to kill a chicken? Please tell me we aren’t killing any chickens.” 

“What’s wrong with you! Of course not. We let it loose on Mama’s tomb and it runs of into the wild and lives a happy life!”

She is telling me this like it’s the most normal thing in the world to do. The white bread idiot that I am had some sort of blood-letting voodoo ritual pictured in my head. Ying guides me into the kitchen. Sure enough, the chicken was there on the floor living in a taped up TsingTao box with a hole in the front so she could eat feed from a cup. She looked happy. The point of the chicken I learn later is to lead Mama’s soul (ghost?) to the grave.

We begin loading up everything into the boot of the car. Pushing. Rearranging. Making everything fit. The nephew is getting LARGE fire crackers positioned with his son. They are set up on the ground. The trash can. Stacks of bricks. Ying mentions aloud something I’d already considered. “Last time we did this it was for our wedding. Remember the rock band played right over there.”

I sit down in the front seat. My task right now is to hold Mama's framed picture with it standing up in my lap and facing forward.

Brother is having a bad time backing out. Nervousness. Inexperience. Small space. All contribute. Baba gets out and starts directing him. The car dies. And now the fire crackers are going off. These explosions are huge. Bigger than any we had at our wedding. They might even be classified as destructive devices in the United States. But what else is different from the wedding? Not a single curious resident has emerged to watch the commotion. 

We are now on the way to the funeral home. I’m amazed at how the neighborhood around Ying’s parents place has changed in 2.5 years. New apartments. A widened road. And an entrance to a new expressway around the city. 

I ask her how many funeral homes are in town. 

“Only one. It’s policy that everyone be cremated.”

As is typical for me in China, I am a little confused. “But you said her body was there?”

“Yes but we pay last respects to her body first.”

“OK, So then the cremation happens. Hey wait a minute! You said brother bought a carved coffin lid? For her ashes?”

Now I am really confused. We cremated my grandmother in 2007 per her wishes and put her ashes in a little stream near my mother’s property. Seems that sort of thing is pretty typical for cremation in the US. 

Ying gives me that look of REALLY? I have to explain this to you silly man? “Why wouldn’t we have a coffin for her? We have to bury Mama in the village I grew up in next to my grandparents.”

“OK so the coffin must not be really a coffin right? Just a small box for her ashes and you got the lid specially carved.”

“It’s a normal size coffin!”

“Huh? Why?”

“If you were going somewhere wouldn’t you rather ride in a large car than a small one?”

I look at my knees pushed up against the dash. Hmmm . . . girl has a point there.