I’ve concluded that Guangdong province is the Mississippi of China.
So when my dad planned this trip out he scheduled it around the Chinese spiritual holiday of Ching Ming, the Chinese Memorial Day, when everyone pays respect to their dead ancestors. Before the trip I was looking forward to be a part of this ancient ritual. It’s taken some 15 or so years to accept the fact that I am Chinese and have gained a greater appreciation of my heritage and had a romantic notion of this Chinese holiday. Yesterday was Ching Ming.
The night before last we arrive in Guangdong from Beijing and I’m already in a bad mood because of a misunderstanding about the airline tickets to get back to the States which I blame on my dad, rightfully so of course. Then we have to wake up at 5am so we can make the 3 hour drive to the village, which I have since learned isn’t the thriving metropolis I initially believed before getting to China, but, in fact, really is a village. And because we hit to road by 6am I don’t get my drug of choice in China, a tall coffee from Starbucks, which I have learned really does make me not cranky. So I’m doubly cranky.
Three hours later we get to the village. On the walk from the car to my dad’s 4-story Chinese McMansion a street dog takes a dump in the middle of a walking path. No one picks up after it. Yup, I’m in a village. Then we get to said McMansion. I immediately go to the room with the 8-inch spider to see if it’s still there. Nope. Then I spot 2 roasted pigs in plastic cartons like they were purchased at the deli section of Safeway. Only it’s a Chinese Safeway. If you don’t know about ancestor worship, it involves making food offerings to the spirits of ancestors. Hence the pigs, as well as a number of other food items like steamed chickens, clams, cakes, etc. Another thing about ancestor worship is lighting off firecrackers. I assume it’s supposed to scare off evil spirits like every other Chinese holiday. But then I think won’t the firecrackers also scare off the ancestors’ spirits? Whatever… why am I trying to rationalize ancestor worship?
The huge 4-foot by 4-foot box of firecrackers is strapped to the top of our car. Then we all pile into a number of cars, some on bicycles or motorcylces and head on up to the village mountain where every family in the village has their own graveyard. I don’t think there are any bodies buried, only ashes, since the grave sites are only a square foot in area. The narrow road up the mountain is jam packed with cars, motorcycles, scooters, and bicycles. Ching Ming is a big deal. Roasted pigs are riding the backs of scooters. We parks our cars and make a 10 minute hike up the mountain. No trail, just blazing our own.
We get to the graveyard and mill about for an hour. All my cousins, aunts, and uncles are setting the food up, putting little flags on each grave marker, I help out a little but with no idea what to do, I mostly stand back and watch. I notice smoke billowing from all over the mountain and all over nearby mountains. And I hear the crackle of distant firecrackers. The smoke, sulfur smell, and what sounds like small-arms fire makes me think I’m in a battle zone. Then all the elaborate ritual happens. All the food is arranged with great detail. Uncles pour rice wine before gave markers, incense sticks are lit, even cigarettes are offered to ancestors. We do the bowing thing, three times before the graveyard. Very elaborate I think. Then the firecrackers are set up. Awesome! Forty-five seconds of firecrackers to off. The whole graveyard is littered with red paper from the firecrackers.
We take pictures and then I’m thinking that the shows over and it’s time to head back to the village for lunch. Everyone is packing away the food in the baskets and containers they brought them up in. Only I notice some are taking bites out of things they’re packing away. Then I notice that they’re not packing the food away. A cousin or uncle breaks out his pocket knife and cuts a piece of roasted pig off and is eating it. Another cousin is ripping a piece of steamed chicken off. It’s a regular picnic with everyone squating down and chowing down. A relative offers some food to me. I politely decline. Jeez Louise, that stuff has been sitting around unrefridgerated for who knows how long, has been sitting on a mountainside buzzing with flying things for a good hour and a half, and I’m supposed to eat some? So I just stand there while all my uncles, aunts, and cousins are chowing down. One of my uncles says something to my dad and he interprets. Uncles asks what I think of all these people eating like this. I mumble something like “whatever”. I mean, it’s what Ching Ming is all about right? Ancient Chinese holiday, right? I shouldn’t be judgemental of spiritual cultural rituals, as long as no one gets hurt, right? After everyone has had their fill, they start to pack up all the leftovers, for real this time. I’m not much help here either, so I just stand and watch again.
Then I see that a couple of my uncles are tossing the big cardboard box and the plastic containers the roasted pigs were in off the side of the mountain!!! Oh. My. God. Now I usually give people the benefit of the doubt and I try not to take a colonial attitude towards the natives. Exhibit 1: diarhea in the squat toilet. Ok. Everyone has some bad food once in awhile. Exhibit 2: spitting at the airport. On the floor. In front of the ticket counter. Alright, at least the guy had the good sense to hock his loogie in a gated area where nobody was going to stand or set their luggage down. But Jesus H Christ!!! Tossing your nonbiodegradable crap behind some bushes?!?!? Take some freakin’ pride of your ancestors’ graveyard! So yeah… I was one generation away from being a Chinese backwater yokel.
Oh… and I had lunch at Pizza Hut. You can get escargot, tiramisu, and drinks with names like Twin Berry Romance. The pizza was heaven until the grease reminded me of the roasted pig skin with the bristley hair still on.
If you still need evidence that Guangdong is the Mississippi of China, here is some: