Even if I completely switch themes between now and Actual Wedding Date--if my 'autumn rustic chic' turns out to be more of a 'December classic elegance' or 'springtime garden nuptial'--no harm done, I say. Pinterest is serving its ultimate purpose right now, which is keeping me at my desk and entertained in a fantasy wonderland of lace, falling leaves, and an alternating dark green or grey color scheme with chocolate accents.
When I say "A Funeral," on the other hand, I am unfortunately referring to an actual funeral. On Sunday, Big Mountain's grandmother passed away. Just last week, I was sitting across the dinner table from her eating rice and braised cabbage. This week, I was experiencing the very bizarre, disorienting event that is a Buyi ethnic funeral party.
Because she was 93, it's easy to think that perhaps it was her time. Although she had seemed to be in perfectly good health the last time I saw her, that's where my mind went when I heard of her passing. But when I heard the details--she was hit by a drunk driver while walking home from dinner at her granddaughter's house--I could scarcely believe my ears. I've always known that road traffic in China is dangerous; some of you may remember a photo I posted way back in 2008 that I took in Beijing entitled, "The crosswalk of doom." (See below.) The Chinese government is wising up to the situation--propaganda advising against "Driving drunkenly," and "Driving while tired," is posted along every major highway here nowadays. But it seems that at least one person didn't get the message, or failed to heed its warning. And now Nainai is no longer with us.
The death hit me harder than I thought it would. But instead of grieving with Big Mountain in the traditional American way, with hugs and the shedding of tears and a quiet evening remembering the deceased, I was thrust into a Buyi Comedy Funeral, which is the celebration of the life and ascension into heaven of any person above the age of 70.
It's an interesting concept, and one that I think I can understand. If a 93-year old woman passes away in America of "natural causes," I'd like to think that typically, her funeral is an occasion in which smiling to honor her memory as well as shedding a tear at her loss would both be appropriate. But if that same person's death--even at age 93--were the result of a tragedy, the funeral would probably have a slightly different feel to it. I think that sentiment was expressed during Nainai's own funeral, for although the attendees seemed to be in good spirits, the eyes of her family members were sad.
We pulled up to Big Mountain's neighborhood, but instead of turning in, we parked on the opposite street and walked up to the entrance. I quickly realized why: The street, which is narrow to begin with and lined on either side by tall apartment buildings, was filled with brightly colored tents and people milling about, chatting and munching on sunflower seeds. I was overwhelmed by the clouds of incense, briquettes and cigarette smoke, which at first masked the smell of a hundred people crowded into a small space. The tent closest to the door of Big Mountain's home held Nainai's coffin, which was draped with a velvet cover brightly embroidered with suns and flowers. In the second tent, there were two tables; one held paper and clay pots filled with burning incense, the other dishes of fruit taped over so that the fruit could not be touched. On the wall above the table of incense, a shrine to Nainai was laid out; bright fabrics swathed the wall, and a framed photograph of her hung in the center. At various points throughout the evening, people would come to this tent and light a few sticks of incense; then, facing her picture, they would kowtow three times and place their incense into the pots. In the center of the tent, there was a small fire burning. At any given time, several people would be gathered around the fire, placing brown sheets of paper into the flames. I asked Big Mountain's brother why they were doing this; he explained that the paper symbolizes money for Nainai to take with her to the next world. In ancient days, real money would have been used. The small fire was a favorite of the children in attendance, who were mesmerized by the crackling sound it made and the smoke swirling toward the top of the tent.
The tent also held several stools, and at the back was a large stereo set with enormous speakers and flashing lights. In the stools sat four percussionists, who banged cymbals together in a hypnotizing rhythm every five minutes or so. After I went inside to give my condolences to the rest of the family and say hello to little Qiuyu, who was playing obliviously on the computer upstairs with her similarly-aged cousin, I was taken back outside and given a seat of prominence to watch the funeral performances. I should mention here that it was very obvious who was related to Nainai, because each relative wore a long, cloth head covering with a red circle painted on the top. Some relatives, like Big Mountain's youngest brother, wore clothes made of the same cloth, tied at the waist with a piece of twine.
Six women dressed in pink and white clothes bedazzled with flowers began to dance to the lilting tune of an erhu, which was played through the loudspeaker by a man sitting sitting in the corner of one tent. One of the women held a microphone, and began to sing in a shrill, nasal voice not unlike what you hear at the Peking opera. The singing might have sounded pretty if it had not been at a volume easily three times what a normal person can withstand. In America, funeral or no, this would have resulted in a very serious noise complaint from every neighbor within a two-mile radius. As it was, neighbors could be seen watching the dance from their balconies or windows high above the commotion; none of them seemed upset by the volume or the time at which this was taking place (10 pm on a Wednesday). The Chinese are much more likely to respect tradition and honor their ancestors than we are, which can be attributed to the fact that their culture and these practices are thousands of years old. This is one of the reasons why I am fascinated by this country and its people, and I am constantly reminded of how little I actually understand the place in which I live.
The dances and shriek-singing continued for at least an hour, with costume and instrument changes every few songs. After being assured that it was not disrespectful, I took a few pictures (see below). Eventually, Big Mountain came outside and invited me in for red wine and a late night snack, which was a welcome relief for my pounding ear drums. I sat down in his kitchen with eight or nine of his male relatives and friends, who thanked me profusely for attending and told me how much it honored them that I, a foreigner, would be there. I tried to explain that I knew her and that I couldn't imagine not being there, but my voice was soon lost in exclamations of "Gan bei!" ("Bottom's up!") and the clinking of glasses. Over the next hour, I proceeded to drink too much wine in proportion to the amount of food I was eating (a few slices of spicy cucumber and a small bowl of noodle soup). Though I luckily haven't had to attend any funerals in the US recently, I know that drowning one's sorrows in a drink or seven is commonplace in my culture, too. By the time we finished the fourth (fifth?) bottle of South African Tall Horse* Cabernet Sauvignon (Big Mountain's favorite), the festivities outside were winding down. One of my new drinking buddies, the police chief of Libo, was kind enough to give me a ride home (he drank far less than the rest of us), where I managed to coherently Skype with loved ones before falling into a deep sleep.
*Please click on this link. The website is definitely worth your time, and the wine is delicious--buy a bottle or six if you can find it.