2003年01月24日 金曜日

Ohaka Maeri Chinese Style

by Karuna Shinsho

Family and Relationships

There's nothing like a visit to your ancestors' grave to make you appreciate life. In this case, it was a visit to my husband's paternal grandmother's gravesite in China. I've paid my respects to those who have passed on in Japan on my side of the family many times, but nothing could quite prepare me for the adventure that awaited me in China.

During the last Thanksgiving holiday, my husband and I went to the bustling city of Shanghai to spend some time with his relatives. On one occasion, we set out to his father's hometown of Suzhou, located northwest of Shanghai in Jiangsu Province, where his grandmother's ashes are buried.

ohaka 1On a sunny, but cold day, my husband and I were packed like sardines into a small taxi with his uncle and aunt heading toward Suzhou. A ride that would normally take two-and-a-half hours stretched to nearly five as our driver took a wrong turn. But the upside of getting lost was that we got to see another side of China. Streets lined with mom-and-pop stores, small restaurants, and auto repair shops soon gave way to dirt roads riddled with potholes. Some people were riding on rickety bicycles; others were eating lunch, while standing outside, finding refuge from the cold in their cement homes. But there wasn't much clean air to breathe outside. There seemed to be an endless convoy of trucks loaded with construction material going back and forth that managed to whip up the dirt on the ground into the air. No matter how rural a place in China, the tentacles of industrialization are always reaching in and slowly tightening their grip.

After what seemed to be an eternity, we finally arrived at Xiang Shan, or "Fragrant Mountain," my grandmother-in-law's resting place. Through a stone-carved, Chinese version of a "torii," I could see terraces upon terraces of tombstones up above. My aunt led the way up what should have been steps, but were more like jagged stones placed haphazardly up a steep hill. Not only was I worrried about my own safety, but I was also concerned about my seventy-seven-year-old uncle, who didn't seem to be as sure footed as I had hoped. As I supported his heavy arm and grabged onto an occasional tree branch for support, I counted two hundred steps until we reached the terrace where our family tombstone was located. I have to admit, I wasn't prepared for the stair master-like workout that was involved in the climb up. After catching our breath, we then had to gingerly inch our way forward on a precariously narrow ledge through overgrown bushes, past numerous graves to get to my grandmother-in-law's tombstone.

What happened next was quite unexpected. It seemed that out of nowhere there appeared a dozen or so elderly women armed with paintbrushes and hand brooms. Without any instruction from us, some women proceeded to sweep aside the dirt and dust that had settled over the site. Others began to re-paint the Chinese characters on my grandmother-in-law's tombstone. This all happened so quickly that, for a moment, my husband and I were stunned into silence. Eventually, I asked my uncle if he knew any of these ladies. With a wary look, he said these women were doing it for money, whether we liked it or not. Amid all the hustle and bustle, my uncle tried to lay our offerings of fruit and Chinese delicacies for his mother and light a few joss sticks. Then, one by one, we knelt before the tombstone to pray with twelve pairs of eyes focused intently on us. This ancestral visit was not a private affair, to say the least.

ohaka 2

The joss sticks were not even half burnt and there were already calls for payment of services that we hadn't even asked for. Regardless, my uncle and aunt gave the women some money. Despite this, some of the women complained that it wasn't enough, saying their services were more labor-intensive than others. So my uncle relented and gave them more money, but cautioned that they shouldn't take the offerings until the joss sticks had burnt out completely.

As we performed our final ceremonial bows to my grandmother-in-law, we made our way down the steep slope of "Fragrant Mountain." Not even a few steps down, we could already hear the women arguing loudly over who would get the oranges and meat buns and how much. In the distance, firecrackers were popping loudly in succession. I thought it was odd to be lighting firecrackers at a gravesite, but my uncle assured me it was to scare away evil spirits. My husband joked that unfortunately it hadn't worked on the women.

In the car ride back to Shanghai, I thought about the events of the day. The long ride to the gravesite in a tiny taxi over unpaved roads was surely tiring. And I didn't expect a league of elderly women to invade what I had thought would be a quiet and spiritual experience. But life in new surroundings isn't always comfortable or familiar. In fact, when you live in the relative comfort of a developed country, it's so easy to dismiss certain behaviors in a developing nation as backward or revolting.

As we got closer to the modern trappings of city life in Shanghai, leaving behind the dust and dirt roads of rural Suzhou, I had a feeling that there would be more encounters like this after marrying into a family whose culture was in many ways different from my own. I hoped that at least I could face such experiences with an open mind and a touch of humor. But next time, I thought, we'd better bring a map, just in case.

Posted by Karuna Shinsho at 2003年01月24日 07:28

1- Mimi

Our gravesite in northern Japan seems to have a few folks that like to roam around and strike up conversations with those giving their respects... but nothing like this. I remember on my last visit an old man started talking to us about how he knew our family and quizzing us on who each member of our party was.

We do not make it to the family grave as often as we should. Transnational lives have not been very good for the upkeep of grave-visit traditions.

Karuna- thank you so much for sharing that experience with us, even if it may have been a bit surreal.

Thanks for preserving Japanes culture on Ohaka Maeri . try to give more knoladge on Ohaka on chines style.
Sincerely Yours

Post a comment

Thanks for signing in, . Now you can comment. (sign out)

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Remember Me?