Experiencing Taiwanese Culture at my Grandfather’s Funeral
The temple where my grandfather was buried.
The year was 1947. My grandfather’s company sent him to the province of Taiwan for a conference. He brought my grandmother along for a bit of vacation. Their first born, my uncle Edward, still in diapers, was left with his grandmother. Then the news came. Stay. Don’t come home. Later they would smuggle Edward and great-grandmother out of the newly Communist China.
China has been open to visitors for years, and my grandparents have returned many times, enjoying the sights, landscape and people. I am in Taipei, alone in an elevator with my mom. I used the word “Communist” in conversation. My mom didn’t quiet understand that particular English word so I said it again in Mandarin. She immediately hushed me, “That is not a word we use!” She immediately looked as though she felt silly for her exclamation. It is the new millennium, Mao is dead, and we are in an elevator in the democratic nation of Taiwan. No one is listening.
Fast forward to just a few weeks ago. I meet a handsome stranger holding a copy of National Geographic as we are boarding the same flight to Hanoi. Chatting leads to dinner and trading war stories. Then the phrases remote trek, last hide out of the Khmer Rouge, poachers turned park rangers, leeches, and very few visitors were uttered. Before we are through with the first round of beers, he raises an eyebrow and asks, “Do you want to go?” Yes! Yes, of course I want to go. Every one of those phrases is an aphrodisiac (okay maybe not the leeches), adrenaline laced what-if moments on the edge of the life. It looks like I found a new co-conspirator! I bought a ticket for Cambodia within 24 hours and started to make a list of editors who might be interested in the story.
The morning after I bought my ticket, I get an email from my mom: “Grandfather’s blood pressure is below 80, and the doctor says he has a few more days at best. Come home before the funeral.” Being the second oldest granddaughter from his only daughter ranks low on the totem pole of gender-relation-age based hierarchy of the Chinese mindset. If we lived in Imperial times and I had an eye on the throne, I would have to literally murder everyone in my family, including my younger cousins (lineage comes before age), before I would be crowned Empress. There is not a cherished catalogue of memories to reminisce on. Tradition ruled his heart, and I’ve long understood my place within. Despite it all, I canceled my Cambodia ticket and re-routed for Taipei. Duty and honor: what I was bottle-feed, before all else. Mom greets me at the airport. I slip my hand into hers and the infinitesimal amount of disappointment-resentment on the canceled Cambodia trip fades. The mountains will wait for me.
The next two weeks is a strange mixture of being broiled in family drama of NatGeo intensity; a simultaneously extremely personal yet with cool detached observations of my family, their culture, also my culture, and experiencing the death of my grandfather.
Origami skills and hot glue guns are necessary in a Chinese Buddhist funeral. A ridiculous amount of origami needs to be created for the multiple-day service. Lotus flowers and the pedestal it sits on, gold and silver nuggets (think origami boat without a sail). Hundreds, I’m not exaggerating, hundreds and hundreds of these labor-intensive petite creations. Some of them are for the alter. One hundred and eight lotuses create a “blanket” that drapes over the coffin. All will meet a fiery end. Symbolism aplenty, arts and craft skill required.
Made in Taiwan. All of my uncles owned factories. Three of them manufactured sunglasses and another runs a leather shoe factory. I had my first job on the assembly line at the age of 5, putting tiny “Made in Taiwan” tickers on the lens of knock-off Ray-Bans, bagging and sorting a dozen per box. When hundreds of anything need to be made, the family defaults to its manufacturing roots. Everyone does a single step in the process and passes it down the line. There is even a complete version of the paper lotus in the center of the dinning table as “SAMPLE.”
Pick your god before you are dead. For the last few years, my grandfather has been asking various aunts and uncles about where he will be “living” after he’s gone. Cremation is most popular in Taiwan and the ashes are interned. Not an unreasonable request for a man who is well into his 90’s. Except everyone keeps on telling him, “Don’t worry, you have many good years left ahead, there is no need to think about it now.” It took several years and finally my youngest uncle, who could no longer ignore grandfather, inquired at the Buddhist monastery he frequents. Of course, the monastery was more than eager to sell grandfather a spot. We are cultural Buddhist with a healthy dose of Taoism and Confucianism blended in. My mom and grandmother are converted Buddhist, but everyone else is pretty much categorically agnostic, including grandfather. The problem with wanting to have your ashes interned at a Buddhist monastery is that you have to be a Buddhist. Grandfather reluctantly converted in the 11th hour and secured himself a tiny cubbyhole in a monastery by the sea. Thus we proceed with a Buddhist burial rite, sending him to a god he had just met.
Who cares about the living, lets fuss over the dead. Alternating with origami are prayer sessions conducted by monks and nuns from the monastery. It was all folding and standing-kneeling-standing at every mention of “Buddha” in the scripture. Some say ritual is helpful with grief; it gives the living something to do. We pray every day for grandfather’s ascension to the afterworld, to not linger and get stuck in this one. Except the multiple days of service and the repetitive tasks just annoyed my uncles and made me secretly envious of the cousins with the 9-5 jobs who are excused. Go on now, don’t linger! But what about the living who are grieving and unconsoled by origami?
Pros and cons of the spirit world. The Chinese never had an equivalent to The Age of Reason where magic became a burnable offense and only tangible, rational, proven facts are real. Nope. In the Exotic East, we still believe in fairies, consult fortunetellers and believe in all manners of things unseen. This means my mom can casually say things like, “I didn’t feel grandfather’s spirit during the prayer session today. He didn’t come.” Or when a black and white butterfly flutter into the room where the family is picking through grandfather’s bones, putting his ashes into the urn, the family wonders aloud if the butterfly is bearing a message from grandfather. No one fears the straightjacket or preface their musing with, “Please don’t think I’m crazy, but…” However, the limited imagination of the living still pollutes the realm of the dead. My uncle thought it would be a good idea to include a flashlight in my grandfather’s coffin. In his remaining months, he used a flashlight when he got up in the middle of the night, he didn’t want to turn on the light because it wastes too much electricity. In the afterlife, wouldn’t grandfather be healthy, standing over six feet tall like he was with good eye sight and hearing, and not the withered old man, bent in half, suffering osteoporosis he died as (assuming that he still retain recognizable form)? Call me crazy! The family wanted to make as many origami gold and silver nuggets as possible so grandfather would have plenty of money to spend in the after life. You can also buy paper houses, cars, servants, mahjong sets, Apple computer, iPads and a sleuth of material objects to burn and send to the afterworld. None of us knows what is on the other side but I assume it would be lovely to be free of money concerns! If there is a heaven, I hope it would be so wonderful, I would never need to hear the ding preceding the gray Apple start-up screen ever again, much less worry about a dirty house. Devotion and duty gets perverted and expressed in the most bizarre and interesting ways.
Death rituals in the East are nothing like what I’ve become accustomed to in The States. Sitting across from distraught family members who just lost their loved ones and console them in their grief? Mourners at the service encouraged to take their time saying goodbye? Hours spent restoring the deceased for presentation at the viewing? None of those apply in a Chinese funeral. Never once did a funeral director, monk or nun express any sentiment that sounded remotely like, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” They are not concerned with us, the living; they are worried about grandfather traveling onward. And being a newly converted Buddhist, extra prayer sessions are recommended incase he did not accrue enough karma points while alive.
Grandfather gasped for air during his hospital stay because of the lung infection and his last facile expression is akin to a famous Edvard Munch painting. The funeral directors rushed us through the service, escorted us out and the halls were stripped, changed over with the urgency of a costume change during a brief intermission. Deprived of the space to grief, overburdened with origami, prayers presented as duty, everyone acts out and is on their worst behavior.
Sometimes it is easier to grant strangers compassion and give them a free pass than it is to forgive family. During the official funeral service, all of us dressed in identical black crew neck t-shirts and blue jeans (one of my uncles thought it would easier if we all wore the same thing), looking like actors from a high school rendition of Grease. I thought about Mao and The Culture Revolution. The entire family has now spent over two weeks preparing for grandfather’s funeral. After the interment, there’s still six more days of prayer service, one day per week, before it is done. Mao was right. It is too much. It gets in the way of the living. I never thought I would agree with Mao…and to have such a thought at my grandfather’s funeral, who is an exile of the revolution…is that thunder I hear?!
My father showed up to pay his respect. It has been 26 years since my parents divorced and it’s been even longer since he last saw my grandparents. No one was expecting him. He bowed and kneeled and prayed as if still part of the family, as if still the son-in-law. He said to me after, “he was my father-in-law once, nothing could change that. Once you are family, you are always family.” My father played the cold-hearted villain in the story I tell of my youth. Yet somewhere along the way, he started to surprise me. Maybe he changed; maybe I grew up; maybe both. The depth of emotion and his sense of duty towards an in-law from another lifetime touched me.
Your parents can surprise you, and the story can change.
A few of Grandfather’s favorites to visit
– Grandfather loved early mornings at the Taipei Botanical Garden. He used to sit by the lily pond, sketch and photograph.
– The much famed Din Tai Fung was just a push cart when we were kids. Despite the hype, the long line and the matching price increase moving from street side to being an international chain, my family still loves their soup dumplings and for good reason.
– A couple of hour away on the train, on your way to the beach and a day for scenic bike ride, there is a tiny cafe with some of the best baked goods, boutique coffee and cafe. Grandpa was always cosmopolitan and loves a good cup of espresso in a chic cafe.
And for a hotel option, OTPYM’s luxury hotel expert Mary Gostelow recommends the W Taipei, the “mostly happening of the W’s.”