Lost for words

When I do the Hong Kong thing I don’t really go for the Hong Kong Island experience or visit all the touristy spots and see the anglicized version of life in that part of the world.  Oh no, I go deep into the New Territories, stay in the town where my husband’s family lives, and I don’t see another white face for days on end.  My Cantonese is sketchy, add to that the fact that because people don’t expect to hear me speak it, it doesn’t register with them when I do, and I’m met with bafflement.  My poor husband is the only person who can converse fluently with me when I’m here. 
It’s a pretty enlightening experience to be surrounded by non English speakers.  You learn to pick up on nuances in tone, to read expression and gestures – sort of!  It’s a start, but most of the time not enough.  I’m ashamed that I haven’t learned more Cantonese.  My husband doesn’t quite know where to start teaching me – I know the basics, hello, how are you, the names of food and how to count, but that’s it.  In my own defense, I have looked for Cantonese night classes in San Jose with no luck.  Mandarin yes, but not Cantonese.  My husband’s family say that I should learn Mandarin as it’s a much more useful language.  There’s no point though, because they don’t speak Mandarin, and the goal is to be able to speak to them directly… Perhaps they are trying to tell me something!
Funerals provide an amazing glimpse into any society.  Being Irish I come from a rich culture that intertwines superstition and religion when it comes to waking the dead, so with great interest I took part in the traditional Chinese wake and funeral for my mother-in-law.  As the wife of her son, I was one of the chief mourners along side my husband, his sister-in-law and his niece.  As is custom, each family member wears a costume that signifies their position in the family.  We all wore white, the color of mourning.  We were given clothes to wear which cannot be taken home, the idea being that you don’t take death back with you.  I could see the sense in this.  I find it hard to wear the dress in everyday life that I wore for my father’s funeral .  All the clothes we wore would be thrown away after-wards, so they were simple and inexpensive and looked like plain white cotton track suits.
Over the top of our white suits the funeral director or “master of ceremonies” (similar in some ways to our undertakers in that he directs us in what to do and makes sure the proper procedure is followed), dressed us in a linen and sackcloth tunic.  Men wear a head band.  I thought my husband looked pretty cool in his get up.  We girls had to tie our hair back and wear the same linen and sackcloth tunic, but we wore on our heads a pointy hood made from linen, that hung down our back, a bit like a veil.  If it wasn’t such  somber occasion I’d have loved to have taken pictures.  It just wasn’t appropriate to do so.  The outfits were to symbolize our humility and sorrow.
Each of us girls had a little colored woolen ribbon on our hood to show our rank and file.  Mine and my Sister-in-law’s was white.
Wakes take place in the funeral home.  Each family has a function room, decorated with beautiful flower arrangements, with a smaller room off it at the back.  Here,behind a glass wall, lay my Mother-in-law’s body.  It reminded of Snow White’s glass coffin.  We were comforted to see how peaceful my husband’s mother looked.  In Irish wakes viewing the body is a really important part of the saying goodbye procedure.  We are also encouraged to touch the deceased in an Irish wake.  Supposedly the touch helps you come to terms with the reality that the spirit has moved on.  In the Chinese wake this wasn’t the case.
After we were dressed and had viewed the body, the “Master of Ceremonies”  (my husband referred to him as “the Master”) gave the family more instructions.  I stood and listened, not understanding a word.  He was very stern and everyone nodded simultaneously at the end of each sentence, or at least when he paused.  When my husband translated to me, in hurried hushed tones, he told me we couldn’t say the Cantonese word for “thank –you” or “see you later” to the other mourners when they offer condolences.  That pretty much halved my Cantonese vocabulary.  Terrified of saying the wrong thing, I spent the rest of the time nodding and smiling, though my husband had to nudge me at one point and tell me to look sadder when the tone changed in  the ceremony, and I hadn’t picked up on it.
The main function room had an altar set up with a nice picture of my mother-in-law.  In front of the picture, sticks of incense burned in a big bowl of sand.  Laid out on the altar sat various dishes of food, to sustain her on the journey she would soon take to the after-world.  I noticed that several dishes were her favorite and thought how nice it was that we could have this last chance to pamper her. 
We began by bowing to the altar three times, then lit some incense, planting it in the bowl.  I stumbled through the procedure trying to watch my husband for direction from the corner of my eye.  Our niece has some English too and was a great help.  Then we knelt at the side and received the mourners as they came in. The mourners bowed three times and then bowed to us before coming over and speaking to us.  This is repeated throughout the night as people arrived at different times.  Often we scrambled to take our positions, being free to mingle in between times, not that I was much of a mingler with my very limited repertoire of words.  Mind you by the end of the night I could easily recognize the words for “Here’s more mourners, get ready,” and “first bow,” “bow again,” and “third bow”.  The words kind of rhymed – It sounded to me like “Yacht go gong, joy go gong, sam go gong”. 
The Master was very patient with this dumb outsider and was able to speak a little English to direct me too.  It made me realize just how hard it must be for immigrants coming to English speaking countries without knowing that language.  It is totally bewildering, frustrating and above all isolating.   

I often watched the ebb and flow of the conversation around me.  Free from following the words, it was amazing to just watch the dynamics of a conversation.  The gathering of such a large extended family reminded me of my own clan back home, especially the way they all seemed to talk at once, laughing often and easily.  Despite being unable to understand them literally, on another plane, they did speak my language.  Their kindess flowed to me in many other ways.  One cousin was determined to introduce me to everyone – it seemed to me that I had to call everyone “Cousin”, the word in Cantonese being gender specific (like in English we have nephew and niece) so really I only had to learn two words “boy-cousin” and “girl-cousin” and not each individual’s name!

In between greeting mourners the first half of the evening was given to rolling and folding pieces of paper painted silver and gold – these represented gold/silver ingots and would be burnt later to send to our loved one as currency for the after-world. 
The family were also sending many other items to the after-world in the from of paper and bamboo models.  There were even papier-mâché servants to help her.  No matter whether you believed in this version of the after-world or not, the fact remained the same – love for the dearly departed manifested itself in full view as these treasures piled up in the wake room awaiting the funeral pyre.
The later half of the evening was given over to dramatic dancing and processions.  Did I mention that the entire time, right from the start, a band was playing and the members of the band chanting?   Initially, it seemed to me to be a cacophony of symbols clashing, a random horn bleating and various other percussion instruments pinging and clanging, but as the evening wore on my ears became accustomed to the medley until it kind of formed it own melody.  That’s not to say that I’m rushing out to buy the CD, but you could read the rise and fall of the harmony – where we are supposed to feel sad, glad and frightened even.
The dance was spectacular.  My husband had to follow the band in a procession around a fire that was lit on the marble floor in the middle of the room.  This part of the ceremony (I was told later) represented breaking onto hell to get her out so she could go to heaven.  At one stage the performers were criss-crossing  back and forward so much that at least two spectators (my husband and I) were afraid they would catch on fire!  This part of the show ended with an extravagant whoosh of flame as one guy spat a mouth full of alcohol (or something flammable) onto the fire then jumped through it.
After this, we carried all the paper money, gold, silver, a house (for her to live in in the afterlife), the papier-mâché servants and all remaining paper treasure in a procession outside to a fire pit.  As these gifts for her after life burned, the Master said something and the voices of the family called out.  Later when I asked my husband what it was, he said they were calling to his Mum to “come get her stuff”!
 The funeral took place the following day, similar to most cremations, but the thing that stuck in my mind was her coffin, carefully packed with all her clothes and things that she used on a regular basis.  All her packing for her journey had been done for her by her family.  Another gesture of love and caring that brought a lump to my throat.  Like all funerals, closing the coffin lid proved the most distressing part for me.  Knowing that we’ll never see that person again catches me hard.
After the funeral, like in Irish tradition too, the whole family and friend connection headed for lunch.  Again, as banter swing around the table, I could picture my family doing this.  It was obvious that the boy cousins were teasing the girl cousins and losing!  Laughter rang and faces glowed with smiles and togetherness.  Words were pronounced slowly for me to learn.  An adorable 8 year old boy-cousin (a different word again because he was young) who was learning English in school was forced by his parents to speak to me.  He was pretty good and seemed delighted to be able to communicate with this curly blond stranger who stuck out like a sore thumb in a sea of jet black haired people.
Next time – I vowed – next time I come back I will be able to speak more Cantonese!  

Byddi Lee

9 replies to Lost for words

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Byddi. I'm sorry to hear of your and your husband's loss. May you both be well.

  2. i imagine that someday you'll look back on this post and things you forgot will suddenly come alive again. do give allan a big hug from us… words just aren't adequate at a time like this, but we are thinking of you both.

  3. What an enlightening post thanks for sharing, and sorry for your troubles.

  4. The different rituals and cultural traditions are fascinating. My dad's funeral last year was quite a contrast to your mother-in-laws, other than the bereaved family members.

    The fact that you are trying to learn such a difficult language is a testament to your spunk. I think I'd probably give up and just wing some sign language!

    Christine in Alaska

  5. Christine – Sorry that you lost your Dad last year – it's hard to get used to them not being here anymore. I miss mine everyday and he's gone just over two years now.

  6. Hi Byddi
    Sorry to hear of your loss. The cultural traditions are fascinating to read about, as I know little to nothing about China. Though I'm quite familiar with Irish customs.

    My good friend has her twins in a bilingual Chinese school in San Francisco where they learn Mandarin. They were born in China and their 'nanny' speaks Mandarin, so it's incredible to hear them speaking – and writing -Mandarin at 6 years old.

    Good luck with your Cantonese. It sounds like a real challenge.
    via Blotanical

  7. Alice – it is a real challenge – even more so in San Jose – I need total immersion to learn a language. So far I'm only fluent in English and tend to get lazy if there are other English speakers – mind you with my Irish accent, it can be a challenge getting people to understand me in California as it is!

  8. Hi Byddi,
    Thank you for sharing such a personal loss. The traditions are so inspiring and unique. It's strange because yesterday was the sixth anniversary of my father's death which I felt the need to write about. I think it helps us all to share these profound life and death experiences with each other. My sympathy to you and your family.

  9. Kathy – I read your post this morning and was very touched by it – I too held my Dad's hand as he passed away. A profound moment. Thank you for commenting.

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