Death and Merry in a Burning House

 A little bird flies in, perches on the rooftop of a burning family house and starts singing,

Can´t you see all the death?

We are going to be next.

You and you and I

All of us in this Burning house

Let us find a safe Escape

Before it all crumbles down

 

*

         Grandma’s funeral date was set to be September 25th, 2018. According to the Chinese almanac, this would fall on the sixteenth day of the eighth month. This almanac follows the traditional “农历” (nongli) calendar, “农” meaning farmer and “历”—calendar. Folks say that this calendar contains essential day-to-day predictions about “suitable” and “unsuitable” dates for important lay events such as sowing and gathering crops, building and moving houses, weddings and funerals, life and death…

*

           A small crowd was gathering around the almanac. My elder uncle, guided by village relatives and friends, had called upon a local ‘Buddhist’ funeral group to help conduct grandma’s funerary rites. The funeral company had sent two representatives to visit our home in order to discuss and prepare grandma’s funeral. I was surprised to find out how one of the representatives was of similar age than myself. He was a young man in his late twenties, buzz-cut, slightly chubby, and gently resting on his flat nose oval cheeks was a small pair of circular glasses in which he used to calmly screen his surroundings. My aunt had commented on how he looked like a “书生” (shusheng) which translates to English as “scholar”. In the historical Confucian universe, scholars held privileged positions in society. However, in modern capitalist realities, the Confucian (and patriarchal) “君子” (junzi), which imperfectly translates to English as “gentleman” or “superior man”, has become trapped in networks of greed, money and profit. The scholarly funeral representative came accompanied by his business partner and/or perhaps mentor. His business partner was a man in his forties, thin built, short straw-like hair combed to the side, and sometimes he would emanate a semi-relaxed smile showcasing his cigarette blackened teeth.

        Elder uncle greeted the funeral company men by offering them Chunghwa cigarettes. Chungwa is considered one of the most popular and prestigious cigarette brands in China. Although my elder uncle didn’t smoke at all, I noticed that when he travelled to China, he usually carried with him a pack of cigarettes and he would offer these to different people he met in his everyday endeavours. As grandma’s eldest son, he carried a big load of the family responsibility for organizing her funeral. A down-to-earth and hard-working man in his late 60s, his lifetime of hard work in China and later Portugal (where our extended family had migrated to) had carved convoluted maps of wrinkles all over his face and body.

            Chunghwa cigarettes were lit so people were ready to discuss Business… With regards to the funeral business, I had overheard from people’s conversations that a “respectable” funeral for an overseas family (in local standards) hovered around 60 000 Chinese yuan… I think this local price inflation is partially connected to the fact that many families from our hometown had migrated abroad and peoples’ minds now think in foreign currency. For example, the average 2018 conversion rate from Euros to Renminbi/Yuan hovered around 1 Euro to 7.5 Renminbi/Yuan. People assumed that overseas Chinese had some spending power because their income abroad was in Euros. I noticed that with regards to funerals, my family was willing to spend a reasonable amount of money for this funeral because laypeople want to be perceived by their neighbours, relatives and friends as being “good and filial children” …

            During these funeral business discussions, the young scholar brought out a pocket-sized farmer’s almanac and showcased it to the informal “Funeral Planning Committee” which included my uncles and a few other male relatives. The aunties stood nearby and listened to their conversation, but they didn’t participate in it. Was this a direct manifestation of Chinese patriarchy? (I would say yes.) This (all-male) “Planning Committee” examined the “auspiciousness” of different days according to the farmer’s almanac. They had to allocate a few extra funeral days so other family relatives (living in different parts of the world) had enough time to return to China and take part in grandma’s funeral celebrations.

            As Chunghwa cigarettes slowly burned to ashes in these men’s mouths, a “good and auspicious day” was finally chosen by the group. The day would be September 25th, 2018. There would be a five-day funeral ceremony leading to the cremation of grandma’s body which is to be followed by a huge procession in which the family carried her ashes to her tomb in the mountains. This ritualized procession would include funeral music bands, fireworks and flower wreaths. During the four days before this final procession, chanting groups would be called in to perform folk Buddhist rituals and sutra chanting accompanied by the burning of joss paper. Joss paper, often burned in traditional Chinese funerals, is said to symbolize the act of sending “good wishes” to the deceased person. When folding these papers, the funeral chanting elders taught us to chant the mantra “南无阿弥陀佛” (Namo Amituofo) into the paper. The mantra can be translated into English as “Homage to Buddha Amitabha”.

burning house (2 of 2)
Folding Joss Papers

            While observing the unfolding of this ‘odd’ funeral ceremony (to my biased ‘Western’ educated mind), I was told about the informal arrangement in which the young ‘batch’ of the family members (my elder cousins, brothers and I) would have to stay awake at night and help guard grandma’s body up until the last funeral date. Folks believed that the “spirit” continued to stay next to the body up until the final funeral procession that leads the person to its resting place. I guess I shouldn’t complain about this intergenerational arrangement… I mean the elders need to sleep more than us (the ‘young’ ones) because they must oversee all the funeral arrangements and make sure that everyone is performing their assigned tasks. The critical tasks included:

  1. registering people who came to attend grandma’s funeral
  2. managing people’s meals
  3. organizing the funeral groups doing the chanting and rituals

            Yea a lot of work… People from the village were called in to help out with the funeral. Two meals were provided plus a small financial compensation was offered to the volunteers at the end of the funeral. I was amazed by the way in which grandma’s funeral managed to bring together so many people from the village and created a sense of “community” (albeit temporary). Old friends, relatives, neighbours and strangers came together for a ‘cause’ and everyone was assigned with a task to perform… Thinking back, I guess the tasks assigned for the young grandsons and granddaughters were to sit and mourn, burn joss paper and help guard grandma’s body until the final funeral ceremony. Maybe this is where the actual “story” begins, a young group of grandsons, granddaughters and their childhood friends trying to guard their grandma’s body throughout the nights leading up to her final funeral.

*

            The “Youth Gang” grew up coming to our grandparents’ house in the village of “港头” (gantou) in southeast China. In this special place in our hearts, 奶奶 (nainai) and 爷爷 (yeye) would spoil us with food and loving-kindness. “Yeye” and “Nainai” are two Mandarin Chinese terms commonly used to refer to grandfather and grandmother from dad’s side, respectively. When my parents were working abroad in the U.S., I was brought up together with my cousins by Yeye (grandpa), Nainai (grandma), aunties and uncles. Since I was one the youngest members of the family, my cousins would carry me in their arms and shoulders, and they used to take me around to different fun places where they used to hang out with their friends. These fun places included rollerblading rings, clubs, discos, arcade centers and public parks. I have fond memories of hanging out with my elder cousins in China before everyone migrated abroad to the U.S. or Portugal. The elder cousins from my aunt’s side (dad’s elder sister) migrated to the U.S in the early 90s. A few years later, the elder cousins from my uncles’ side moved to Portugal. In search of better economic opportunities abroad, family members left one by one and my grandparents’ home slowly became emptier and emptier… I stayed in my grandparents’ home from when I was nine months old up until when I was six years old. In 1996, I moved to Lisbon, Portugal. I missed my grandparents so much…

*

            Everyone has aged. Grandma has passed away, aunties and uncles are in their late sixties, elder cousins are now in their forties and I am in my late twenties. The “Youth Gang” is not that young anymore… Time does not forgive nor forget the impermanence of our human bodies. While burning joss paper with my cousins and brothers, I sat in contemplation. Grandma’s journey was not easy. Born and raised as a “woman” in a patriarchal society, she lived through multiple oppressive experiences such as gender inequality, arranged marriages and the forceful moving of one’s sense of “home”. Although she was born and raised in the village of 下庄 (xiazhuang), she had to ‘re-settle’ into grandpa’s village of 港头 (gantou) and into his unfamiliar family house. In patriarchal Chinese family settings, women often experience multiple oppressions as the “brought-in-wife” who has to adapt and literally survive in the husband’s family.

             “I want to go home, to 下庄 (wujio).” Grandma used to say this in her local Wujio village dialect before she left us. Although 下庄 is read as (xiazhuang) in Mandarin, in Nainai’s local village dialect, people pronounce it as Wujio. Since I lived in Gantou, I grew up learning the Gantou dialect but people from these two nearby towns can understand and communicate with each other because the biggest difference lies in the accent. Family members and her old friends who sat by her bedside would tell her, “You are already home, you are in港头 (gantou). Wujio is your brother’s home, your home is in Gantou. You have lived in Gantou for more than seventy years…” Then grandma would loosen a gentle smile and reply, “Ah yes… Wujio and Gantou are the same…” Although Wujio was her birthplace and the place where she grew up, she had been living in Gantou since her marriage in her young adult years. Nainai lived up until she was ninety-two years old. I fondly remember her saying, “好像做梦一样,我醒来已经活到一百多岁了…” (It is as if I was dreaming, I wake up and I have lived more than one hundred years…) Although Nainai wasn’t more than one hundred years old, she really enjoyed using that expression to emphasize her long life and cheer up the people around her.

*

            One night in her house in Gantou, Nainai had lost balance and crashed into her bedside furniture. She broke two ribs and hurt her hip. My uncles and aunts rushed her to the hospital. Given the fragility of her aged body, that fall was life-threatening. She was checked into the hospital for intensive medical treatment. My aunt started calling all the relatives scattered around the world and told us to return home and visit grandma during her last moments of life. Uncles, aunts, cousins all started purchasing plane tickets to return to China to visit grandma. Due to difficult work and financial pressures, my parents were not able to go to China so our family agreed that I should go first and visit grandma. I embarked on a flight with my second uncle from Lisbon to Wenzhou. We had a short layover in Beijing and a few hours later, we arrived at the Wenzhou airport. Wenzhou is a big city located about one hour away from our town of Gantou. Elder sister C kindly came to pick us up on a friend’s car and we travelled together to visit Nainai in the “人民医院” (renmingyiyuan), translated to English as People’s Hospital in Qingtian. Grandma was interned into this hospital because it was considered one the better hospitals around the area in terms of quality of care. Qingtian is a city town located about 20 minutes by car from our village town of Gantou.

peoples hospital (1 of 1)
People’s Hospital on the other margin of the river

            During her stay in the hospital, her lungs would occasionally accumulate thick layers of phlegm so she couldn’t breathe at ease. When it became too difficult to breathe, nurses would have to use the phlegm removal machine which had to be inserted down her throat. It was such a painful procedure for grandma and the whole family because we would have to help the nurses to keep her body still. With a tube inserted down her throat, she would gargle, push and kick around and people would have to hold her still. After this nightmarish medical procedure, she could again breathe at ease. When grandma was not undertaking any medical treatment, grandma and I would sit together and chat. I really enjoyed listening to Nainai’s life stories. I would like to call them “oral treasures” filled with wisdom teachings on life (and death)…

*

            During one of the many visits to Nainai in the hospital, grandma was surrounded by relatives and friends who came to send her gifts and wish her a quick recovery. I noticed that Nainai was looking weak and depressed that day. She started sharing how some of her old relatives and friends came to visit her recently and she lifted her finger pointing to the window. She mentioned their names and my aunt’s face turned grey with fear. She quickly interjected and tried to change the topic of conversation, “Don’t talk nonsense… They have long died.” Yea the majority of people are afraid of Death and dead people… When grandma mentioned their names, it felt like the hospital room environment suddenly changed colours – like a sudden wash of dark blue, white and black flooded the previously warm orange canvas… I started realizing how grandma might only have a short period of time left and this forced me to come face-to-face with my own impermanence in this world. In an attempt to comfort grandma (and myself), I remember trying to tell grandma to continuously chant Buddha Amitabha’s mantra. I had remembered how monks and nuns from different Buddhist traditions had told me how chanting Amitabha’s name could help the elderly and the dying in finding some inner peace… It is believed that if one chants with a pure heart, Buddha Amitabha would come with an entourage and guide the person to “Pure Land”… That day, I wrote a few lines on my cellphone notepad, “Being with beloved grandma holding a mirror to my ‘being’… Better practicing polishing the mind before the mirror breaks…”

            A day or a few days later (I don’t remember very clearly), I went on to visit grandma again. It was a bright and sunny day… Warm embracing rays playfully bright-washed the hospital room crowded with visitors with gifts. Beloved grandma sat on her bed and talked about her life and her regrets for not being able to further her studies. A gentle yet sad smile accompanied her journey of words, she said how her dad wanted to send her and her sisters to continue their studies (after primary school) but other family members strongly disagreed… “Why are you educating the girls if they are going to be married off later?” Grandma tried to mockingly imitate their voices using her Wujio village dialect. With mounting internal family resistance against educating young girls, grandma and her sisters stopped going to school after completing primary school.

            Despite strong family resistance against girls’ education, grandma had skilfully learned how to read and write in Chinese. Grandma became a literate person and she was into reading almanacs, Buddhist sutras, newspapers and magazines. However, when old age strikes, eyesight blurs… I remember how during one of my visits to Nainai at the hospital. She had shown the whole family how even though her eyes couldn’t read much anymore, she still remembered the Buddhist Heart Sutra and the Amitabha Sutra by heart. Through lots and lots of recitation, she had managed to memorize these two sutras and probably many others that I have no clue about… Second uncle had once told me how grandma used to be part of a Buddhist chanting group. When village folk passed away, her group would go into their homes and perform sutra chanting for the families of the deceased.

*

            While the chanting continued, the clouds had gotten thicker and thicker. A storm was brewing… Winds started to blow stronger and the chanting group started packing up their bags while their mouths were still moving. One of the elderly ladies was yelling at everyone to stay and finish their round of sutra chanting. Her yelling went on deaf ears… The chanting ladies left in small groups, they were running to catch a cab or the bus. Some members had brought their own scooters. The sky turned grey and started drizzling and the winds started blowing harder and harder… Thunder roared and lightning flashed. The golden draperies covering the makeshift ceremonial room were pushed around here and there by the wind. My relatives and I went around and tried to use pins to stitch these draperies together so they wouldn’t detach and fly away. The hung images of “Buddhas”, “Bodhisattvas” and Taoist deities were shaking around as if they would fly away at any moment… We tried to use bamboo poles to stick them close to the make-shift walls. Incense sticks and candles were extinguished by the blowing winds so we decided that it was safer to not rekindle these due to fire hazard. After we tried everything we could think of to prevent this make-shift funeral room from catching fire, burning and falling apart, we just sat and waited for the storm to pass. It rained for hours and hours, up until the good old Heavens were satisfied. Yes, the rain had finally stopped! And the cleanup process began… We had to use a bamboo pole to push out the water that had accumulated on top of the make-shift rain cover structure that the funeral organizers had previously set-up. If too much water accumulated there, the loose rain cover would collapse into the courtyard and flood…

            Around this time, family friend/cousin X came to visit with some ‘goodies’. It happened that, September 23rd, two days away from the final funeral on the 25th, was also the birthday of both my elder sister/cousin V and brother. Though we were all mourning grandma’s death, the ‘gang’ had also decided to perform a little birthday celebration for my brother and elder sister. No, no birthday cake involved, just a small celebration with wine and snacks.  I guess it was also an attempt to make the night vigil a little bit easier and less boring for the ‘young ones’…

            The group sat together on a round table placed in the square-shaped courtyard in front of the house. The snacks are taken out of their plastic containers and disposable chopsticks are being passed around. X had brought one of those bag-in-box wines, he was serving it into plastic cups and people were passing these around so everyone would get a cup. The “Gang” touched cups and wished the cousin and brother a “Happy Birthday”. “Ganbei!” Everyone raised their cups and drank the wine down. Then with our hungry chopsticks, we picked and chewed on duck tongues, chicken feet, fish cakes and tofu cakes. I munched on a few snacks, downed two cups of wine and decided to leave the party in order to continue the assigned tasks of ‘guarding’ grandma’s body and burning joss paper for her.

*

            I was experiencing a cocktail of feelings every time I burned this ‘heavenly’ money… This ‘heavenly’ money consisted of coarse yellow papers, thick gold-cardboards folded in the shape of antique Chinese gold ingots and ‘fake’ notes that were printed like US dollars, Euros and Renminbi… Haha…

burning house (1 of 2)
Burning joss paper

I keep thinking how this weird mixture of global worldly and heavenly currency is very specific to our town because it is estimated that more than fifty percent of its former residents have migrated abroad to the Americas, Africa or Europe… Once people have made enough money abroad (usually never enough), they return home to visit and burn it out. Sometimes for themselves, sometimes for their relatives…

            “Drink one more cup!” People on the table were challenging each other to drink more and more… Laughter and merry, old friendships were being re-ignited… More drinking and the ‘gang’ starts to get louder and louder… Nainai’s good old neighbour and friend W also decided to stay up for the night shift. No, she didn’t join the “young peoples’ party” but she decided to stick around and help the group perform the our night-shift duties. Many of the group members were drinking, eating and being merry at the time…

           Elder W came and sat next to me and we burned joss paper together. As we watched frail little paper fires burning and extinguishing, W shared how Nainai used to be like an elder sister to her and sometimes she would join grandma in her chanting journeys. “If someone in our village or nearby villages had passed away, and their families needed chanting services, grandma’s chanting group would go chant for them…”

            The ‘gang’ started to get louder and louder… W whispered to me to go and tell the group to make less noise because people were sleeping. I tried excusing myself by replying that since I was younger than most of them, they wouldn’t listen to me. I followed up on how it might actually be easier for her to do so because she was their elder… W decided to not do it either. We both just sat there and continued burning joss paper… As fires continued to kindle and extinguish, I wondered whether my uncles and aunts would get annoyed by the loud noises, decided to come downstairs and yell at the group to make less noise. No noises or lights turned on from upstairs…

            Elder sister C suddenly started to cry in a desperate tone, “Nainai, why did you leave us?!” Alcohol had started to take effect into peoples’ mind-bodies and repressed feelings started to come out… I had no idea that sister C was hiding all her sorrows under her lively smile and seemingly positive attitude towards life. Some members tried to comfort elder sister while others kept their eyes down in sadness because they were also experiencing deep grief… Elder sister continued to cry, scream and nobody was able to help her calm down… Meanwhile, some group members started to fall sleep in the couch while others were stuck in the bathroom vomiting. The elder W was rushing here and there trying to make some green tea and serve it to the group of intoxicated young people. I ran around and tried bringing some water bottles to the group. A cousin’s friend, who was still more-or-less sober, had suggested that honey water could help drunk people recover so elder W went on to make honey water for elder sister. Elder W gave some honey water to sister C. Sister C had a sip and then she walked towards grandma’s body in the cooling arc. C started crying in deep grief, “Nainai, why did you leave us?! I will miss you so much…” She continued to sob tears and snot. I was sitting next to her. Fearful and perplexed, I had no idea what to do… I tried to censor myself from saying anything in fear that whatever I would say might make her cry even more. Cousin continued to scream and cry… I finally decided to break out of my ‘protective shell’, open my mouth in an attempt to comfort her, “Elder sister, grandma went on to a better place. A place where there is no old-age, sickness and death. She is now in a much better place than us…”

            As I spoke, I was no longer caged by my own personal fears and insecurities, I just wanted elder sister to suffer less… To be honest, I have no idea where grandma is right now but I do believe that she is in a place where there is less suffering than what she had experienced going through the painful universal experiences of birth, old-age, sickness and death in addition to her personal experiences of poverty, patriarchy, political instability, hunger, wars and so much more… (As a counterbalance, I think grandma also experienced joy, loving-kindness and compassion towards family, friends and neighbours. Nainai held strong faith in the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and with it, she tried to practice to the best of her abilities…)

*

            Elder sister managed to calm down a bit and she stopped crying. The group set up a reclining chair for her to sit and rest. She fell asleep. I returned to the little chair placed next to grandma’s body in the cooling arc. Back to the task of sitting with grandma throughout the night…

            I burn a piece of joss paper. A flame rises and stops. I burn another piece of this yellow paper. Another flame rises and falls.  I start to burn slower and slower… Up until I stop trying to do something and I just sit. Simply sit. Thoughts of renunciation come. What a mess is this experience called “Life”… Death and merry in a burning house… All is burning1… I try to gently comfort ‘myself’… A kind voice sweet like a bird’s singing gently whispers, “It’s ok my dear. Relax. Breathe.” I suddenly remember Buddha’s teachings on Mindfulness of Breathing. In, out, in, Out

 

bird 2 smaller jie wu

1 Allusion to Buddha’s Fire Sutra. I first read from link http://cuckooscall.blogspot.com/2006/07/fire-sutra.html

Lisboa, Minha Amada

Dei uma grande volta

E estou de volta a ti

Lisboa,

Minha amada,

Mulher difícil tu és

Mas eu te amo como és

Aceitas-me de volta?

.

Abres-me a porta

Para o teu coração

Minha amada

Acolhes o cansado pássaro na tua mão

Por favor

Não me encarceres outra vez

Nessa tua gaiola dourada

Em que estive prisioneiro

Durante dias, meses e anos…

Sofri e sofri muito

De solidão,

Discriminação,

Um dia me davas atenção

Noutro soltavas uma gargalhada macabra

Na sombra do Outro vivia

Nessa gaiola tua

Sim deste-me comida, casa e sustento

Mas a Luz não chegava aí dentro…

.

Por isso quando vi a gaiola aberta

Escapei

Seguindo o canto de um cuco viajante

Atravessei mares, rios e vales

E cheguei a conhecer as tuas Irmãs

Falei sobre ti

Minha amada

És amada e odiada ao mesmo tempo

Pelo sofrimento que causaste

 Ao mundo

.

Sou pássaro Livre agora

Como as nuvens dançantes no Céu

Por favor

Não me encarceres

Nessa tua gaiola dourada

Minha amada não,

Respeita-me como sou

E eu conto-te as minhas viagens

Te cantarei o que eu sinto por ti

Mas quando for tempo

Voarei para os quatro cantos do Mundo

.

Aceita a minha Liberdade

Minha amada,

E juntos podemos ser felizes

Até essa próxima jornada

.

Esta é a vida de viajante

Escolhi e não escolhi

Desculpa

Mas eu aceito o que me foi dado

E tento fazer o melhor dele

Perdoa-me por não estar sempre para Ti

Mas no meu coração você está

Aí nesse altar secreto

Jaz o meu Amor por si

.

Lisboa

Cidade amada

Vestida de cores

Bronzeada do Sol

És caprichosa como a Lua

Teimosa como a maré

Vais e vens,

Em tristeza de fadista

Às vezes

És tímida,

Escondida por detrás das tuas

Irmãs europeias

Mas não tens nada a menos que elas

Só a mais…

Mas não fiques demasiada convencida

Amor

Tens de ter cuidado com essa tua atitude de superior

Sabes que ainda magoas as tuas Irmãs

Do Brasil, Angola, Moçambique, Cabo-Verde, Guiné, Guiné-Bissau,  São Tomé e Príncipe…

Por favor não continues com este

Ciclo vicioso

Colonial

Desconstrói a tua história

Memórias do passado

Sim tu e eu estamos manchados de sangue

Sofrimento que vamos levando

Vidas e vidas

Nos nossos barcos imundos

Até atravessar o tortuoso Oceano

Sim talvez devagarinho

Chegaremos lá,

Minha amada

Com Amor e Compaixão

Chegaremos lá sim

Eu acredito em si

Na sua humilde força

Um dia lá em cima estaremos

No altar do Mundo

Brilhantes como uma constelação

Tu e eu

Lado a lado

.

Com amor,

O teu pássaro viajante

I just came here to Smile

As I walked along a covered pathway towards COP 21’s “Les Spaces Générations Climat” (the visitor’s section for 2015 Paris climate negotiations), I stumbled upon a thin, middle-aged French man. He is about 1.75m tall, light brown hair and with a young gentle face. He greeted me with a gentle smile and said “Hello.” “Hello,” I replied. I extended him my hand, introduced myself and added a “nice to meet you.” “François,” he told me his name. “Where are you from?,” he asked. “Lisbon, you?”“I’m from Auvergne, central France. Why are you here at COP21?,” he kindly inquired. “I’m a writer and photographer and decided to come check out COP21. How about you?”

“I just came here to Smile.”

Stupefied, I paused for a few seconds.

My recently self-constructed ego as a writer and photographer was pierced and shattered into little, little pieces. Before I set out for Paris, I had convinced myself that I was going to become a writer and photographer. Yes this was my new identity – covered with layers and layers of illusions and delusions.

I was cleansed by this humble man.

I was humbled by this humble man.

My heart was pierced by this humble man.

As I tried gathering myself together, I replied, “That’s beautiful.”

As we continued walking the long pathway, he voiced out “Mother Earth is very happy that people are all gathering here looking for solutions.” My mind was still trying to resist, who is this guy? Is he crazy?

We entered the main gate and walked towards the security check area. I looked at him and noticed that he had come to this event barefoot. Past memories of India flashed in my mind, images of barefoot pilgrims heading to places of worship.

After seeing me noticing him being barefoot, he said “We humans have created such a hard environment for ourselves. Look at this floor, it’s so hard and uncomfortable. We can feel it when we are barefoot. When we walk the Earth’s soil, it’s so soft and welcoming.”

I nodded my head in agreement and smiled.

He walked in front of me towards the security checkpoint. I humbly followed behind him. As he passed through the security, I noticed him slowly strolling away. We didn’t even say bye to each other, I thought to myself. I notice the message at the back of his sweat-shirt. It says, “Je suis chez moi. Je suis arrivé.” Through my limited skills in French, I translated to myself, “I am at home. I have arrived.”

I finally Smile. Yes I hope that one day I will join you my friend…

 

 

There Is A Dragon By the River

Once upon a time, there was a boy named Xin. ‘Xin’ means Heart in Chinese but the boy only partly understood his name. Sometimes he was grateful for his name but most of the times, the boy thought ‘Xin’ to be such a silly name and blamed his Chinese ancestry for it. He would complain to himself, Why can’t I have a simple name like ‘Jai’ or even a Christian name like ‘John’? All options sounded better than ‘Xin’…

Xin thought himself to be Indian but Indians saw him as Chinese. Looks don’t lie, right? Xin had that Chinese looking face, his squinty eyes, flat nose, black hair and ‘fair’ skin colour…so he was Chinese although he was born and raised in India. Xin grew up playing cricket and football in Kolkata’s green Maidan, he grew up under the sight of the mighty Howrah Bridge and he grew up eating dal baath1 and biryani2 with his hands. Anyway looks don’t lie, right? A ‘Chinese’ is a Chinese and an ‘Indian’ is an Indian. Can you be both? ‘Hell no,’ most people would say.

Actually the only few ties that Xin has to China is the historical fact that his great-grandfather boarded a trade ship from his ancestral homeland in a village in south China to British India. Xin always had that inner desire to ask his great-grandfather ‘Why did you decide to come to India?’. Since his great-grandfather is already resting in a Chinese cemetery in the Hills3, Xin tried asking his grandparents all these questions about this mysterious land of China. And from what he could extract from his grandparents was that there were conflicts and famine in China and since he heard of money and jobs in India, he decided to give it a ‘shot’. A big ‘shot’ he took, crossing the sea in a trade ship from Guangdong to Calcutta…His great-grandfather’s original plan was to cross the sea in a trade ship, make some money, send some home and return to China as soon as he could. However that return trip never happened and somehow he fell in love, married a lady from Northeast India and settled down in the land of Ganga Ma.

During Xin’s great-grandfather’s life in India, the beautiful Ganga was still engaged to the powerful Brahmaputra. People, culture and trade actively flowed along their joined hair-like threads of life. This marriage had lasted for centuries and was sustained by small fishermen and trading boats travelling up and down these joined Rivers. Then European colonizers came and everything changed.  His great-grandfather arrived during the peak of the British Raj and ships cut through the channels between the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers carrying laborers, tea, silk, jute, cotton and opium. This marriage had become dark and all different kinds of transactions happened along its waters. Lies, cheating and domestic violence, this marriage was doomed to end. And it ended in 1947, what a painful, bloody and tearful separation…

These Rivers have now separated but maybe one day they are destined to reunite again. Once in a while, both Rivers still have flashbacks of their former union and their common source—the mighty Himalayas. These holy, sacred mountains that touch Heaven and separate the long-lost brothers of India and China.

Growing up in India, Xin wanted the smallest connection possible to China. He wanted to be considered Indian, not Chinese by others. Therefore, he had to act like an Indian not Chinese. However one day, after seeing a very old photo of his great-grandfather somewhere in the Himalayas, an inner urge sparked within Xin to go beyond these mountains and journey to China. From his heart, curiosity bursted and he started searching…Xin started wondering about his great-grandfather’s journey from China to India and how hard it was and the details of it. First he asked his grandfather, who was reading a Chinese newspaper published in India, this existential question: ‘Why? Why didn’t great-grandfather return to China? Why did he choose to stay here in India?’

His grandfather replied, ‘I wish I knew Xin, if I asked him that time, he would have given me a nice beating…’ He paused for a second while giving another glance at his newspaper. ‘Some people say love is a powerful force,’ added his grandfather with a laugh. Xin kept interrogating both his grandfather and grandmother about China and Chinese culture for these two topics were quite intriguing and fascinating to him. They tried to answer Xin as much as they could but sometimes they would be get annoyed by such an inquisitive child. ‘This boy keeps asking questions and questions…put him to work as a detective or investigator or something,’ his grandparents would say to Xin’s parents.

Oh how Xin enjoyed listening and asking questions about Chinese folk stories from his beloved grandparents! There was one story about mythical dragons who slumbered deep down the river and awakened every year to send rain upon the land. These water dragons were quite ill-tempered. Sometimes they would send no rain at all causing painful droughts and sometimes they would send too much rain bringing floods. Hence it was very necessary to appease these dragons with offerings. Every year in China, during the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, all kinds of offerings were made to these river dragons. One of the most important offerings were zong zi—glutinous rice stuffed with meat or sweet paste wrapped in bamboo leaves.

And there was another story about a wondering poet and exiled minister named Qu Yuan who who offered his body to the River after hearing the tragic news about the demise of his home Kingdom of Chu. Qu Yuan had warned the King and other ministers about a neighbour Kingdom’s false peace treaty but the King and other minister’s didn’t listen to him and exiled him instead. The poet and former minister wandered for years producing enduring poems that still touch the hearts of readers today. When the poet heard the news that his Kingdom of Chu had been conquered by the Kingdom of Qin, Qu Yuan decided to offer his life to the river as an act of protest. The fishermen and local villagers after hearing about Qu Yuan’s suicide, they took out their boats and searched for his body and while throwing zong zi into the river in hope that the fish would eat the zong zi instead of Qu Yuan’s body.

During school break, the boy tried telling these stories to his group of ‘friends’. Oh how he was laughed at and became the target of schoolyard jokes.

‘Xin, Xin, listen, yesterday I saw a dragon in the river.’ One of his ‘friends’ talked to Xin with a sneaky smile while making eye contact with the other boys.

‘Where, where?’ asked Xin very excited.

‘In your crazy head.’ Everyone bursted out laughing unscrupulously. ‘He’s such crazy boy. Leave him, let’s go watch a movie after school, the new Transformers movie is out.’

During school time, Xin would sketch all types of dragons in his notebook. He loved drawing and painting, he did have the innate talent for art but he was afraid to show it to others. One day, the gang snatched his precious notebook and showed it to everyone while laughing at his drawings to finally rip them apart.

How they ripped apart the boy’s paper heart into little shreds. Broken, the boy picked up his shredded pieces of heart and tried to assemble it back by the riverside where an ancient Portuguese church stood mighty like a fortress. By the river, the boy sat at one of the benches facing the beautiful riverscape.

The Riverscape

Sometimes he sobbed his broken heart out—even the passerby animals took pity on him. Wondering dogs, goats, birds and fish would stop and dwell next him, perhaps in an attempt to comfort him. Other times, he got jolted by sparks of inspiration and drew river dragons as he imagined them to be. And sometimes he prayed.  How he prayed to Lord Jesus Christ, the Buddha and other deities so that his ‘friends’ would stop bullying him. How he prayed that one day, he could catch a river dragon, ride it down the river and show everyone the Truth—that dragons really do exist!

These riverside pilgrimages became a daily routine for the boy.

‘Oh crazy boy! Where are you going? Are you going to cry like a baby by the river?’ The boy didn’t pay attention to the bullies’ taunts so everyday he continued his silent pilgrimages to the bench by the riverside. Time passed by. Days, weeks and months flowed by just like the Ganga rushing to join the sea.

The Bench By the River

One day, on a very sunny day, during the time of the year when the flower buds perform their stretching yogas to blossom into the world and little birds pitch their chirping to praise the beauty of Creation, the boy sat at the bench by the river. He was fully concentrated sketching river dragons. Suddenly he heard a soft, singing like voice next to him:

‘Ei ekati nadi dragana haya?’ (in Bengali) (Is this a river dragon?)

‘Ksama karem? Caca, mainne tumhem suna nahim tha.’(In Hindi) (Sorry? Uncle, I couldn’t hear you.)—replied the boy confused.

‘Is that a river dragon?’—asked the short, tanned, thin man with a short bush-like beard. He wore a yellowish white banian, a dhoti and was standing barefoot.  He must be one of these fishermen who work by the river, thought the boy.

‘Yes, how do you know about dragons sir?’

‘I’ve seen a few back in the days when I was your age.’

‘What? You’ve seen dragons?’, asked the boy really surprised.

‘Yes,’ replied the man like it was the most natural thing in the world.

‘My friends always tell me that dragons don’t exist. They say that I’m crazy for believing that dragons exist.’

‘If you have friends like these, who needs enemies?’

‘Hm you’re right about that,’ nodding his head with a pensive expression.

‘True friends are like very rare fish, it is very hard to catch these days. So don’t confuse the low quality fish latta with the rare fish hilsa.’

‘Yes, sometimes I do wonder if they really are my friends. They make my life miserable.’

‘Don’t worry, one day you will find the best fish in the world. Just make sure when you find it, you don’t let it slip away.’

‘Yes,’ nodded the boy in agreement.

‘Where did you see the river dragon uncle?’

‘Does it really matter where? I am telling you I’ve seen it.’

‘Then when did you see the river dragon uncle?’

‘Does it really matter when? I am telling you I’ve seen it.’

‘Ok, did other people also see that river dragon uncle?’

‘Does it really matter if others also saw the river dragon? I am telling you I’ve seen it.’

Perplexed by his vague answers, the boy stared into the river and reflected on the fisherman’s words for some time. The river was orange with brushstrokes of dark blue and green from the surrounding trees and the sun was slowly setting, ready for a peaceful nap. The birds were chirping, dragonflies circling and a gentle breeze was blowing like an old man smoking, very relaxed in his old arm-chair.

‘You’re right. It doesn’t really matter as long as you yourself experienced it.’

‘Can you take me to see the river dragon?’—asked the boy burning with excitement.

The fisherman looked at the boy—his eyes were shinning like the North Star on a dark cloudless night. Just like the times when he gazed at the sky’s divine Beauty while lying on his back in his boat dancing with the river in the by the rhythm of life. The fisherman reminisced for a moment and calmly replied, ‘Ok you come tomorrow around the same time with your sketchbook and we can prepare to go see the river dragon.’

The next day Xin rushed to go meet the fisherman. His heart was drumming with joy. In the same place by the river, the fisherman greeted him with a nod and said, ‘Before we start preparing for this journey to see the dragon, I am going to ask you a few questions. Hope you don’t mind.’

‘Sure, not at all,’ quickly replied the boy.

‘Do you really want to see the river dragon?’

‘Yes!’—replied Xin with a flash of certainty.

‘Aren’t you afraid to see the river dragon?’

The boy pauses for a few seconds and answers with a solid ‘No.’

‘How badly do you want to see the river dragon?’

‘I want to see it from the bottom of my heart!’

‘It seems like you do want to see the river dragon. Let’s get ready for the journey then.’

‘First we have to build a boat and then we sail down the river to find that dragon.’

‘What kind of boat are we building?’

‘A dragon boat!’

‘Oh a dragon boat. I still remember when my grandparents used to tell me stories about how my people—the Chinese used to build dragon boats and hold races during the Double Five Festival in honor of river dragons and the poet Qu Yuan.’

‘Yes! That’s the dragon boat I’m talking about. Now you draw me a dragon boat.’

‘But I can’t. I can draw river dragons but not a dragon boat.”

‘You should hear the words you are saying. Of course you can! Believe in yourself my friend. You can draw dragons, right? Just visualize it. Shape the dragon into the form of a boat. See my boat over there. You can take the shape and measurements from it.’

Fisherman's Boat

The boy examined the fisherman’s boat, noted down the specific shape and measurements from it and started drawing and filling it with colours. After some time, Xin finished sketching a dragon boat.

‘Beautiful! See, it wasn’t hard at all. It’s all in your mind. The biggest obstacles are not outside of you but all inside your mind. Break them free! Now take my dear boat, see those these buckets of paint over there and paint it just like the dragon boat you’ve sketched.’

‘But this is your boat? Don’t you need it for your fishing? I’m afraid of ruining your boat.’

‘Don’t worry about that. My boat, your boat, all the same. Anyway I need to change the looks of my old boat, it has gotten too boring.’

‘Thank you sir.’ The boy raised his concentration and transformed the fisherman’s boat to look like the dragon boat he visualized. Of course the traditional Chinese dragon boat is much longer and thinner in width but Xin had to work with what it was given by the fisherman. Xin worked for hours and hours on this boat and he only stopped after he completed his assigned task.

‘You took your time but not bad! The boat work is done, now we have to wait for the auspicious day of Double Five and we set sail into the river to see the dragon!’

‘Wait that’s actually in five days!’

‘Yes, go rest for five days and return here during Double Five Festival! On that day we are going see the river dragon! Also, you have to bring a set of Chinese drums and some zongzi. The drums will be used to awaken the dragon and the zongzi will be used as offerings to it. Are you going to remember this?’

‘Yes,’ replied the boy while noting everything down in his sketchbook.

‘Good. Now go and take some rest. Keep yourself healthy and see you in five days.’

These five days went by very slowly. The boy was very anxious and started to have streaks of heat and cold, insomnia, mood swings from worry to grief to fear, to anger and back to happiness and his body went completely out of balance. Sometimes his heart beat too fast, sometimes he felt there was something wrong with his liver or kidney or lungs or spleen. What a crazy five day journey! He was so happy that he came out alive after these five days of crazy change. It was now the day for the Double Five Festival.  Xin got his grandfather’s set of Chinese drums and some zong zi made by his mother to go meet the fisherman.

Xin left his home early so he slowly and joyfully walked to the riverside to meet the fisherman. He sang his old childhood songs along the way and he looked at his surroundings in a state of bliss and admiration of all the Beauty surrounding him. It seemed like life finally made sense. No more searching, no more striving, just Being in time. Once he reached the riverside, the fisherman was sitting under the shade of a banyan tree, very relaxed and taking a few puffs of a bindi while sitting under the shade of a tree.

Under the Tree

Gently the fisherman asked, ‘I hope you are feeling well.’

‘Now I am feeling great. Not so well for the last five days.’

‘I am glad you are feeling better,’ said the fisherman with a smile.

‘Are you ready for the dragon?’

‘I was born ready!’

‘Haha, good to hear!’

The boy and the fisherman worked together to push the boat through the mud into the river. At first Xin slipped a few times while pushing the boat but soon he got the hang of it. They got momentum from their joined force and used it to reach the river. Both of them got into the boat.

‘Sails up! Drums ready?’ exclaimed the fisherman.

‘Yes sir!’

‘It’s time to set sail! Forward we go!’ screamed the fisherman to encourage Xin.

‘Forward we go!’ repeated Xin, brimming confidence.

The fisherman and the boy sailed out into the river playing the Chinese drums out loud. Then they threw the zong zi into the river as offerings. The Chinese drums kept soaring higher and higher. They sailed down the river towards the sea. The drums kept soaring higher and higher.

All the people in the river bathing and doing puja in the ghats stopped and saw the happening, looking perplexed. Xin’s so called ‘friends’ saw it and became speechless…Suddenly they started cheering for Xin and the news soon spread across the town and people started flocking to the riverside. Xin’s parents and grandparents came to see, how proud they were. The boy’s community—the Indian Chinese came to see, how awed they were. Everyone from Chinese, Anglo-Indians, Bengalis, Gujaratis, Marwaris, Biharis, Punjabis, Rich, Poor, Literate, Illiterate, Old, Young, all kept exclaiming ‘There is a Dragon In the River!’

‘There is a Dragon In the River!’

‘There is a Dragon In the River!’

 

To be continued or not…

Notes:

dal baath1 A popular staple food dish in India, Nepal and Bangladesh consisting of steamed rice and lentil soup.

biryani2 A famous Indian mixed rice dish consisting of long-size rice cooked with spices, meat and/or vegetables.                                                                                                                                                                                                                           the Hills3 A local term used to refer hill stations such as Darjeeling and Kalimpong where tea is often cultivated and the Chinese used to worked in these plantations.

Flying Home

Home

Is a concept I struggle with

 

Where is home?

Sometimes I ask

Flying around the world

 

Is home

Lisbon?

An estuary city where the adventurous Tagus River

Meets the mysterious Atlantic Ocean

History recalls that seabound ships left

This city’s shore towards the four corners of the world

Some call it discovering new worlds

Others call it conquering,

Pillaging,

Raping,

Murdering and enslaving.

Whatever terms people decide to give

By the other side of the river

Lord Jesus Christ stands with arms wide open

Watching over

Who am I to judge?

I am just a little wave among all the waves

Hitting the shores of this coastal city

Where fishermen sail deep into the ocean

Praying to hopefully return to their families

With cartloads fresh fish

Oh that lightly charred sardine!

Oh the smell of roasted chestnuts

Tap-dancing in the hot oven

To the humble seller’s melodic chants

Nearby pigeons

Dance in circles their stylish pigeon-dance

Around the old smiling lady

Feeding corn and stale bread

Calmly

Each movement gently flowing

No rush to do anything

People sitting and chatting

In sunny esplanades

Drinking “cafés”

Laughing

And reminiscing the good old times…

I remember

From when I was still in elementary school

That unexplainable smell of warm spring rain

Gently touching the mud

Pregnant with the seeds of spring flowers

Waiting to blossom into the world

When rain fell

All the children would stop playing their usual games

Some seek cover, some not at all

And everyone would simply contemplate little raindrops

Falling from the sky

Into the open school ground

And when these short rain showers stopped

I would run with my best friends

Dig holes in the mud

And continue our glass bead game

Our circular beads

Clashing and departing

Only memories remain

 

Is home

Gantou?

A small village in south-east China

By the margins of Ou River

Where my kinship line is traced to

The ancestral tombs resting on bayberry covered hills

Calmly watching over the village and its descendants

Sometimes I wonder

If my ancestors are happy with all these changes happening:

From a small village to an industrial town

From small huts to tall buildings

From farms to factories

From cattle to cars

From streams to stench

Oh my childhood stream

Where I used to swim

It no longer flows

Standing still like a puddle of stenchy urine

Discharged by uncaring residents and factories

I remember I almost drowned playing in that stream

Fortunately I was saved from death

But how about the people slowly drowning in the polluted industrialized air?

How about the old people silently drowning in sorrow

For their past village memories no longer correspond to their present reality

Oh lonely elderly parents

Most of their children have migrated abroad

Filled up their pockets with foreign money

Some send back remittances

Some return to build big tall houses for their parents

Or for themselves to display and compete for social status

Their pockets might be full

Yet their roots are rotten

But who am I to judge?

I am just a little stream among many streams

Flowing trying to connect to the river of Life

Instead of judging others

I strive to clean up my own mind

And deeply dive into myself

Therefore I continue my search for home…

 

Is home

New York City?

Where I was born

Under the shadow of temple like skyscrapers

Spreading ideas and ideologies

Coded in images, sounds, products and services

Casting a web like illusive world

Where people flock like sheep

To this land of struggle and opportunity

Searching for the American dream

And once the ‘chosen’ ones finally reach this place

They are given a take it or leave it offer

Either take a bite of the American dream like everyone else does

Or go back to where you came from, loser

I wish I knew where I came from

So I’ll continue searching…

 

Is home

Ithaca?

A land of waterfalls and peaks

Rising and falling

Into its vineyard surrounded lakes

A hilly place this is

Where learning and un-learning occurs

Where conditioning and un-conditioning occurs

Depending on the seeker

A place where the bonds of friendship are tied and untied

Where the cold heart is tickled by the warmth of its downtown festivals

Where all kinds and types of people somehow gather together

To celebrate, dance, sing and eat

Crunchy apples, savory chilis, pad-thais, momos

And whatever dishes you can think of

Ithaca can be place of inspiration

Contemplation

And meditation

On its South hill

A Buddhist monastery

Stands majestic

Spreading dharma into the ten directions.

Hm I am still not settled yet so I’ll continue searching…

 

Is home

Kolkata?

A city in the land of Bengal, India

Where the Ganga flows though

To surrender herself to the divine Sea

Where the East meets West

Not so peacefully

Where everyday is a battleground

Of class, caste, race and ethnicity

Yet from chaos

Sometimes order ensues

After the traffic fog clears

The divine nature of things

Can be experienced by the river

Impermanence

When people bid farewell to their beloved ones

For no(body) lives on forever

Interdependence

When upper and lower castes all depend on the same river for survival

The Void

When the river fully absorbs and becomes the force acted upon it

 

It might be

That the concept of home is

Self-constructed by the Ego

 

It might be

That the concept of home is

Beyond the concept of space

Beyond the concept of time

And it is necessary to transcend these

 

It might be

That in order to transcend these

I need to clean up my sense of “I”

Wash off the mind’s dirt

Sweep the dust of cyclic existence

Clean up past karma

And purify all impurities

 

It might be

That home is a state of mind

Beyond consciousness

Or consciousness meeting consciousness

And exclaiming

Long time no see

It was about time my old friend

Welcome Home

Search no more

For you have finally arrived at your Destination.

How Can I Not?

Time has passed by

Like a gust of wind

A bird gets ready to fly

Oh so hard it is

To say goodbye

 

Oh attachments

To home and not-home

 

Is it still home?

Where the heart still longs

For something

Timeless

Long gone

Truth?

 

It might be

That this precious Truth

Is right here

Next to me

How painful it is

That I can’t see?

 

Some people

Call it Love

But I can’t feel it

Perhaps a little sprout

Deeply planted

In layers and layers

Of illusive existence

 

How can I accept an illusory role

Prescribed by a system

Engineered to keep me

A passive victim

That blindly and silently

Follows

What others are expecting

‘Me’

To do?

 

What is ‘Me’?

I am my mother

My father

Brothers and sisters

Ancestors

Creators of my kinship

I am more than my blood

I am the tree that I used to love

I am the river that I used to swim

I am the clouds that I used to dream

I am earth mother desperately crying for help

I am heavenly father who gave me a soul and guides me with Love

 

How can I accept

Seeing ‘me’

All my loved ones

Trapped in illusion

Delusion

Karmic sea of Suffering?

 

How can I not

Attempt to find a way out?

 

How can I not?

Build a boat

Search and wander in the sea

To finally find a ferryman

Who agrees

To take me to the other shore

 

Oh that sweet home

Where the heart longs no more

Where home is here

There

Everywhere

Nowhere

At the same time

 

If I do reach my destination

You will see

That you are ‘me’

Simply Free

 

You will realize

That indeed

You have agency

To build your own boat

Search and wander

Meet your ferryman

And see ‘me’

On the other shore

 

True Home this is

Where the heart longs no more.