My first Chinese New Year experience was not what I was expecting. Of course, before I married into a Chinese family, all I knew of the Chinese New Year tradition was what I had seen in movies or books. My first experience was quite different and what a surprise I had when I found myself so conflicted, with many mixed emotions.
Chinese New Year is celebrated in China as one of the most sacred holiday of the year. It follows the Lunar calendar and has no fixed date like Christmas or the Western New Year celebration, but it usually happens somewhere between the end of January and mid-February. The Chinese people then get two weeks off and one can see the importance of the holiday by experiencing ghost cities that are usually vibrant the rest of the year, like the well-known metropolis of Shanghai. During that time, people would do anything to go back to their hometown to be with their families and participate in their traditions well-anchored in their roots. But why?
As we also migrated back to my husband’s hometown, I was expecting the movie version of the holiday — parades, colors, dragons, loud music, lots of fireworks, firecrackers and lanterns. The holiday became more exhausting than I thought.
Between the family meetings, red envelopes and gift giving, we performed two sets of rituals to honor our ancestors. As I bowed three times to my husband’s ancestors in front of a red and golden table of food offerings, I realized that the deaths had most likely more importance in the celebration than the living.
Right after performing the home ceremony and eating lunch with the omnipresent predecessors, we found ourselves heading to my husband’s family cemetery, for my father-in-law’s side. When I asked my husband, I was told that the wives and the male descendants all belonged to the men’s family, which was why we were not visiting my mother-in-law’s family cemetery. She did not belong there since marriage. It shocked me that this was still in practice and surprised me even more when my husband told me that the ground was opened twice, a tombstone carved twice, and spouses were always cremated and in the end, put in the same hole together. I was told that this was our fate as well. To be reunited after death, with our ashes trapped six feet under.
I had never thought about what I wanted after death. In Western countries we had the choice to buy plots to be next to our loved ones, as well as coffins and urns. Now that the choice of what to do with my body after I die slipped away from me, I found myself on the defensive and told my husband that it would never happen, that I would not want to be buried there. The reply he gave overwhelmed me: “You better hope to die after me, or I’ll put you in that hole”. We were at a standstill. As every member of his family listened to my outburst, astonished, I wondered if he meant it or if it was just a misunderstanding between our two cultures.
So, as a rational human being, I tried to understand the meaning behind the practice. My husband and his parents’ anger gave me time to wander around and I found myself in one of the three family mausoleums.
Inside, countless square areas were on each wall with pictures of spouses and a ton of papers inside them. At first sight, it was much neglected, but little did I know that it was full of meaning.
Since I was learning Chinese but not fluent at all, I fetched my husband who had gladly wanted to help me understand. He told me that the story of each ancestor was written inside these papers, and that each life, each spouse and every struggle was being remembered. It was an enormous detailed genealogy, which was not made into a single book yet, for future generations to consult. I was told that spouses were buried together so they would never be apart and would find each other in the afterlife. They would be honored together and remembered together.
In his family, death is not the end of marriage. It is an endless commitment and for the ashes to stay close leads to a way for the spouses’ love to last forever.
In our case, my husband wanted our names carved on a tombstone for our descendants to know that he married a foreigner, but also for our future generation to understand where their genes came from if they ever gave birth to a blond or blue eyed baby. Our story would be told. It would remain alive. If you can be found, there is proof of your existence. If you existed, you can never be forgotten.
Today, instead of arguing about making choices for our death, I choose to focus on life. I do not know when oblivion will strike, but I choose to let our children decide what to do with us once we depart. And who knows? Maybe they will choose to break tradition and put us on top of their fireplace.