Friday, September 30, 2011

Eldest Sister's Tragedy (1)

In the wee hours of November 13 that same year, we got a frantic phone call from one of Yuni’s sisters. Eldest Sister and her husband had been in an accident in the mountains. Eldest Brother-in-law and his own elder brother and their two cousins were dead. Eldest Sister had been buried alive, but she was screaming so loud, bystanders heard her and dug her out. She had had surgery and was hanging on by a thread in a hospital in Hsinchu. She was going to be in the hospital for an extended stay, and we were needed to help out.

Yuni took the phone call, and afterwards he was numb. He was in between jobs, and he had been preparing to go down to California to do some stonework for the church publishing company there. He was just sitting in a stupor, but I managed to get him to call to make arrangements to postpone the job so that he could come with us to Taiwan and stay through the funeral. At least this trip we did not need to borrow money for the plane tickets.

We got our plane reservations and hauled out the suitcases. We were going to leave in less than thirty-six hours. I did laundry and got many things packed, when I noticed that Yuni had not moved for several hours. The children were quite worried. Finally, I persuaded him to take us to a park and to go for a walk. As we were driving to the park, Yuni began talking about Eldest Brother-in-law. Eldest Brother-in-law had been Pa’s first apprentice. He had come to live with the Lius when he was 15, after he had finished junior high. He was three years older than Yuni, and the two of them had shared a room. Yuni called him Elder Brother for the first five or six years of their relationship until Eldest Brother-in-law married Eldest Sister. Eldest Brother-in-law had given Yuni his Vespa scooter and his 35mm camera. He had been so good to him.

Yuni began telling me about Eldest Brother-in-law’s family. Eldest Brother-in-law was the second son. His family had decided that he would work from the time he was of high school age so that his brother could take lessons for the university entrance exam. He supported his elder brother through medical school. The brother who died with him was a doctor, who had lived in Taipei. Even though Eldest Brother-in-law had been sacrificed for his three brothers’ education, none of his brothers or his parents appreciated him. He was despised for being a laborer, even though he had had no choice in the matter. Yuni was very bitter about this because it meant that Elder Sister suffered in their household. Her mother-in-law was always finding fault with her. For many years after their marriage, Eldest Brother-in-law and Eldest Sister lived in the Liu household; their first two children were born while they were living with Pa and Ma. They lived with Ma and Pa so that Eldest Brother-in-law could save money to give to his family to meet his parents’ demands, but his parents refused to give him any support.

After telling his stories as we walked in a park with paths along a marsh and ducks and fall weather, Yuni seemed to be doing better. The girls could get through to him, and he began to play with them. We went out for dinner that night, and then we went home. I packed the freshly laundered clothes while Yuni and the girls watched TV. I also called my ESL students to take time off from teaching them. Everyone was quite understanding.

We left early in the morning of the second day after receiving the phone call. We arrived in Taiwan on November 17. Pa got us at the airport. Ma was at home waiting for us. She had been sitting in vigil by Eldest Sister’s bed 24 hours a day since the accident. Eldest Sister had awakened, and she was conscious, but very weak. Ma had wanted me to be called back so that I could cook for Pa while Ma was in the hospital. One of the sisters was at the house cooking, and she pulled Yuni aside. She told Yuni that Ma’s ulcers were bleeding again with her worry; she asked if I could stay in the hospital and let Ma stay home with our girls and Pa. They could come down every couple of days to visit. The four other sisters had been rotating time in the hospital with Ma and Eldest Sister, but they needed to work and take care of their families. At that moment, I was quite glad we were doing homeschool. We took an immediate holiday for as long as we needed, even though I had brought some of the books and had been planning to do school in Taiwan.

We had a shower and a meal, and I packed one of our carry-on bags with what I would need in the hospital. Eldest Sister was in a large ward room when we arrived. She had two or three other roommates. She slept a lot almost every day, as she was in extreme pain and on medication. The three youngest sisters were together in the hospital with her. Yuni, Pa, and Ma left me with my sisters-in-law while they took my girls out shopping to get me food and other supplies for the hospital. I needed my own pillow and blanket. Yuni also called some friends from church to let them know that I was there and to arrange for people to visit me from the church group in Hsinchu. It turned out that a friend of his from Taipei had been the overseer on the hospital renovation project. When he heard of the problem, he paid us a personal visit that very night. Eldest Sister was immediately moved to a private room with a cot for me (at no extra charge) because he brought the head of the hospital with him on his visit. Personal attention from the director of the hospital made an immediate difference in the care given to Eldest Sister. She had some residual problems despite the surgery. She had been complaining for over a day, but people were ignoring her. When she told the head of the hospital, the orthopedic surgeon was called, and arrangements were made for further treatments. It made a huge difference.

 Finally, Pa, Ma, Yuni, my children, and my other sisters-in-law headed back to Chungli. Eldest Sister-in-law and I settled in for her recuperation. I was there for seven weeks, and some very interesting things happened over that time period. (More about that later.) Suffice to say that Eldest Sister had been buried under rubble from a landslide in the mountains. Her stomach and other internal organs had ruptured, but since she was conscious in the emergency room until she went into the operating room, the surgeon decided to try sewing her up. He had done a painstaking job, and it seemed to be working. In addition to the injuries to internal organs, Eldest Sister’s pelvis had been broken in two or three places. The orthopedic surgeon had done his best to fix that, but he said we would not know until after six weeks when the bones had had time to grow back together. In the meantime, he used some traction and other physical therapy to keep Eldest Sister’s back in line and to strengthen her muscles. After everyone was gone and Eldest Sister had had her evening meds, I pulled out my cot, made it up with the sheets and blankets from home, and fell into an exhausted slumber. I had no problem with jet lag that trip.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

An American Funeral

After we returned from Taiwan, we repaid the money we had borrowed for our plane tickets to the funeral. Then we got Yuni a general contractor’s license by using the leftover money to put up the bond required by the state. Yuni was able to take big jobs and buy at the wholesale rate, so his business began to pick up. Word went around the Chinese community, and he began to get jobs repairing driveways, retiling bathrooms, remodeling kitchens, and laying tile floors.

We had been home a month when my dad’s mother-in-law passed away. The kids had been close to G-gma, and so we went to the funeral. This was a no casket memorial service. The family chipped in to purchase a memorial bench in a large park in Bellevue. It was set on a grassy hillside among several clusters of trees. The memorial service was for family and close friends only. It was held at the bench. We sat on the bench and on folding chairs in a circle. We read some poems, sang some songs, and then we all shared memories of G-gma. Everyone, even the kids spoke if they wanted. In the end, we sat in silence with our memories. The kids got bored and began running and laughing and playing on the grass. They were wearing dresses with bright flowers on black backgrounds. The dresses didn’t show the grass stains, but their white tights were completely ruined. It was a nice, sunny day, and we all came away with happy memories.

Not long after the funeral, my dad and his wife went to Bali for a six-week trip. Yuni was working six days a week. The girls and I did our school lessons in the mornings, and we went on “field trips” several afternoons a week.

We had bought the girls a guinea pig after we returned from our trip to the East Coast. We all worked to care for her. “Snuggles” was a gentle animal, and they loved to play with her in the TV room. One day when we went to a petting farm for a field trip, the docent showed us a stray angora rabbit that had been left with them. The girls fell in love, and we came home from the trip with “Fluffy” the rabbit in a cardboard box. We quickly bought a cage and kept him just outside the back door. Fluffy and Snuggie became great friends. They would walk around the back yard on sunny days and play together in the TV room. When leaves got caught in Fluffy’s fur, Snuggie would come close and groom him.

Almost two weeks before my dad was scheduled to return home, I received a call from his wife. She was quite distraught and at their condo moving out. My dad’s second marriage was over. This news hit Yuni very hard. It came out that my dad had another woman, and he had asked his wife to leave. Because the marriage had been quite short-lived, his second wife was not going to get anything in the divorce settlement. That fact made it even harder for Yuni to accept.

He kept asking me how a college professor and administrator, a scholar, could be such a poor pattern to his progeny. I asked him what he meant. He said that wealthy, upper-class scholars were supposed to be more moral than average people. Education was supposed to make people moral. It was supposed to make them superior to the working classes. They were supposed to be the moral and ethical compass of their families. He asked again and again why my father would set that kind of pattern for his children and grandchildren. It seemed as though he felt betrayed.

I was at a loss to know what to say. I knew that Confucian morality requires teachers to be exemplary and that Chinese culture places emphasis on morality. Parents and teachers are supposed to be a moral pattern to their children and students. But my dad is an American; he doesn’t think like that. I tried to make Yuni see that he could not place his Chinese expectations on my dad, but he refused to accept that idea. He said that I was able to live by Chinese norms. I told him that I had studied the language and culture, so I knew what to expect. He would not accept that notion.

Then he would go into a tirade about the immorality of not supporting a cast-off wife. He would get very incoherent in these tirades, but I think part of it was related to what was happening with Elder Sister in Taiwan. The social nuances went far beyond what I had learned in Chinese classes, but eventually I understood that if a wife leaves a husband, she takes her gold and the clothes on her back. She is entitled to nothing more unless her natal family can show injury to her, and her father and brothers negotiate a separation settlement. Usually, however, the natal family is embarrassed and might even cut her off as well. If the husband casts off a wife, especially a wife who has borne him children or cared for his elderly parents, then he is expected to provide her a substantial sum. The ideal situation is that he would maintain both women in two separate households.  Yuni talked about a man in the village where he grew up who kept his wife with her children in a house at one end of the village street and his mistress with her children in a house at the other end. He was the hero of all the men and boys in town because both families were well-dressed, well-fed, and well-housed. We had a friend in Taipei whose father had run off with a mistress, abandoning his wife and children. The paternal grandparents had disowned their son and supported the faithful wife and her children with his share of the family property.

I tried to explain US divorce laws, but Yuni’s mind was mired in his traditions. He could not and would not accept the notion that a man and a woman could dissolve a marriage so easily, especially when the woman wanted to continue in the relationship. Men did not cast off old loves unless they were well-provided for. I think Yuni’s thinking came from the Chinese concept of marriage as a business and economic relationship rather than a love relationship. Because Dad’s second wife had spent much time and effort caring for my grandparents, Yuni felt that she deserved a handsome parting settlement, at the very least. When my father failed to provide that, Yuni lost respect for him and for all Americans. He had been disappointed by America in so many ways, and I guess this was the final straw. His emotions about Elder Sister’s situation bled into his reactions to the end of my dad’s marriage, too. The combination of all these factors made Yuni very unhappy for quite a long time.  

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Hakka Funeral, Part 3: The Seventh Seven

During the afternoon on the day of the funeral, all Grandma Chu’s gold and other belongings were divvied up among her children. Each daughter got a piece of gold jewelry and a funeral photograph as a remembrance. Daughters-in-law and granddaughters-in-law got larger pieces of jewelry based on how much time they had spent caring for Grandma during her final illness. The Maternal Uncles divided the rest of the gold and all the money among themselves. Because Yuni and I had taken Grandma Chu to the US and Taiwan, we got gold rings by which to remember her. In addition, the uncles came up to Yuni singly throughout the day, and each asked him in private how much our plane tickets had cost.

We went back home to Chungli that night, and we stayed in Taiwan for about three weeks. We visited the Paternal Uncles a few days after the funeral. We also took the kids to see their aunts and to play with cousins. All of Yuni’s sisters were married now, and most of them were either pregnant or had just given birth recently. There were tons of babies in the family now. When my sisters-in-law visited, I was kept quite busy cooking for everyone, although now that they were married and understood how tiring it is to cook for large crowds all day, every day, my sisters-in-law would squeeze into the kitchen and work together with me. We had some great times.

During our time at home, each of the maternal uncles came to visit to thank us for showing our filial piety at the funeral. They would invariably take Yuni into one of the bedrooms for an “important discussion” during which they would give him money to help defray our travel expenses. Pa also gave us money because he gained great face when his son returned from America with the entire family in tow. Eldest Sister contributed quite a bit as well. In the end, we came away with enough to cover the plane tickets and to set Yuni up with the bond for a general contractor’s license when we got back to the States. He kept pointing out to me how much better Chinese families were than American families because they gave money with no strings attached. He had wanted my aunt and father to lend him money to start up his contracting business, but they wanted a business plan and an IOU note in writing. Yuni was totally offended at the idea of family members needing to put financial matters into writing. I did not know what to say because I felt that his family was rewarding us for filial piety, so we had met their conditions for lending or giving money ahead of time. The face gained by the family was worth quite a bit, especially since distant relatives and neighbors had been laying bets that Pa and Ma had lost their eldest son to America. We silenced the ugly rumors and gave Pa and Ma ammunition to use back at people. In the end, I just let Yuni vent and agreed that his family was extremely generous to us.

Much of the time during family visits was spent catching up on the latest gossip. With all the cousins and siblings and their children, there were literally hundreds of people about whom we could gossip. One of the saddest pieces of news was the Eldest Sister’s husband had decided to set up a mistress in a separate household in order to try for a second son. The mistress was still pregnant, and Eldest Sister was worried that if the child was a boy, her husband would abandon her and her children. She said that he was already bringing home less money than usual and was always yelling at her when she presented him with bills. She had stopped working in order to devote herself to her son, and she insisted that her husband keep up the payments on her house and everything in it. Traditional Chinese culture allows men to keep several women, but the first wife is supposed to maintain her position, and her finances are not supposed to be affected by any of the mistresses. Of course, it doesn’t always work that way, but the women go passive-aggressive and make sure the man pays absolutely all the bills. If they earn pin money on the side, they hide it in case they get turned out in favor of the new love. Yuni was quite distressed to hear that his beloved Elder Sister was in such a miserable situation. The greatest indignation in the family was due to the loss of financial support to Elder Sister and her five children. Elder-Brother-in-Law had had numerous affairs prior to this, but he had never set up a mistress in her own household. That was a real slap in the face to Elder Sister and to the entire Liu family, especially since Pa had been Elder-Brother-in-Law’s master teacher in masonry. Without Pa’s help, Elder-Brother-in-Law would not have been able to earn such a good living.

A day or two before we left to return to the US, we all went back to Third Maternal Uncle’s home to participate in the 7th Seven ceremony. Beginning the seventh day after Grandma Chu’s death, the family had made special sacrifices and hired a Daoist priest to perform rituals to help her soul pass on to the spirit world. These rituals were held weekly for seven weeks after the death and then sacrifices were to be made annually on Grandma Chu’s death day. The 7th Seven was an extra-special ceremony, as it was the last event of the funeral proceedings. We all gathered around dusk (the propitious hour) in Third Maternal Uncle’s large front room. It had been completely emptied of furniture, and reed mats were spread on the floor. We all dressed in blacks and whites again, although the girls were finally allowed to wear their blue and white polka-dot dresses. The uncles, their wives, and children all knelt on the mats facing the door while the Daoist priest chanted and waved his incense and fan in front of them. He had bells that he rang at different points during his ritual, and he also had the curved wooden divining blocks that people throw in temples to cast their fortune. A boiled whole chicken, a bowl of rice, some wine, and a pile of fruit and candies were laid out on a table just inside the door. After about thirty minutes of prayer and ritual, during which the uncles wept loudly, the priest asked all of Grandma Chu’s children and grandchildren to call her to come eat. They shouted, the priest dropped the blocks, and the blocks both fell curved side up. That meant Grandma’s spirit had not come. The process was repeated about ten times. The uncles were quite desperate and began beating their breasts and crying even more loudly.

Ma and I were standing at the back with my children; I asked her why they were so upset. She said that the blocks had not been one up, one down yet for all of the seven ceremonies. That meant that Grandma Chu’s spirit had not returned to visit her children, and the uncles were afraid they had angered their mother with their lack of filial piety. I reminded Ma that Grandma Chu had converted to Christianity prior to her death. I had heard of cases where the Daoist rituals didn’t work in half Christian families. Finally, in the very end, the Daoist priest kicked the blocks as they were bouncing and got them to the one up, one down position. The Maternal Uncles were relieved, and the ceremony was over. We all went into the back kitchen/dining room area for a huge feast spread out on four big tables. While we were eating, Ma reminded her brothers about what the youngest grandson had seen, the vision of Grandma Chu being carried to heaven by two men in white just after her death. Ma told them that if Grandma Chu was in heaven with Jesus, the Daoist priest would not have been able to reach her, but they could be assured that she was happy. This made them all very relieved, and the poor boy was called to the Uncles’ table to repeat what he had seen and be quizzed about all the details. When we finally finished eating, Ma and Pa, Yuni and our children and I hurried back to Chungli so that we could get up early to pack and get things ready for our trip home.