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.   


Cloudia said...

What a privilege you have to enjoy this unique participation!

You are THE person to mediate between East & West-

Warm Aloha from Waikiki;

Comfort Spiral

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Teresa said...

Not sure that I am THE person. I am one person, and it takes everyone to be open to different ways and different folks.