Confucius said:  The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home.

5 April is Tomb Sweeping Day in Taiwan and it has been for 2500 years. Its a public holiday too, to remember the death of Chiang Kai-Shek in 1975.

In Taiwan filial piety is an important virtue. Respect for your parents, elders and ancestors is a beautiful characteristic of the Taiwanese culture. My personal experience of this was when a boy in the Grade 6 class was called out by my fellow teacher, sent out of the class to go and brush his teeth and mouth, and on his return was made to apologise to me. I accepted his apology and later asked the teacher to explain all of that. She said he had said my name in a disrespectful way while talking about me in the class. 

That incident I applaud but then when a fellow teacher, about 40 years old, tells me about his current problem with his mother, then I frown. His English name is Jay. He told me he has to find a way to sneak a tropical fish tank into his bedroom without his parents seeing it. His mother has forbidden him to keep pets because when he brought a dog home she had to take care of it, the same with the kitten. Now he wants to keep fish and knowing his parents never go into his bedroom he can do it “under the radar” but to get through the living room to his bedroom with all the stuff is the problem. 

Here is another one: This teachers English name is Candy. She is 35 years old. Her older sister left Taiwan soon after finishing her university degree. Candy has no choice but to stay and take care of her parents although they are financially independent and healthy. During the week Candy teaches at a school about 300 km from her parents home. Every weekend she spends at their home which she talks about as “my home”. And here is the part I do not get: her father regularly gets very drunk and he beats her and her mom on such occasions. When I ask her why she puts herself in harms way by spending weekends there she says “Its our culture to be there for our parents”. To be there as a punching bag? I would handle the situation differently but thats me.

These cases, I’m sure, are not the norm. Two teachers, one females, one male who both live in the dorm where I live have different tales to tell (from what I observe). These two teachers are both in their 30’s. She holds a very high position at her school. Every Sunday afternoon at 3pm her father’s red car rolls to a stop in front of her unit. She and her mom hop out, taking the bags they brought along into the unit while father turns the car around. The parents spend about 20 minutes with her and then they leave again. The male teacher is new at the school and on the day before school started for the new semester he arrived at the dorm with both his parents. While his mother went into his dorm and started cleaning up  and probably unpacking his bags, the teacher went into the communal laundry and cleaned that (even through I did clean it just two days before). The father was moving between the two cleaners and helping as well.  After making sure their boy is well settled and has everything he needed at hand, they left.

Back to the Tomb Sweeping Day. This is the weekend when children and grandchildren visit their parents homes and the whole clan go together to the cemeteries and gravesite of the departed and ancestors. The graves and area around it is cleaned up. Then fresh flowers are placed there. Incense and joss-paper is burnt, and food, tea, wine and chopsticks are left at the gravesite too.  When this activity is completed the clan gather at the parents home and celebrate being together very much like in the west we would celebrate big family gatherings like at Christmas time and Thanksgiving. Families also go on outings to the many beautiful places around Taiwan. 

My first Tomb Sweeping long weekend in Taiwan was also the last time I travelled over a long weekend in Taiwan. I cannot describe to you the amount of people moving around in this country. You will think I exaggerate grossly but believe me its scary. On one occasion I was running out of trains (having let a few pass because they were so full) and I just had to board this one to get to my destination over such a weekend. The doors opened and I squeezed into it. The people were not moving to make space for me, because they could not, they were so tightly packed in. I was really panicking because I was sure my backpack was going to get squashed when the doors closed. All was ok eventually. At times like these you do not think of train accidents but then again, I do not think anyone would actually get hurt because nobody can get flung around they are so tightly packed in. Its also the time when you can see faces because there is no space to hold a mobile phone in front of you. 

So my second Tomb Sweeping weekend was very different as I stayed in my village. I went on my usual walks and at the homes where I usually only see  one or two scooters parked there were now very smart SUV’s and other expensive cars parked. At homes where I greet elderly people sitting outside their homes, I now find younger people chatting in groups and bored teenagers, faces glued to mobile phones. The absence of the elderly people tell me they are in the kitchens preparing food. Another first was to see the empty shelves in my local supermarket by the end of that weekend.   

I’m sure all the Taiwanese had a good weekend and are looking forward to next year.

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