Confucius said: “Without feelings of respect, what is there to distinguish men from beasts?”
The first weekend in April is Tomb Sweeping time or Qingming Festival in Taiwan and it has been for 2500 years. It takes place 15 days after the spring equinox and is usually around 4-6 April. Now 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. His siblings have all left Taiwan and he is not married as he cannot afford to keep a wife and care for his parents. Jay 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 get 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.
Back to the Tomb Sweeping Day. This is the weekend when children and grandchildren visit their parent’s homes and the whole clan go together to the cemeteries and gravesite of the departed 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 faces because there is no space to hold a mobile phone in front of you.
So my next 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. Where I usually 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.
On the Sunday afternoon I saw an old man washing and shining a big motorbike. I think it belongs to his child or even a grandchild. I can imagine the younger one having a nap upstairs before he hits the road back to the city where he lives. The father / grandfather showing his love and appreciation by cleaning this bike, and perhaps wishing he was still young and strong enough to ride a similar bike.
Another first was to see empty shelves in my local supermarket by the end of the weekend. I also realised I have become part of this community when I sat on the bus and see no familiar faces, just out-of-towners. I can now spot the city people. There was one lady who jumped up after every stop to look at the map on the side of the bus. Eventually I asked her where she was going and I was able to tell her how many stops to her destination. I was getting off before her. She was very surprised that this foreigner knew her way around here. What can I say, I don’t speak the language but it’s still home.
How do my fellow teachers celebrate this weekend? I asked several of my fellow teachers what they will be doing this weekend. Nancy said she and her family will go to the temple where the ashes of her grandparents are kept to pray. Joan said the men in her family will go to the gravesite to clean up and do the rituals. The women and the small children stay at home and prepare a great feast for when the men return. Jack said he will fly with all his family, a total of 22 people, to China to visit their grandfathers grave there. Aaron said as a Christian he is just relaxing at home. Shirley another Christian says she will be hiking in the mountains with a group from her church. Charles said he is not going to do anything special and no he is not going to clean any graves, for no other reason except that its not something his family does.
I just enjoyed the lovely springs days because, in my experience, after this weekend our rainy season starts. Oh and worked on my Japanese vocab. I live in Taiwan but I’m learning to speak Japanese? Yip, but thats a story for another day.