Thursday, September 6, 2007

The snowflakes of summer

Editors note: Over the past year I have tried hard to keep material published on these pages focused on 56572. Tonight I did not want to leave a sour grapes headline at the top of the page overnight. I told myself that the next intriguing thing that came across my screen was going to be published. This story has little to do with 56572. For that I apologize. I have visited China six times and have a burning fascination with the Chinese. If you are curious, start by reading Bill Holm's Coming Home Crazy or either book or any article by Peter Hessler. I stole this photo from the web album of a Dutch friend who visited China in 2005. Every week another friend, this one in Detroit Lakes, forwards stories about the Chinese written by her friend who is teaching the mentally disabled there. I found tonight's installment especially poetic and am sharing it here.

"The moon was an ongoing theme this week. For many it was the chance to see a lunar eclipse that caught people's imagination. For many others it was a full moon and time once again to burn paper money to any family member that have passed on. This week was not the official ghost day where EVERYONE burns paper money. Instead this was simply the anniversary of a death..... And with the historically hottest time of the year being the middle of August, there just seem to be a number of such anniversaries at the end of August. This week alone there were at least five black tents in my neighborhood. When someone has died there is a time of mourning where all the family and friends come to the home. Since most homes are very small, all of the visitors get to sit under a black tent/tarp sort of thing that is erected near the front door of the apartment building. In the apartment there is usually a large photo of the deceased, with incense and candles burning throughout the time of mourning. Offerings of favorite foods also surround the photo. Paper flower arrangements surround the black tent. Each has lucky slogan written on black ribbon. At the end of the mourning period these paper flowers will be burned and "sent" into the other world along with the deceased. Many families also have other paper items to send along with their loved one. In my neighborhood I saw four paper mache horses (typically given to men) and one paper mache cow (typically given to women) and three paper hand carts that someone would ride inside of back inthe ancient days. All of these paper mache items are brightly colored and are covered with tissue paper similar to a piƱata. On the day of mourning very early their immediate family dresses in white. All this paper stuff is collected into a truck to be taken to a place outside of the city to be burned. Also in the truck are the deceased person's ashes which will also be left outside of town (although I have had mixed information about if they are scattered or placed in a spot that is marked by the family). Following the truck is a busload of family members. They usually head out at 6 or 7 in the morning. Firecrackers exploding to scare away any evil spirits that might be following the family. White paper "coins" that look a bit like snowflakes cut out of paper are being tossed out of the window to distract any greedy spirits are following the family. So in this hottest part of the year as many of us were looking up to see the lunar eclipse the breeze was kicking up a few "summer snowflakes" that either the greedy spirits or the sweeping ladies had managed to miss.

The student of the week is Yin Xiao Hui and the rest of the students of the vocational training class. Yin has been with our program for about 3 years now and is progressing in both her personal/social skills as well as the work skills. This week was the beginning of work on this year's Christmas cards. So, as people all over Tianjin were cutting paper "snowflake" money.
Our students were cutting the new designs out of a white snow motif. With a few weeks of training YXH will be able to do her part in the card making process independently and receive a portion of salary for her work. As she becomes more and more independent, her salary becomes larger. So, what are YXH's goals? To make enough money to be able to help her parents. To be married. To have a family. These are all difficult issues for any mentally disabled person in any country, but YXH is making strides towards being closer to each of these dreams. As for this week, she managed to see a lunar eclipse.... helped her family remember her grandmother by burning paper money..... and is well on her way to learning how to make this years cards."

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