Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Dead in The Middle Kingdom

It would seem to an outside observer that the people of China revere their dead. They have a "grave sweeping" holiday where relatives show up once a year and put fresh flowers on their ancestors' graves. Many families will have a black and white photo of a recently (or not so recently) deceased loved one propped up in a prominent place in the house with prayers in calligraphy along side it, as well as some fruit and incense. So how is it that while I was living there, I saw more ignored dead bodies lying around in roadways? I have to say, I had never actually seen a fresh dead body before I went to China. In America, bodies are quickly covered, either by a witness or passerby out of respect, until the police arrive. Not in China--at times it becomes a form of entertainment.

I personally deal with death not so well. I remember going to a funeral with my mother when I was a wee lad, about four I think. From my vantage point all I could see was the tip of a nose over the top of the big dark casket. Since I had no idea what death was, nor why everyone was looking at a big wooden box with a nose on the top, I began to fidget and got uncomfortable with the whole thing. See, everyone was adult and there were several and they of course all had on black, and nobody was smiling and everyone was very quite. I asked my mom rather loudly "Why is there a nose on top of that box?" She simply shushed me. I didn't stop. I began to panic. I kept asking, even louder why everyone was looking at a nose, and why just a nose. She promptly took me home and returned without me. She had to explain all this to me years later. I had no memory of it, but after she began explaining what happened I told her I did recall the "nose on the box", but had no idea where the memory came from or why. Then years later my grandfather died, who I adored, and it disturbed me to see him in that same type of box, nose and all. Now I refuse to go to funerals. I go only to wakes. If someone thinks I am disrespectful, so be it. Fortunately or unfortunately for me, I was out of the country when my parents died. It may seem terrible to say, but I am glad, because I am not sure I could have gone to their funerals.

The first dead body I saw in China was while on a bus leaving the school I worked for that was in the countryside. I had only been in that country for three weeks so everything was still shock-a-minute no matter what I did. The bus slowed down and someone tapped me and pointed out the window. There on the side of the road lay a woman, a dead woman and nobody around her. There were some people on the opposite side of the road, but it looked as if she were there for some time. The blood near her head had turned black and was dry from my vantage point. Nothing to cordon off her corpse either; it was just there, half in the road and half  in the ditch. I was stunned to say the least.

Then it happened again not four months later; I remember this well because the first one had been in December and my birthday is in April, and this was April, so easy peazy to recall the time frame. Me and a girlfriend had just crossed a four lane side street to go to a restaurant on the other side. The entire time we ate we never heard anything or noticed any commotion outside. We couldn't have been in the place more than 30-40 minutes. We actually had some business at the local police station--I had to register with them because I had just moved into their jurisdiction, a requirement for all foreigners (though I only did it once and moved multiple times; most don't bother). We had just left the police station while they processed my ID so we were only three blocks from a police station. When we left and went to cross the same street as before, there in front of us was a small van with a bump on its hood and 12 feet away a dead body. In the street. About a dozen people stood nearby on the sidewalk, looking at it. It obviously happened within the time we had been eating, and it was also obvious that it had not just happened in the last few minutes. Yet no police or emergency services of any kind, although one was obviously very close. We walked on down to the police station and my girlfriend told them about it. They had no idea. Nobody had called. And everyone in China has a mobile phone (more on that later). She very nearly blew up at the attending officer because he made no effort to inquire more, just looked at us as if we were a distraction. Absolutely nothing was going on  there. I saw about six policemen, smoking, joking and doing nothing. No paperwork, just hanging out like it was a clubhouse or a cafe.

The next body I saw was very unnerving because it occurred near girlfriend's apartment building, but I don't guess I can count this one because there were people doing something with the body. This one ranks as one of the "strange and unusual things" I witnessed while living in the Middle Kingdom. I had just left my apartment and was walking to my girlfriend's place. It was only half a block away and I was excited to see her. I had gotten off work early, and we had only been dating about a month so we were looking forward to a great day. As I rounded the corner to where her complex was I was facing a long concrete stair case to a neighboring building. I heard a commotion from above so I looked up. Coming down the stairs three men and an old woman in a rattan chair. Two of the men were carrying the chair in front, while one held up the back. The old woman's head rolled back and forth across the back of the chair. She looked like she weighed 80 lbs. And she was quite obviously dead. There was no urgency in their manner. In fact, right in front of me, they all stopped, sat down the chair, and took a break. Once guy looked at me and said in Chinese "old mother, dead." I started to say in Chinese míng míng (obviously) but stopped myself. At times the Chinese can be so blatant about things it begins to rub off on you. Then after an awkward moment, I said  Dùi bù qĭ  (sorry). As I walked toward my girlfriend's building, I stopped and looked back; they had picked the chair back up and were just rounding the corner. I thought "what will other people think when they see this?" and then just as quickly I realized that nobody would even notice. Why should they? It's just another dead body.

When I arrived at her apartment, my girlfriend said "what's wrong?". I guess I wore some beleaguered look on my face because I simply said, "oh, nothing--just had a 'China moment", which she knew was my term for seeing something totally bizarre, so of course she prodded me into telling her. Her response was "we have 1.6 billion people dear, we can't be concerned about everyone." Good answer. Practical. If nothing else, the Chinese can be practical when the rest of the western world won't.

Her and I eventually moved into our own apartment, replete with an enclosed courtyard. I still think of that place. We had our first and only Christmas there and her first--ever. One Saturday while I was home on the computer and she was at work, I heard some loud whaling and screaming through the walls. We were on the ground floor and the wall behind our bedroom opened into a stairwell. That is where the sounds seemed to come from. At first I thought it was a fight, then I realized someone was upset and other people were trying to calm someone down. Behind the building was a narrow access way, open the outside, with a series of sheds for residents to store things. I looked out the bedroom window in the direction of these storage sheds because I could hear that the commotion had gone outside. I saw two policemen with three or four civilians shuffling around arguing and pointing further down the access way, then they all went back inside and the noise stopped.

Not sure what it was about, I went back to surfing the Internet. Curiosity got the best of me though and I went outside to our courtyard and walked to the back of our unit where I could get a better view of the access way. An iron fence stood between our courtyard and the access, so I could see through the bars. I saw something at the far end but it was drizzling outside and I didn't make it out at first. Then with horror I realized I was seeing a slim human body hanging by the neck from the roof of one of the storage units! It appeared to be a thin middle aged Chinese woman. I went inside and got my camera and came back and debated whether or not I should take the picture. I resolved to do so, took a few pics, then went back inside and called my girlfriend. This time she had a bigger reaction--remember, this is our second shared dead body moment--she said she would be home right away. Not sure why I told her OK and hung up.

Turns out she used the dead woman as an excuse to get off work early; she told her boss she knew the woman and her family! Of course she didn't, but hey, I probably would have done the same thing if I had to work on the weekend.

And finally, the last dead body wasn't a body at all, but a British friend of mine who died while in the hospital. He, like so many expats found love in China. Unfortunately he wasn't really of the right mind to handle rejection and his girl rejected him in the most awful way possible. He went into a favorite watering hole and there she was, on the arm of a portly Austrian guy, laughing. When she saw him, she pulled him over and said "This is Rolph! He is my sweetheart!". Not my friend mind you, but the hun! My friend replied "What do you mean 'my sweetheart?" She went on to explain that her and her model Arian had been together for a long time and that he (my friend) had simply been a distraction while Rolph was out of the country.

Now to be fair, the Austrian was a friend of mine long before I had met, well "my friend"--OK, his name is also Michael, so I didn't want to confuse things. Rolph is a very generous guy and often invited me to go drinking. He and several other Austrians and Germans would regularly have cookouts in the back of the very pub Michael got rejected in. So this whole thing was somewhat uncomfortable for me. I knew the girl was nothing but a hump monkey, but it wasn't my place to say anything. Michael began drinking very heavily, a full bottle of whisky every two days. I mean he would drink one half one day, the other half the next. Eventually he ended up in the hospital for cirrhosis of the liver and I thought he was doing OK; he was released after 10 days and he quit drinking for a while, then he went back to his old habit and was hospitalized yet again. I had heard from him on a Thursday; had asked me to get his laptop from another friend who had borrowed it. On Saturday I was walking to a cafe where I knew this other guy was so I could ask him about the computer. Just outside the place a taxi slammed on its brakes and yet another friend named Christopher leaped out and hollered "Mike! Have you heard? Michael died last night!" Then he got back in the cab and sped off. I stood there a moment, not really sure how to take this terrible news. I finally walked into the cafe, went over to the couches where the guy with Michael's laptop sat, with the laptop and I sat down, stunned. He looked at me and said "What's wrong?" I very nearly said "Oh, just had a 'China moment". I looked him squarely in the eyes and said "I guess you just inherited a computer". He wasn't sure by what I meant so I sighed, leaned back and told him. Now it was his turn to be silent and stunned.

So much death in China, on a regular basis. So much so that everyone becomes numb to it all. I know I did. About six months later I saw yet another accident victim laying in the road. I was on my cell phone while sitting on a bus, nearly identical to the first body I had seen so long ago. I glanced away and continued my conversation, never once pausing or telling the other person. Just another dead body in China.

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