Thursday, June 5, 2014

How Fast?

A little after noon, I was wrapping up my computer time when a siren wailed through the housing area. That’s unusual. Hardly does one ever hear a siren in greater Wuhan, and never in our little enclave. As the sound echoed through the neighborhood, growing progressively louder I thought with some irritation that it might be someone who has outfitted his/her car with that overly loud warning in order to gain advantage in traffic. After all, it is not uncommon to hear the whoop of a police alarm coming from a non-police vehicle, and buses have dangerously loud horns. As the din continued unabated I went to the kitchen window to see what was going on. To my surprise an ambulance, lights flashing, was negotiating its way out of the complex. As it was lunchtime, there were quite a few people afoot and cars were parked haphazardly around the cafeteria, almost choking the narrow lane. The siren meant to alert people leaving the cafeteria to make way.

“Well, there’s a first!” I thought, hoping that nobody’s elderly parent or small child had suffered grievous injury. And then I thought no more about it. That was 2 weeks ago.

Today we had the semester’s final English competition. I was honored to judge, along with David, Sam, Gwyn and Kyra. The event comprised of four teams of 5. They were to role play a script they had written themselves, and then answer questions put to them by the judges. The third segment - translation had little to do with me, so I had time to chat a bit with my colleagues once they reviewed their portions of translated text. We broached two decidedly different topics.

“Did you hear what happened in the housing area a few weeks ago?” David asked me. Immediately curious, I pumped him for details. Apparently a man had plunged to his death. Two schools of thought about it: 1. he jumped off the roof because was inconsolable after his latest romance hit the rocks and 2. mechanically inclined, he hoisted himself out of his 6th story window to repair his air conditioner mounted on the side of the building, tethering himself only with a thin length of twine. He slipped, the twine gave and he plunged. Either way it was not a pretty picture and David, having arrived home just in time to see the body plummet was in shock. He was first on the scene and could attest that the man was still alive, but he could do nothing for him.

David went on to tell me of the nightmares he’s had since, and that he no longer goes alone to the roof to hang his clothes to dry. He is extra cautious of his young son when the boy heads for the balcony. He also graphically described the man’s appearance after the fall, a visual I could have done without.

Now that ambulance makes sense. 

Almost as an afterthought David said the man died in the hospital 3 hours later. That nugget and something else that happened during this competition is the topic of this entry.

These days, most girls are wearing shorts. In itself that is not spectacular; plenty of girls around here wear shorts. Usually with tights or hose underneath, and mostly in the winter. Except for this year. This is the first year I’ve seen more than a handful of young women actually bare flesh. In fact, nearly every female student at competition today revealed a generous display of thigh, either wearing short shorts (not ‘Daisy Duke’ short, but close) or mini dresses. Only a couple of the more traditional girls wore modest, knee length skirts or capris.

Are you wondering what the connection is between a man plummeting to his death and girls showing off legs… besides the obvious: that the man fell because he was looking at the girls and not paying attention to what he was doing? That’s not the connection, but these two phenomena are linked. 

First, the girls:

Tradition dictates that white, smooth skin is the hallmark of beauty in China. Women will go to great lengths to avoid exposure to the sun, including riding a scooter or on a bus with a parasol unfurled, sitting over the bus’s hot engine cowling and even standing rather than sit on the sunny side of the bus. They wear longer dresses or the aforementioned shorts-and-tights combination. Arms can be bare because they are mostly shaded by their umbrella.

There is no good way to shield one’s exposed legs from the sun: parasols do not cast a large pool of shade. In fact, I have noticed fewer open umbrellas on sunny days. The first year I was here I had to duck under an ongoing canopy of umbrellas or risk putting my eye out with one of them. I recall the little dears that walked on tippy-toe so they could stretch their arms up to shield me under their umbrella. These days, not so much. Does this mean that people are abandoning the traditional standard of beauty?

I asked my colleagues. Gwyn averred she still stood by tradition and bemoaned the fact that, even with umbrella unfurled and long skirts aswirl, she was still ‘dark’. David and Sam thought society should move with the times. ‘Let the girls wear shorts!’ they proclaimed, somewhat lecherously (bet they thought Gwyn and I didn’t notice the ‘lecherously’ part, but we did).

And now, the other take-off from tradition.

Since the man plunged to his death, there has been no change in the housing area. People still go out for walks, women still dance by the pond. Children carouse, babies cry, teens play basketball. Life is going on. There seems to be no deference and no reverence with regard our neighbor’s death. No memorial, no funeral procession, no fire crackers. And that’s weird.

The Chinese are overwhelmingly superstitious, especially when it comes to the dead, spirits and the afterworld. Without a proper sendoff, this man’s spirit might come back to haunt the housing area. Without lighting fire crackers to ward off his possibly angry spirit, our entire complex could be at risk. Yet, nothing has changed.  

I’m not joking about death rites or superstition. A few years back I wrote about a nearly completed building being razed in Shanghai because a worker had fallen and died onsite (see Strange Superstitions, Odd Suppositions entry, posted December 2011). I read in just a few days ago that senior citizens in a certain province are committing suicide so that they might be buried according to tradition before the new law calling for cremation of bodies takes effect on June 1st. (You can read about it here:

Ancestor worship and proper send off for the dead are an integral part of this society. Currently there is outrage among rural dwellers that have been told their ancestors will be dug up from their family land and reburied in a sanctioned cemetery. It is believed that the buried ancestors will bring providence to the family lands, and when their spirit returns for a visit there is no sense of dislocation because their body is buried at ‘home’.

With all of this attention to death and burial, why was our unfortunate neighbor’s passing not treated with proper ceremony?

If there had been some sort of rite, would females have shown up ‘half clad’, and in full exposure of the sun?

Just how fast is China changing???     

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