Funeral by Jamie Wang
Born in Shanghai, Jamie Wang is an Australian writer currently living in Hong Kong. She holds a master’s degree in business and worked in the field of business analysis before embarking on a writing journey to fulfil her long time passion for literature. As well as writing literary fiction, Jamie creates local art gallery press releases and does volunteering work. She is a member of the Hong Kong Writers Circle. Jamie is currently working on fiction and nonfiction stories and studying literature and arts part time.
My grandfather passed away. He was 85. Died in peace. During his lifetime, he had five children; they all got married, and in turn had seven grandchildren. Sixteen of us, no matter where we were living in the world, all came back to Shanghai on weekend to see him the very last time.
The funeral was scheduled on Sunday, 4 days after my grandfather passed away. I had already been to the wake that my aunty set up. We made the paper money. We burned the incense. We stayed up for 3 days and nights to make sure the white candles at the altar did not go out.
The day my uncle arrived in Shanghai was clear and rainless. I looked through the window and saw him and my cousin get out of the taxi. He insisted on us not picking them up from the airport and went straight to our place after checking in to the hotel.
Tea was served. My mother apologized for not brewing it from fresh green tea leaves. It was almost the end of the year and new tea would be only ready in spring. My uncle sat in the middle of the couch, his arms folded, eyes red and swollen. My cousin was next to him. He grew up so fast. His body looked young and his muscles tightened under the shirt whenever he moved. The last time I saw him was years ago when I was on holiday in Hawaii. We had so much fun. I still have the photo of him snorkeling with all the fish nibbling his butt. I took it while I kept throwing bread to him from the boat. I was disappointed he did not make my wedding a few months ago. He had just started his first job after graduating from Berkeley.
“What happened to Pa?” My uncle sipped the tea and asked, his voice dreary and almost impersonal.
“Father was admitted into the hospital last Saturday; he was stable at first.” My mother went on telling how bad things then followed, how she had rushed to the hospital, how she had seen my grandfather the last time, how my father had cleaned my grandfather’s body. How she had held her grief to inform the relevant people. She would have repeated this so many times, the string of tears fell from her cheek to hands but she just kept talking. I wanted to stop this torture but I was not allowed to. It was her duty; the eldest, to report to the son that everything was properly done while he was away.
“I am the eldest, so I should pay for the biggest portion.”
“I am the eldest, so I shouldn’t let my sisters take the blame.”
She said this to my father and me so often that we got tired.
Sometimes I grew impatient and talked back. “So what, you take all the responsibilities and no one appreciated it. They only came when they needed help.”
This weekend she was not the eldest, as my uncle was there. He was the fourth of the siblings and the only son. My cousin was the son of him, which makes him the grandson. We else were just the third generation, as we did not bear the last name of Zhu.
“Ma, Jay kept talking about Yabuli, apparently Club Med built a new ski resort there. You must know that place right, somewhere in Heilongjiang?” My new husband was a huge snowboarding fan. He chased after the snow instead of sun. I asked my mother because she was sent there when she was 15.
“I had to go. It was the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Chairman Mao didn’t want us to study. He wanted us to go to the countryside to be farmers and learn from them.”
“Why did it have to be you?”
“I am the eldest, if I didn’t go, your aunts and uncle had to. I couldn’t let this happen.”
“Your mother got lucky,” every now and then some aunts would say this to me. “She went to Heilongjiang and got chosen to go to the army university. Then she became a lecturer and got sent to America. Not like us, we stayed in Shanghai, only graduated from high school then went to the factory and got laid off at 40.”
I smiled to them and nodded. I was a good niece.
“It was so cold there, the furthest part of China and bordered with Russia. Most of the time was negative 20 degrees,” my mother always opened her story with the extreme weather condition and geographical remoteness of the place. “If you lick a metal spoon outside the room. It would get stuck and hurt like hell when you tried to take it off.”
“What did you do there?”
“Everything, so long as it was deemed hard that we city people could benefit from doing it. We worked as farmers, as builders, or as anything Chairman Mao set his mind on. There were so many times I had to jump into the dirtiest water up to my waist to clean up the linen even when I got my period.”
“That’s gross.” I frowned, “What did you eat?”
“Potatoes. Stewed potatoes, stir fry potatoes, steamed potatoes, potato wedges, potato chips, whole potatoes, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes. Sometimes we had pork dumplings. Rarely, but that was the best. On those nights, the boys would play chess with the cooks and we girls would sneak into the kitchen to steal as many dumplings as we could, freeze them for the next few months.”
“But I never forgot studying. I smuggled books whenever I could. Oh boy, I could have got into big trouble if they saw the book underneath the red book of Mao.” My mother always finished the story as a good role model.
“Your mum was only 15,” my grandmother told me when I went to her to verify the details of the story, “I still remember the day I sent her to the train station. Your grandfather and I were heartbroken to see our little girl off to that place, so bitter and far away. She stayed there for four years.”
She is the eldest.
And he is the son.
She needed to report to him how they had tried their best to look after the old father after the son moved to America 17 years ago.
She needed to take the blame if the son was not happy with his sisters.
She needed to take the scolding from her younger sisters if they didn’t think
she defended them enough.
I sat at the other side of the room, watching.
A girl, an only child, an outsider.
I was the apple of my uncle’s eyes as he brought me up. But I was not allowed to participate in the discussion even though I was the eldest grandchild and I was 32. My little cousin was there, palms on his knee and silent. I wanted to take him away, cover his ears. He was tired, just had 16 hours flying and had to fly back in 3 days. He was too young to be involved. But I was not allowed to. He was the son of the only son. That qualified him.
The tea was getting cold and so was I. I almost forgot how cold Shanghai was in the middle of the winter. I had left so long, came back so little that some old friends of my grandfather no longer recognized me.
But I remembered. Once I was here, my body would carry me of its own accord, sit, talk and eat the way I was supposed to sit, talk and eat.
Deep fried Chinese doughnuts and sweetened soymilk. Jay opened his eyes wide when he saw me swallowing these down without a fuss.
“Guess someone is not allergic to deep fried food and white sugar anymore,” he said this to himself giving me a wink.
Or perhaps I hadn’t changed, perhaps this was the real me with my roots.
No one can be exempt from their birth place. Not even my cousin, who left Shanghai at a tender age of five
The funeral started.
“Let us share five of our favorite stories of our father,” said my uncle. “I’ll share mine first. When I was born, my father got a call from the hospital notifying him the news. He didn’t ask if my mother was okay, he just asked was it a boy or a girl? Once he heard the baby was a boy he left work immediately, went to the shop, bought a pram, and went to the hospital. This had never happened to any of my elder sisters and would not happen to my younger sister later when she was born.”
My mother was crying, the eldest. She told her story; the loving father magically multiplied the dumplings in her bowl by eating none himself.
My aunts were crying, the sisters. They told their stories. A kind father picked up his daughter from the work place every day for years until she married because she finished work after midnight. Later she was picked up by the husband.
Then another story plus another story.
Bow three times.
On your knees, bow three times.
The last prayer, bow another three times.
My mother stood there in black with a white flower in her hair, looked even smaller than the rest. She was the eldest, but the shortest among all the siblings, 160 cm as opposed to average 170 of all my aunts. Zhu’s family were very proud of their height.
“It must be because we sent her to that god damn place when she was still growing.” My grandmother always said this whenever someone mocked my mother’s height.
“Does he have any grandsons?” asked the officer from the funeral place.
I was silent, along with another 5 of us. We knew he was not asking about us.
“I am.” My cousin raised his hand.
“Well, you need to hammer the last nail to seal the coffin.”
The coffin was dark red, solid wood.
“Well, you need to take the picture of your grandfather and lead the procession.”
Here we were, 16 of us, the son, the eldest, the sisters, the third generation along with the others, following the grandson to walk the last part of the journey of my grandfather.
The funeral was over.
The ceremony would then last 49 days. The prayers would be sung by the monks in the temple every seven days. I was secretly glad that Jay and my cousin would have left by then. Their nostrils were not used to the smell of the burning incense. They sneezed crazily after staying in the room for a while.
The echoes of their sneezes were immediately swallowed by this city. The city of the grandfather. The city of the eldest. The city of the son. The city of the family.”