Monday, September 3, 2012

The China Diaries: Who's Your Caterer?

Coming home from work one night, my roommate and I noticed a tent being set up on the sidewalk opposite our house. This, in and of itself, was not unusual. The Chinese approach to zoning laws and permits is noticeably lax in comparison with any Western country, and I get the impression you can put whatever you want up wherever and whenever you'd like.

The next morning, I could hear celebratory music coming up from around the tent. Mitchell and I looked out, and it was full of people. I've lived in China for a year, and, despite having bought a camera explicitly for the purposes of taking pictures in China, I haven't taken all that many. I don't find that much to photograph in Xi'an, which is equal parts failing on my part and on the part of the city. This seemed to provide the perfect opportunity to take some. I threw on an undershirt and some shorts, popped on my flip-flops, and went with Mitchell to look around.

It looked like a wonderful party. There were around 35 people sitting at tables, eating some lovely food (Photos of said food can be found at the bottom of the post). Everyone was chatting and having a good time. Being so obviously foreign in a country is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you have the occasional xenophobe, but on the other, much more full hand, you do get granted a sort of celebrity status. We often get stares when we go places, and we're always offered drinks by Chinese people, held in sway by our pale brilliance.

And this was *before* we got close enough to be in their way.
It gives you liberties, is the thing. We walked into a celebration we didn't know anything about, were allowed to walk around taking pictures of the people and their food, and generally be in the way, without raising much more than an "Oh, those crazy foreigners, at it again." And since this festival looked pretty open, we decided to order some food. There was a dish with green peppers and chicken that looked particularly good. To the left, you can see it in mid-wok.

They didn't blink an eye, and within a few moments they had scrounged up three stools for us to use, one as a table and two for the typical use, and served us. The good was delicious. They tried to give us beer, but it was a work day, so we bought some sodas from the convenience store.

About two minutes after we started eating, a young man came up to us and asked, in English, if there was anything he could help us with. We smiled and said that everything was wonderful, but he didn't walk away. After a few seconds, he said, "You are eating our lunch."

"Oh, is this your lunch?"

"Um, yes," he said. "This is my grandfather's funeral."

Well, then. This all seems... chipper.

We apologized, telling him we had no idea it was a funeral. "We heard this wonderful, happy music and saw all these people, and decided to come check it out. Then all the food looked so good and everyone was having such a good time, and when we ordered they didn't act like it was a problem or anything." It's very difficult, trying to apologize profusely while simultaneously continuing to eat the food. I addressed this by letting Mitchell do the apologising while I did the eating.

It's hard to say if he was offended, ultimately. He told us about some aspects of Chinese culture, that funerals in China are a happy affair when the person has lived a long life, and he told us about the black band he was wearing. To be fair to us, most of the people weren't wearing black bands; I would have noticed that and worked out that we were funeral crashing. I did an excellent job, while he talked about the band, of not saying "Oh! Yes! That's how the Pandas got their black spots! I learned about that in grade school!" I was proud of my discretion.

I compared the crowd of people at this celebration to the people at my own grandfather's funeral. The West is known for having a particularly dour relationship with death. We don't go into mourning for forty days, or anything so extreme as that, but we certainly do tend to focus on the negative aspects. Instead of celebrating what has been achieved, we tend to be sad just to be sad. And that's normal enough. It's even healthy. I love a good cry as much as the next girl. But I think the Chinese might be on to something here. I may not ask that my funeral be held in a tent, but, God damnit, there's going to be some good food.

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