It happened 10 years ago at night in China. Another late shift had come to an end and it was time to go home. As I stepped out of the taxi, I was greeted with the most unusual music I had ever heard in my life. As if gripped by some unseen force, I was drawn into the dark, forbidden alleyway behind my apartment complex. Finally, I rounded the corner and stepped into the strangest little scene. An enormous bonfire lit the center and cast strobing shadows on the eight or so musicians that surrounded it. The flickering flames made their wrinkles deep and expressions dark. A spark from the bonfire floated aimlessly in the sky. The air was tense as sound poured from instruments and sweat-filled emotion closed in like a fog. It seemed the world could have ended and still the music wouldn’t stop. The crowd stood motionless as the band wielded their magic. We were powerless to resist. All we could do was watch with awe as they cast their musical spell.
One player raised his horn to the sky with a loud call as if crying out to heaven. The circle of solemn men played relentlessly with no end in sight. At times, it seemed they would stop, but instead only steadily ascended into the next climax. The music carried an undeniable undertow of urgency as if it were fighting death itself. Their sweat turned to steam as it rose into the cool night air, a symbol of the painful energy they poured into their music. The music seemed to rise up into the night, into the sky and into heaven itself! The feeling was overwhelming as the hypnotic music overflowed the senses. It seemed as much a part of this place as the mountains, so old, so ancient.
The combined sound of all these instruments gave the impression of some kind of traditional Hindu music. I could feel my heart speed up as if to catch up with the pace. Each man held a unique instrument such as the Erhu (二胡) – a two-stringed fiddle, Guanzi (管子) – a cylindrical double reed wind instrument made of hardwood, Dizi (笛子) – a transverse bamboo flute with buzzing membrane and another instrument that is almost impossible to describe. No one could clearly tell me what it was and I have never seen one since. It can only be described as a squashed clarinet with lots of keys on it. The music left me with a deep longing to be closer to these people, when all of the sudden it stopped and left nothing but a buzzing emptiness.
The urge to clap or maybe cry out appreciation for this little street band was almost overwhelming, but something stopped me… no one else had any intention of clapping. No one even broke a smile or attempted a nod of appreciation. No one reacted in any way. You could have heard a pin drop. In fact, most of the crowd was staring in my direction, which only added to my empty feeling!
I’m sure every foreigner knows this feeling. It’s something that is part of our everyday life and a constant reminder that we are not from around here. It’s something that all of us have to learn to cope with in one way or another.
“Time to go,” I thought as I backed away from the crowd and made my way home. The music had started again.
That night, with the music still buzzing in my head, I dreamed of a time long forgotten, a place only known in dreams. When I got up the next morning the music had stopped. Was it all a dream? I met a friend later that day and asked him what all the music was about. His answer shocked me.
“It was a traditional funeral,” he said offhandedly as my mouth dropped. “It’s been going on for a few days now.”
He began sipping his tea and almost choked when I told him of my intention to clap after the band finished playing.
“What!? It’s a good thing you didn’t,” he laughed with a hint of discomfort.
“What do you think would have happened?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he responded. “I’m just glad you got out of there without making a scene. It could have gotten ugly.”
“I might have become a permanent part of the funeral,” I agreed.
In Chinese culture, children try to make funerals as grand as they can, since it is regarded as a kind of expression of filial piety. This tradition is very common especially in rural areas of China. In Confucian thought, filial piety is one of the virtues to be held above all else, a respect for the parents and ancestors. To say it more simply, filial piety means to be good to one’s parents, to take care of one’s parents, to engage in good conduct not just towards parents but also outside the home to bring a good name to one’s parents and ancestors. When an older person passes away, people think it’s a kind of happy ending if they go without suffering any pain or misery.
Even before this experience, I had adopted the rule of observing others before taking action. This philosophy has worked for me ever since. I almost always use this rule when crossing the street. I usually wait for someone else to begin crossing and I walk beside them. I guess you could say I use them as a kind of human shield. On shopping excursions I like to listen to the prices quoted to other customers before I show any interest in buying. In this way I can know something about the “local” price. Another trick is to find restaurants with a lot of customers. You can usually assume a restaurant is good if there are no empty tables. It’s a good idea to observe what others are eating. If others look happy eating it, it must be good.
I’m sure many of us have lost count of the abnormal events and random slips that occur in everyday life. On any given day we might feel any number of emotions or possibly several in one moment. Either way one thing is for sure, China is one of the most interesting places on this planet. I wouldn’t change a thing! Okay… Maybe I would get rid of the smelly tofu.