Saturday, October 05, 2013

The Housewarming

"Burn the golden money first" my mother-in-law instructed, as my sister-in-law, Hiuming, and her fiance, Winston, set up the mini-furnace near the mahjong table-cum-sacrificial altar that they'd placed on the balcony of their new home. It was their house-warming, but one that entailed far more customs than you'd usually associate with a western housewarming party with beer and pizza. They had money to burn, literally. Fortunately the money was fake.
When I arrived they were just arranging the table on the balcony: two apples, three cups of tea, four bowls of noodles and five cups of rice wine, and of course a chicken. This was in accordance with Maoming tradition (which my Qingyuan in-laws had a lot of trouble adapting to). These foods were for the ancestors, the chopsticks were oriented for floating visitors, and so was the "money" that was about to be burnt. The mini-furnace wasn't really designed for the winds that were on the 14th floor. And as would be expected, shortly after flaming ashes blew through the living room in mini-whirlwinds, igniting and extinguishing their way past the coffee table, where tea happened to be being served. I scrambled to the kitchen to grab a broom. "You can't use brooms!" I was instructed by the cooks. Apparently you can't clean the house at all until the first three days are up. It's bad luck. So we stamped the flames and collected a few ashes with tissues instead.
Even for a seasoned China expat like myself the proceedings still had a lot to notice and learn. Maoming tradition is quite strict. The family of the people moving in have to leave the lights on for three days, and all meals in those three days must be spent at the house. There were the little things, too: Mattresses were all raised on the first day; All new furniture had red paper stuck to them; and lanterns were placed in every room alight; even the time when you can first enter the house is regulated, and you need to wait for a particular time to enter.
After talking to my other half, I realise that I just haven't seen the Qingyuan ritual yet. The ritual for the family home was apparently even more elaborate and, being in the countryside rather than the city, had all the bells and whistles. This part of life, though, is dying. Very few people under the age of forty would do them without the insistence of the elders in the family. I remember back to my first Chinese New Year at my former student's place and I was astonished that they would put a furnace in the stairwell of an apartment building (but it's commonsense in China).

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