Saturday, January 29, 2011

a funeral

As a church staff member, I have had the unfortunate opportunity to attend a number of funerals in Hong Kong. Each situation has been unique, based on the different circumstances of the family members, but there are several common characteristics I have noted through these experiences.

On a Friday evening, I make my way to a street lined with funeral parlors—large, imposing buildings with dull grey exteriors. Hole-in-the-wall shops are clustered along the edges of the neighborhood streets, each selling fresh flowers, caskets or the paper effigies used in these settings. Curbs and sidewalks are littered with the remains of mourning: crushed flower petals, dried leaves, a bit of ribbon or paper, discarded tissue and incense scraps. Groups of male employees huddle in the cold on the steps of the building, smoking and stretching their legs.

Most of these funeral parlor buildings consist of a lobby with one or two inadequate lifts, and several floors lined with small rooms reserved for a particular family. One step through the doorway and I am hit with the noise of talkative crowds, jarring music and the smoky haze of burning incense. A funeral home in the West might offer a calm oasis of dim lighting, discreet New Age music, and muted whispers among family members. Here, it is a cacophony of obnoxious sound, overwhelming odors, and bright lights.

After a short ride up a rickety elevator, I step into a hallway filled with people. Lines between faiths are instantly visible: Christian mourners dress in solid black clothing, while Buddhists are clothed in white from head to toe. Sprinkled in are a few shaven monks wearing habits of burgundy or mustard brown. At the doorway of each room, there is a reception table; guests sign their name to a book and receive a white packet, the contents of which include a tissue, a coin, and a piece of candy. In the case of Christian funerals, the white packet may have a cross and/or scripture verse printed on the front.

Inside the rectangular room, the walls are lined with tall flower arrangements, each labeled with prominent signs indicating who gave the bouquet. An altar of sorts sits at the front of the room, on which is situated a large photo of the deceased, flowers, candles, and—in the case of a non-Christian family—burning incense. Sometimes the family is seated on the left, and guests are asked to walk forward and bow three times toward the altar and the family. This “wake” may take the form of a Western visitation or viewing, or it may be an actual funeral service. Often the body is present, but visitors must walk behind a partition to view it. Apart from the organized service, these occasions are typically loud—family members and friends freely chat together despite interruptions from the presiding announcer, who counts to three into a microphone each time a guest arrives to pay respect to the family and the deceased.

The clamor and din from rooms next door disrupts all thoughtful conversation. For devout Buddhists, it is necessary to play piercing, haunting music and make loud clanging noises—ostensibly to scare away the ghosts. I’m still unclear on the exact significance of these elements, but the cacophony of what sounds like a toddler banging on pots and pans, with the added element of tear-inducing incense leaves me feeling unsettled and agitated. I’m ready to leave the moment I arrive.

I depart, passing along hallways lined with massive paper or cardboard structures: a child-sized mansion, a miniature luxury car, a stack of fake cash, a symbolic bridge and a cluster of paper dolls. These things can be purchased and burned for the deceased to enjoy in the afterlife. Found in any other setting—a shopping mall or an amusement park, for example—they would be interesting to study and photograph. Here, however, they carry the weight of hopelessness and meaninglessness. I turn away in disgust and hurry out.

The next morning, perhaps, I arrive at a crematorium building for the next portion of the funeral proceedings. (In the case of believers or church members, we may have already observed a memorial service which closely resembles that of one in America.) A crematorium complex is complete with small chapel-like rooms and rows of slots in which the ashes reside. I enter one of the rooms and find a seat on a beat-up wooden bench. The ceiling is high, the doors are open, and there is a crisp breeze making its way through the enclosure. A faint whiff of smoke and incense is detected, but the open-air room keeps the circulation flowing pleasantly.

After a few words, a scripture reading and a prayer, the immediate family steps forward. The casket has been resting on a short conveyor belt at the front of the room—a typical metal and rubber piece of equipment such as may be found in an airport. In a moment of solemnity and grief, the family members press a large green button which sets the conveyor belt into motion. The guests stand and watch as the casket slowly glides through a low doorway or into a lift. The doors close and the casket is gone.

In some ways, I find the trappings of such events to be oddly pragmatic and down-to-earth, even disorganized and messy. During the wake, family members may sit in the corner of the room slurping down a bowl of noodles between welcoming guests. As long as the mourners are wearing solid black (or white), the style of the clothing is not important; sneakers and t-shirts are apparently acceptable in most cases. Rooms are crowded and dingy; flecks of paint peel off the walls; bare bulbs hang from the ceiling, emitting harsh, bright lighting; flowers wilt and petals fall to the floor; impassive employees wearing sloppy clothing step in to do menial tasks without regard to decorum; coarse and loud talking is expected; a mobile phone rings and is answered.

Contrast this with Western practices: ornate and plush funeral homes designed with comforting color schemes, soothing lighting sources, quiet whispers, employees dressed in dark suits and ties with expressions of empathy on their faces, mourners wearing their Sunday best. In those cases, there is a distance from the practical, earthy procedures—the casket is opened, closed and moved when the mourners are not present; the cremation takes place when the family is gone; no one wants to think about these unpleasant, untidy details associated with death.

Here in Hong Kong, I come away from such experiences realizing the gravity of death without faith in Christ. Yes, in America many people pass away each day, not knowing salvation; but the demarcation between believers and unbelievers is obscured—if I see a funeral procession, I usually cannot immediately discern the religious beliefs of the deceased. When, however, the accessories of mourning in a non-Christian family are overtly displayed, the need for hope in eternal life is seemingly exacerbated. When my desire to quietly ease the suffering of a grieving friend or church member is disrupted by clanging cymbals from down the hall, the realization of peace in knowing God strikes me. Hours later, when I try to wash the smoky stench from my hair and clothing, as I fill my eyes with extra-strength Visine, as I gulp cold water in an attempt to clear my throat of the dusty incense particles, I’m still thinking about it. These people we encounter in local funeral parlors—indeed, the same people we pass on the sidewalks each day—may have no assurance of life after death. They need the comforting hope of a Savior who validates this life on earth and gives the promise of something better to come. They need Jesus.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Christian vs. Non-Christian Culture

[Actually written in Fall 2009... but a subject I think about often.]

I had afternoon tea with a new friend from church. After she recounted the main points of her personal history—where she grew up, how she met her husband, the ages of her children, how she came to Hong Kong and so forth—I began to ask deeper questions: How long have you been a Christian? What caused you to choose our church? What prompted you to pursue the study of theology further?

I knew that her parents were unbelievers, who discouraged her desire to follow Christ. Yet, “it was a dream of mine to attend seminary and study the Bible in depth,” she said, eyes gazing into the distance behind me. “It was difficult and I had to wait until after I had children to go back to school, but I’m so glad I had the opportunity.”

My mind drifted off to the horrifying prospect of having to read Karl Barth while feeding children and struggling with mountains of laundry and housework. I was barely able to keep up with my own single life while in graduate school… I can’t imagine throwing two little munchkins into the mix!

While I was visualizing these dreadful scenes, my friend went on to speculate, “I wonder what my life would be like if I had been raised in a Christian home… Would I have the same desire to seek God? Would I enjoy going to church? Would I have the same hunger to read my Bible?” she wondered aloud.

“And then I think about my children,” she continued. “Will they take for granted being in church all their lives, being raised by Christian parents, attending a Christian school, and exposed to faith to this extent, from such a young age?”

I recalled a similar, though reverse, conversation I had via email with another friend of mine from the States: “I often wonder if Christ’s impact on my life would seem greater if I had been brought up in a non-religious home,” my other friend wrote. “I was inundated with Bible songs and verses and sermons and retreats; I grew up in a good home, nothing ‘bad’ really ever happened to me,” she remarked. This friend went on to contemplate the fact that she now feels numb to her faith, wondering if it ever was real. An unfortunate product of a culture so saturated with “Christianity” that her faith seemed more a part of enforced societal mores than a chosen characterization of her identity.

One young woman in the East who values her belief system and digs thirstily into the Word of God, reveling in the freedom she has to seek Christ—something she couldn’t do openly as a child in the home of her parents. Another young woman in the West who has grown jaded and cynical towards Christianity because of the over-exposure to faith she experienced in her childhood. Two women recognizing the enormous, life-altering impact of Christianity—one way or another.

I’ve read accounts of believers in certain parts of Asia—of their fervent faith amid hardship—praying that America would experience similar religious persecution. They say the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. Consider how the underground network of Christ-followers has exploded in areas of the East—truly the threat of persecution underscores the necessity of weighing the cost and deciding if the claims of Christ are worth the risk.

Time and time again, I have encountered young believers in Hong Kong who have calculated and deliberated, wavered and considered the price of faith. They seek answers, ask thoughtful questions and search the scripture for understanding. Conversations with other Christians prompt them to better grasp the magnitude of faith in Christ, and recognize fully the choice they are making.

And they have chosen to pay the price—passing up valuable career opportunities, jeopardizing familial relationships, and alienating themselves from their communities, homes and social circles—in order to plant their lives in the soil of Christianity. Students from Mainland China who have elected to follow God, accepting the fact that they will never gain membership into the Party, destroying any prospect of advancing in their chosen field. Filipino women who have forsaken their guilt-ridden, suffocating Catholic roots, and decided to follow Jesus as the one and only Giver of Grace. Europeans who broke the mold of orthodoxy and nominal Christianity, choosing to believe that Christ offers freedom and the dynamic experience of hopeful living. Southeast Asians who literally burned their ancestral Buddhist idols, in favor of a living, breathing relationship with the One True God.

These folks know what it takes to be a Christ-follower. Their decisions were not made in haste; many spent months and years in serious study and deliberation before making their choice. For these people, baptism signifies the beginning a truly new life in Christ—a marked contrast from their former way of living and thinking. These believers are not merely willing to die for their faith; they are willing to live for their faith. Live without previously-thought-indispensible income from high-paying careers. Live estranged from family and friends and community. Live without the familiar constructs of their upbringing.

Live as a true follower of Christ.

So what about those of us who fall on the other side of the issue, who cannot fathom growing up without the knowledge of Christianity which lined the pathways to our futures? Has our Christianity become so entrenched in Western culture that it ceases to carry the potency that the first followers of Jesus experienced? If I had been reared in a non-Christian home, would I be more willing to stake my life on my faith, instead of viewing it merely as an extension of the culture in which I grew up? Is it possible to reach adulthood without falling prey to the calloused, cynical attitudes that pervade so many of my peers who come from North America?

I think my friend from the States was right: Christ’s impact on my life would, perhaps, be greater if I had been brought up in a non-religious home—particularly, a home in a country where a polytheistic religion is honored. In my mind, this realization always begs the question, “Why was I born into a godly family in the so-called Bible Belt of America?” I didn’t have to give up anything—relatively speaking—to follow Christ. But I’ve decided that my faith is no less real, just because the sacrifice was less costly. On the contrary, I have experienced a huge amount of God’s grace, which, I believe, comes with a large dose of responsibility as well.

So, am I willing not only to die for my faith, but live for my faith? As a true follower of Christ?

Friday, January 21, 2011

normal life

Upon first moving to a different city or country, the unfamiliarity of the place is inundating. All aspects of life are novel, alien. The new sights, sounds and smells mingle with the unexpected behavior of locals. At every turn, something seemingly abnormal shows itself.

After a few months or years, routines become comfortable and familiar. What previously appeared peculiar is now commonplace. Of course, there are still circumstances and conversations that cause puzzlement; but gone are the open-mouthed gaping and incredulous stares. This place is, after all, normal. It has become home.

I now find myself in such a situation, halfway through my sixth year as a resident Hong Konger. Day by day I sink mindlessly into my habitual schedule, hardly taking note of my surroundings. Sights that formerly brought laughter to my lips or a camera to my face now hardly even register in my thoughts. I’m immune to the oddity.

Which is sad.

Thankfully, I was jarred out of my sleepwalking state of existence this week: A few days ago, I saw an older gentleman riding a bicycle on my street, and he had a series of clothespins carefully holding his pants cuffs up around his ankles—presumably to keep the hem from catching in the spokes. Two days later, on a different street in my neighborhood, I encountered a lone woman holding a tall pole with individual bags of colorful cotton candy attached—as if she were standing next to a ticket booth at a county fair. (Yes, I bought a bag.)

And so, in an effort to maintain awareness of my unique surroundings, I have tried to pinpoint items and situations that I encounter daily, which seem ordinary to me now, but that caused raised eyebrows six years ago. Here they are, in no particular order.


Christmas decorations are frequently displayed through Chinese New Year (late January, early February). This may include ornamented trees, Santa decals on glass doors, gaudy “Merry Christmas” signs stretched out over a highway, and—especially—blinking holiday lights around apartment buildings.

I suppose toy dogs are not uncommon in the States; many a Hollywood gal can be seen carrying a miniature canine in her handbag. Here, however, these types of dogs are driven around in a stroller. A baby stroller. Apparently the dog doesn’t need exercise as much as it needs a sightseeing excursion.

In the West, the traditional color of mourning is black. Here: white. Though Christians will attend wakes or funerals wearing dark or black clothing, locals (especially Buddhists) clad themselves in solid white.

I have a washer and dryer on my rooftop. I live on the top floor of an apartment building, and, therefore, have sole access to a small patio on the roof. What a great place to install laundry facilities. (Yes, the rainy season can be problematic.)

While on the subject of rooftops, consider the fact that much of HK is built vertically, meaning all sorts of unusual amenities are located above ground: restaurants, tennis courts, swimming pools, gardens, barbecue grills, playgrounds. My neighbors have a mahjong table on their roof.

“BYOB,” is often spotted, pasted on cash registers and check-out lanes of supermarkets. Don’t be led astray by what this acronym means in other parts of the world. Just bring your own bag.

In my ignorance, I had no idea a water heater could instantaneously warm water; I thought all such appliances had to be the size of a small refrigerator, stored in their own closet in a hallway or basement. Yet my flat came equipped with a small heater mounted on the bathroom wall, which—theoretically—will deliver unlimited hot water at any time.

Napkins are not a necessity, and are not, therefore, offered at every restaurant. A roll of toilet paper or a single ply of thin tissue will suffice. And every conscientious Hong Konger will carry his/her own Kleenex packet anyway, so the toilet paper and tissue are not required in the first place.

An umbrella is useful to keep rain off of one’s head. But wait—there’s more! It is also effective for blocking sunshine from the face and neck. A pale complexion is preferable to a West Coast tan, so never leave home without an umbrella. But wait—there’s more! If the umbrella spokes break, just remove the fabric from the metal framework, cut a hole in the center of it, and drape it over a straw hat for added protection from the sun. Or, if you don’t have a dead umbrella, simply use an old hand towel or rag in a similar way: wrap it over your head and place a baseball cap on top.

I’ve taken a ride in a car elevator three times. I thought this type of machinery existed only in the Fisher Price Little People City Playset. Not so.

When parents of small children find themselves in a restaurant needing to cut the tot’s food, a small pair of scissors will do the trick. No need to bother with a dangerous knife and fork; just snip off pieces of broccoli or spaghetti for the little one.

Toilets flush with salt water. (This necessitates frequent cleaning, as silt is deposited on all inner surfaces of the commode.)

I have a refrigerator in the entryway of my flat. An orange crock pot is in the bedside table cabinet in the master bedroom; and a full set of gold-rimmed white china is in the other bedside table. I’ve got a bread machine in the guest room, cans of Dr Pepper under the bed, French-fried onions in the bedroom closet. And it’s not just me. Most flats in the city are small, and storage space is at a premium. Kitchens are notoriously cramped, so it’s not uncommon to have culinary items stashed in other locations.

Nutritional and health standards vary across the globe, and not every country observes the recommendations of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. When American products are sold in Hong Kong, therefore, the information on the packaging may not meet local guidelines. The solution? A black magic marker. I pull out a box of cereal and see the “heart healthy” logo crossed out. A container of crackers has an elaborate green sticker strategically covering a paragraph of nutritional facts. A package, made in the USA, may have advertized the essential vitamins and minerals contained in the product; upon arrival in the supermarket here, those vitamins and minerals are scratched out. I don’t know what I’m eating.

If you unintentionally wake up between 3 and 4am, you’re likely to hear birds chirping. This is truly a city that never sleeps.

A large pair of metal kitchen tongs is useful for pulling specific items out of a rubbish bin. In shopping malls across the city, hardworking janitors are seen emptying garbage cans, one piece of trash at a time.

When the primary mode of transportation is by foot, you’ll use anything to haul groceries and other belongings here and there: backpacks, plastic shopping bags, Christmas gift bags, rolling suitcases, dollies, voluminous purses, luggage trolleys, various wheeled containers, flat-bed carts, and so forth.

Newly-washed laundry hangs out over busy four-lane highways, ostensibly drying in the fresh air (pollution and humidity notwithstanding). A passerby could surely be startled if that underwear comes loose and falls from the clothes rack.

And this is my normal life.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

T-shirt Chinglish

*Disclaimer: It is absurd and a tad arrogant for me to point out the misuse of the English language by people for whom English is a second language. After all, I can speak only about two-dozen Cantonese words, and I can write no more than the numbers one, two and three in Chinese characters. I whole-heartedly applaud those who courageously embark on learning a new language, misspellings and incorrect usages aside.

It’s a covert hobby of mine to take note of odd English on t-shirts and clothing here in Hong Kong. The origin of such items of clothing is still a mystery to me; who are the people that write these slogans and designs? Of course, at times, the humor of the English is only apparent when you see who is wearing the shirt. (The same could likely be said of some t-shirts and sweatshirts worn by American teenagers. It’s cool to wear something with Chinese characters, or some other foreign script; but who knows what it means?)

And so, here are some of my favorite phrases (or word groupings) I’ve seen on t-shirts in this city (keeping, as much as possible, the original spellings, punctuation and capitalization):

· Mickey Musoe
· The power of boy in house will never gonna stop
· Apostle Vacation
· Very Very First
· Playboy (with the Playboy icon, on a shirt worn by an elderly woman)
· Free Keeps Evolving Alive
· coming the especially
· I’m a rock star (a pink shirt, worn by an elderly man)
· salad playful girl
· Buddha bless America
· Fond of being blonde (on a shirt worn by a dark-haired, dark-eyed Asian girl)
· American flavor with Scene
· that maybe need have to know
· Schwarz Creek Mom (on a t-shirt worn by a man in his 50s)
· dressup nake you strong
· Milkshake and Pimp juice (on a shirt worn by a Filipina helper walking with an elderly man)
· Emotion good good progress lion
· Favorite things Sweetest day Gifting
· Look for enjoy life
· You’re dope (on a shirt worn by a two-year-old child)
· Mix! To the Welt…
· Love and seace
· I [heart] she (on a t-shirt worn by a teenage girl)
· orking is importan We Want to enjoy and live like

H of SJ: Does this count as writing?