What do you get someone who is…you know…dead?

joss paper for after life as ghost moneyRegretting all the things you didn’t say to a loved one while they were still alive is pretty normal, I guess. But have you ever regretted not getting grandpa that camera he had his eyes on while you still had the chance? Because when someone has passed that means you can’t give them presents, right? This may well be the case in Western culture. In Chinese culture however, death is by no means any excuse to stop spoiling the people you care about.

One of the most fascinating aspects about living in Hong Kong was experiencing a culture that is very different from the one I knew from home. The British influence from colonial times is obvious but by no means dominant; Hong Kong is first and foremost Chinese. Along with a culture come its own holidays and celebrations, and the Chinese have a set of festivals and rituals that was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Also death is treated quite differently in Chinese culture with rituals that in my Western eyes were almost morbid. In all fairness though keeping in mind our innate sensitivity towards anything that has to do with death, I guess that any deviation from what we are taught to think of as normal would be considered somehow morbid.

The Chinese did never strike me as religious. That however does by no means mean that they do not believe in spiritual concepts. Far from it! The afterlife, ghosts, numerology, feng shui and other things that modern science would label as superstition are extremely important in the lives of very many Hongkongers.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this mythology I found to be the importance of making offerings to ancestors and other spirits. One way of doing this is to put out food and drink on little altars on the streets along with burning incense. You see these tiny red altars with bowls of rice, fruit and glasses with water if you look down on almost any street in Hong Kong. Keeping the spirits happy is of utmost importance, because if they get upset they could cause you great misfortune.

The more materialistic way of pleasing the supernaturals of the neighbourhood is to give them presents. And I am not talking about just any presents. I am talking about the good stuff. Like iPhones, cameras, flat screen TVs, iPads, cars (with a caucasian private chauffeur, mind you!), designer shoes and everything else you would need to have a comfortable life. But how do you send a pair of Gucci loafers over to the other side? Easy! You take a paper replica of whatever you want to give, burn it and voilà! Grandma is now walking around in style in the afterlife making all of her ghost friends jealous. Well, I guess that’s the general idea.

CandlesRedMosaicFor those of us who are not particularly proficient in the art of creating paper replicas of things, luckily there are plenty of shops that sell nothing but gifts for the dead. Anything your heart or stomach can desire is available in paper: massage chairs, table fans, Chihuahua dogs, laptop computers, propane bottles, wok sets, soda cans, air-conditioners, houses and anything else you can think of. All scaled down to a practical size for convenience of course. And if the one you are buying a present to is one of those who has it all and is impossible to buy to? No worries! You can also buy stacks of ghost money and burn that instead. Cash is apparently king in the on the other side too.

What I found the most refreshing about this is that it challenged my own perceptions of what the world is supposed to look like. Up until the age of 28 I had lived my entire life living and breathing Western culture with very few real life impulses from other parts of the world. Therefore seeing that other people other places had different ways to organize life really taught me that the world  is never black and white. Different is not necessarily more right or wrong. Sometimes it is actually just different. Nothing more, nothing less.

Although the culture shock of moving to Asia was very real, I learnt that keeping an open mind and maybe more importantly a sense of humour took me a very long way. This may sound like a cliché but you never learn more about your own culture than when you are away from it and notice the heaps of cultural programming that you never thought you had whilst at home.

Livingly Yours,


It’s nothing personal

Dreaming of the Sun.“Don’t take anything personally – Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality”.

I remember the first time I read these words ten years ago in The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. Recommended to me by a tarot lady. At the time I was working in a trendy Notting Hill restaurant in London and on Saturday nights the owners had hired Sanya from the Balkans (believe me, she looked and sounded the part) to do after-dinner readings for the guests. You know, Sanya to the rescue in case the date got boring. An excellent idea actually.

Nothing others do is because of you! I was baffled. How could this be? This went against everything I thought I knew. Isn’t it my behaviour that decides how others treat me? Isn’t it the way I look that decides whether people are attracted to me or not? And isn’t it so that if someone likes me I should feel good, and if someone doesn’t like me I am supposed to feel bad? This is how the world works, right?

Imagine that you walk down a busy street and give the finger to three random people. The first person laughs at you while number two asks you what the hell your problem is. Unfortunately for you the third person pulls out a gun and shoots you dead. You did exactly the same thing to three different people, but got three completely different responses.

This example should make it pretty obvious that you by and large cannot control how other people in fact will react to you. Experience makes you able to predict, but still you can only do the input, the output is entirely out of your hands. It goes without saying that flipping someone the bird is not a very nice thing to do and most people don’t like it, but their actual reaction is not because of you. It only depends on them and where they are.

I am sure everyone has talked to their friends about who is hot and who is not. Probably more often than not you and your friends don’t all fancy the same person. And thank God for that. While one friend may be head over heals about a guy, another may think that although he may look ok he’s not their type. The person in question is the same, but different people react differently to him based on their personal taste, preferences and priorities. All things that can vary individually to each and every person. The it’s-not-you-it’s-me-excuse may actually be true more often than we think.

Not taking other people’s opinion of me personally is truly liberating. It has however taken me a long time to be free of this. Years actually. It is only when I speak to people who are truly upset about other people’s opinion of them that I realize how far I have actually come. If someone tells me that someone else thinks this and that of me my instant reaction is normally nothing more than a shrug and who cares? Yeah, really! Because I don’t.

I remember talking to a friend a while ago who was doing really well at work. Unfortunately he was feeling down because some of his colleagues were jealous of his success and wouldn’t talk to him as much any more. I remember asking him why on earth he was feeling down about this. There is absolutely no doubt about who has got the problem here, and it was not him. He could rise above this, but their pathetic reaction made something that should have been a wonderful thing bittersweet instead. What a waste!

Of course with this way of thinking it doesn’t matter whether people think good or bad thoughts about you. Neither is personal. While this may be liberating for the bad stuff, it can feel like a bit of a waste on the good stuff. Shouldn’t you feel good if someone says something nice to you? Sure, by all means. But it is still not really because of you, it is because you happen fit into their image of what is good. The key is to feel good about yourself regardless of other people, only then can you be free to really be yourself. And still, I am pretty sure that most people find it a lot easier to believe the bad things people say about them compared to the good things. So believe the good things if you want. If you are like most people, chances are you’ll forget them soon enough anyway. Just a hunch I have.

Not caring about what others think of me is of course not a carte blanche to behave badly. I still want the best out of life and I know that this normally happens when I’m on good form with the world around me. Moreover, treating people inferior to how I myself want to be treated doesn’t feel good. And I’m all about feeling good!

I don’t need tarot cards to recommend The Four Agreements to anyone though. A great read that I can warmly recommend to anyone.

What other people think of me is none of my business. 

Personally Yours,