Regretting 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.
For 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.