The afternoon after I arrived at the family home of John, my Chinese boyfriend, for Chinese New Year, we needed to visit his grandmother. John and his two older brothers — Da Ge and Er Ge — prepared a basket with three fried dishes, rice, bottled water and fruit, as well as a little money, firecrackers, candles and incense. I followed them along with my camera and curiosity — because this grandmother was dead.
John’s family continued a Chinese tradition perhaps as old as the Chinese themselves — to show reverence for their ancestors, especially during major holidays. Even the entranceway to John’s home told the story of ancestors. Three framed black-and-white portraits — John’s paternal grandfather, paternal grandmother, and paternal great aunt — hung solemnly above a day-glow painting of Huangshan, where John’s ancestors are from.
As the rain fell like the tears of graveyard mourners, John, his two older brothers and I hiked through muddy terraced fields, up into the hill where his grandmother’s grave was. It looked like a tiny marble throne, with flourishes on the top and sides, and the grandmother’s name, date of birth and death, and a listing of all the generations that followed her.
John and his brothers first laid out a full meal for their deceased grandmother — two pork dishes, and stewed radish, with rice and boiled water. Then they burned paper yuanbao — shaped like gold pieces in ancient China — to provide her with money in the afterlife, and set off firecrackers to ward off evil spirits. Finally, they placed candles and incense as a symbol of reverence, and bowed together, three times, before the marble gravestone.
I stood apart from the three young men, snapping photos like a tourist through my camera lens. I felt odd. There was John, the man I loved more than anyone in the world — a man I shared my life with. But there were parts of his life I still didn’t understand. I had never shown reverence for my own ancestors. I couldn’t for his now — because I still wasn’t part of his family.
After the candles and incense waned, John and his brothers gathered up the food and remaining supplies, and we walked down the muddy hillside, clutching umbrellas for shield from a rain that became heavier with every step. I felt a heaviness inside too, as I wondered if I belonged here, or even where I belonged.
Later that day, after we finished nianye fan — the most sumptuous, and important, dinner of Chinese New Year — John’s father came into the room with little red envelopes. They were hongbao, the money-stuffed envelopes elders give to children for Chinese New Year.
He first handed an envelope over to a wriggling little baby — Da Ge’s son, Kaiqi. “Look, Kaiqi, a red envelope!” he exclaimed, with all of the flourish of the TV hosts for the televised Chinese New Year party we were watching after dinner.
John’s father went around passing out red envelopes to Da Ge and his wife, Er Ge, and John, trumpeting everyone’s name with each gift.
And then he turned to me. “Here’s one for you.” John’s father landed a red envelope in my hands, just as he had done for the rest of the family.
I couldn’t believe it, I thought, as I felt the glossy, scarlet paper envelope between my fingers. An envelope, just for me, the foreign girl he once said John could be friends with, not date. Not even the “Xie xie” — which means thank you — could ever express the gratitude I felt in belonging, if only for a moment.
I wasn’t part of John’s family yet. I still didn’t understand all of the rituals and traditions. But I knew one thing — my chance to be a part of it all, eventually, wasn’t dead yet.
Did you ever feel outside of your Chinese (or foreign) loved one’s life, because you weren’t used to rituals or traditions?
Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.