My Nanjing born partner and I have been together for just over three years now and it has been the most interesting three years to say the least. There is never a dull moment between the two of us; I guess this is what makes cross racial relationships so challenging, but equally so exciting!
Not only have the three years been filled with belly chuckling moments, it has also been an educational roller-coaster ride, learning a variety of differences between our two worlds and how meaningless things to me can be so important to him and his family. This I can say with full certainty has been the hardest part; juggling two sets of really strong but varying ideals and trying to respect them whilst staying true to my principles and my perspective of the world.
It was early on into the relationship when I figured that this was going to be a fun packed adventure; we had only been dating a few months, so I was not fully prepared for what was about to come next. He had been up all night sweating buckets load with a fever that had struck him on and off three times that very same week and with a disturbingly strong immune system that Chinese seem to possess, with the third onset I started to panic. With my nursing skills only stretching to popping a damp tea towel onto his sweaty forehead I did feel rather worried for him. The good news though was that he suddenly sprung up with relief and came out with a statement that would stick with me forever;
“It’s because I’m not wearing my red underpants.”
After I bleated out one of those dumbfounded, high pitched, Chinese “ah’s”; he continued, “You know, the ghosts will come and haunt me if I’m not wearing them”. By this time “ah” was totally out of the picture and I was sprawled out rolling around the floor in stitches. I know it might have been insensitive in hindsight, but I was well and truly amused by this random announcement.
After several hours of laughter I finally settled for him to explain what it all meant; you see in traditional Chinese culture it is said that if you were born in the current zodiac year of that animal, that year in particular will prove challenging and leave you open to spirits who can bring harm, that is unless you are wearing those all-important red undies!
After researching further into this and asking other Chinese friends I discovered that my partner was not alone with his crazy belief; Chinese culture has cultivated various methods for keeping ghosts and other night “things” at bay. In fact you only need to look in the local department stores to see this thriving industry selling hoards of red wrist bands, jade and Buddha statues to help keep you in safe hands. It is also important to note that the colour red will only work to protect you against ghosts if it is directly touching the skin; it’s no use wearing large red overalls if you haven’t got your scarlet socks and undies on.
I am almost certain that as the year of the snake takes its grip, we will see the volume of red underwear usually decorated with gold embroidery illustrating the pertinent zodiac animal increase, as probably will the price, due to 1 in 12 people scurrying around in fear of the year ahead or Valentine’s day lovers buying matching pairs of his and hers. So beware anyone born in the snake year; start stocking up on all things red, whilst dragons can finally breathe a sigh of relief!
After finally digesting the idea that I need to be kitted out in jade necklaces, red wristbands and knickers I was then dealt with a new crisis of superstitions. Unfortunately my partner’s Grandma died at a respectable age of 84 and although everyone was sad, they were also happy that she would finally rest in peace, as she had been bedridden for years. The funeral was only two days after she had passed, so it did not give me long to research the superstitions surrounding death and how to handle the shocks that were almost certainly going to bowl me over. I have to say that this funeral was like no other; there were so many procedures that had to be followed with particular attention to detail.
There were in fact so many rules to follow that even the family were a little vague and therefore hired someone to direct the event to ensure that everyone did as they should. We followed strict instructions that included eating tofu and qingcai vegetables, wearing coloured arm bands; different colours for different age generations, jumping over fires, placing fruits, flowers and a bowl of rice at the tomb, that was only two minutes later thrown off and replaced with a lunch of fish and steamed rice. This of course made no sense to me as the tomb was so beautifully decorated and then to only be left in such a mess; my culture would always ensure it was left looking beautiful and presentable, but here they were more worried about her starving, which considering the event seemed somewhat absurd. I finally decided to put it down to another crazy superstition in that without lunch she will simply haunt us all for an eternity; or does it just sum up the importance of food in China?
One of the most memorable parts for me was focused around a music band which had been hired, as I previously said it was an occasion to celebrate due to her age, so the morning we approached his uncles home from where we would proceed, a band stood playing the most depressing sombre music possible, which was sure to make everyone shed a tear. When I later found out that the band would be accompanying us on the coach I remember asking my partner; “they’re not going to play on the bus are they?”
My partner assured me that they definitely would not, but as the coach pulled off, a sudden clash of percussion instruments scared everyone out of their wits and as the band continued to play the whole forty five minutes of the journey with many re-runs of “Auld Lang Syne”, I remember the strong feeling of anger, discomfort and a sense of total disrespect! As the day continued to unfold I was also given the impression that it was some sort of competitive show, a show to display which family were grieving the most or which family were willing to splash the most cash! To me this felt surreal and absurdly rude, but I was quickly reminded by my partner that this was their way and their culture of dealing with such occasions.
On a lighter note that same family occasion came with it not only superstitious activity on the day, but also guidelines to follow, such as my boyfriend not being allowed to cut his hair for a month. Now his hair was long overdue for cutting, not to mention his hair’s freakish ability to grow at a rapid pace.
He looked like a little Yeti by the end and despite that, plus my threatening to leave him, he remained fairly confident that he would not break the rules. I also didn’t have the heart to butcher his locks whilst he was sleeping.
So after three years of similar experiences I feel grateful to have shared such intimacy with a family who have shown me much affection, when they could have turned me away. I now know that I must at least try to respect their ways and question that if and when the tables are turned in my country and with my family, would my partner feel my culture ill-mannered for not hiring a band to play on a coach or for us to not argue over money? The world we think we know is not necessarily the right one.