“Roxi, how should I be acting?”
“Well, if it were me, I think I’d be crying. I don’t think I’d leave my house at all. In fact, my uncle has leukemia and he never goes out. He just stays home all the time. He may never work again and he is depressed all the time. I don’t think he’ll live very long. He’s never happy and everyone is very worried about him.”
“Roxi, I understand your confusion. You’re right . . . I may not live very long. However, I am alive right now and I have a good life, right now! Why should I give up today just because I might not be alive tomorrow?”
I went on to ask Roxi what she would do with her life if she were told that she had only one year left to live. She gave some of the standard answers of doing the things she’s always wanted to do and of making her parents happy. She then got a bit silent.
“I don’t know what I’d do. I’ve never really thought about it. I’m only 21 years old, so I’m not supposed to die anytime soon. But I look at you and I think, ‘She’s not supposed to have breast cancer’ and I realize that I really don’t know my future.”
China just celebrated Qing Ming Jie, Tomb Sweeping Day. It’s a bit like Memorial Day in the United States, but goes a bit further. Some would say that it’s a day of worshiping ancestors (and there is a lot of bowing that goes on at cemeteries), but others would say that it’s a day of remembering those who have gone before us.
One of the most common traditions of Qing Ming Jie is that of burning paper money (spirit money . . . and no, it’s not real) and paper items for those in the afterlife to use. People burn paper cars, paper houses, paper cell phones and as of late, paper computers and paper iPads! There are jokes on the internet talking about how Great Grandpa won’t know how to use an iPad, but that Steve Jobs can teach him!
The traditional Chinese belief of an afterlife is a bit complicated to understand. There are stories of heaven and hell, but not many folktales include a supreme God. There are many small gods and the legends reflect the lives of the gods similar to Greek and Roman mythology. Lots of bickering and fighting!
But what Qing Ming Jie really shows me is that this complex society has a longing for permanence and a desire for life to have meaning beyond that which we have here on Earth.
Many people talk of China’s rapid rise over the past thirty years and questions are now being raised as to what the true cost of this rise has been. Money and getting rich has been the obsession of so many for so long that those who now have money are beginning to ask, “Is this all there is?” “What’s next?” is another common question. As people obtain more wealth, they find that material goods are costing more and more. I’ve heard many a student complain that their education teaches them nothing but how to take a test, only to see those who didn’t go on to university achieve the dream of owning a car and a home rather than racking up debt to go to school.
As I talked with Roxi, she shared how as an upcoming graduate with a bachelor’s degree in English, that she will be unable to find a job. One strike against her is that she went to the equivalent of a community college (not well respected in Chinese culture) and another strike is that she doesn’t have a master’s degree (yet). She, along with every other job seeker in China, says, “We pretend we are looking for jobs. What we are actually doing is seeing how strong our network is and if anyone in our network or, more commonly, in our parents’ network, knows of any jobs that we can pay our way into.”
Much has been said of the spiritual vacuum in modern Chinese culture. People don’t typically help each other unless they are immediate family or unless the favor can be returned (thus, building a stronger network). Death is an avoided topic and people are noticeably uncomfortable with me when I bring it up.
Roxi is a “foreign teacher junkie.” As an English major, she goes after each new foreign teacher with gusto, learning what she can, further developing her network. She doesn’t go to my university, but she heard about me four years ago and regularly visited my office hours. We’ve had many conversations over the past four years, though nothing with any major depth.
The idea of “forever” isn’t talked about much, either. Roxi and I were sitting at a table that was one meter by one meter in size. There was a scratch on one corner of the table. I told her that the scratch represented our lives here on Earth . . . a mere sliver of time . . . and that the rest of the edge of the table represented “forever.”
“Roxi, what will you do with your forever?”
She looked me in the eye and said, “I’ve never thought about it. I always thought that the idea of “forever” was a Western thing, but I guess that’s not true. (We had just finished talking about Qing Ming Jie.) I’ve talked to lots of foreigners about God and I believe God is destiny. That everyone eventually gets to God, somehow.”
“Well, if you believe that God is “destiny,” then what you are really saying is that God is your destination. Now, if you were to plan a trip to the capital city, wouldn’t you plan how you were going to get there? If you are planning on God being your destination, then how are you going to get there?”
“Roxi, exactly what do you want out of life? Is getting a master’s degree and getting a job good enough? What do you want your life to mean to you?”
Roxi replied, “No one’s ever asked me these questions! I don’t know how to answer them.”
“You don’t have to answer them now. I’d like you to go home and think about this. Do some research. Write down the words and ideas that come to you as you think about the topic. Do this in Chinese . . . you can translate it to English later on. Really ponder on ‘the meaning of life’ and the idea of ‘forever.’ Remember, ‘forever’ begins now . . . not later! I’m going to contact you in two weeks to see how your project is going and we’ll talk more then.”
“Vickie, you’re really comfortable with ‘forever,’ aren’t you? You’re not afraid of leaving the ‘right now’ and moving into ‘forever’. I can’t wait for us to meet again so that we can talk more about this.”
Cancer. It’s amazing how living with a possibly terminal disease can erase the “taboo barriers” and blow open previously closed doors. Praise God!