I lay back and exhaled, excited I had got there in time for the dawn chorus and sure enough tui soon began their multi versed tune.
Enjoying each of the different bird sounds I became aware of what sounded like fire crackers in the distance. What the hang would someone be doing that this time of the morning I wondered, and suddenly I was taken back to China.
The sounds, so similar to this, had started at dawn and become thicker and louder and more frightening to us foreigners who had no idea what was happening. It was massive. So loud at times you could hardly hear yourself think. We decided not to venture out just yet, when there was a knock on the door followed by Sow Wey. A beautiful quiet, unassuming woman who helped us in so many ways while we stayed in the village. Smaller and plumper than many of the older woman, she was smiling with armfuls of things necessary to dress the alter before lighting great handfuls of incense. “What’s happening outside?” we asked gesturing with our arms and holding our ears. She kept smiling and nodding. Well whatever it was, seemed it was alright. She was barely finished honouring our forebears, something we were familiar with, when she went into the yard and began lighting and throwing out double happy crackers. The incense was thick, sweet and hung heavy on the air inside, while outside our eyes were stinging as the crackers popped all around us. This was a new thing. The kids were delighted with the fun. Nothing is better than crackers before breakfast. It was just crazy when the door opened again and Arsehole came in.
I should explain how she got that name as its not a very nice one. We called her Aunty, and for the life of me right now I can’t remember her real name. She was the village Chairman’s wife and some distant relation to Gilbert’s family. Taller than the average Chinese woman and slim, she was bossy and always knew better. There was nothing I could do right. I was an ignorant foreigner in her eyes and she made no bones about it. She had no English so everything was communicated in our abysmal Chinese with acting. I often muttered about her behind my back, but was always polite. This was her stage. I was merely visiting. As I didn’t know her name I called her Aunty too, until one day she corrected me. Your name, she said in Chinese pointing at my chest – Tricia. My name, she said pointing at her chest – Arsehole. Ummm pardon? No one dared laugh. It seemed too crazy…but also kind’ve true. Her daughter translated.
When you are related you have different ways of saying the same thing. Gilbert was related in a certain way, so I was to call her Arsehole. The correct way for me to say uAunty. I looked at Aunty in disbelief. The smile growing on my face and trying to hold back the full belly laugh that was about to escape. “Yes”. The daughter grinned encouraging me to say it. “Arsehole. Arsehole,” I dutifully repeated before bursting out laughing, whereupon Gilbert and the kids joined in. We were in hysterics. Almost rolling on the floor laughing. Arse hole. She made me say it several times to practise and nodded. “Arsehole,” Yes I was saying it right, tho now she was a little confused at what was so funny. Gilbert started to explain why, but I stopped him. “It’s ok I said. I’m happy to call her that!”
So….as I was saying, Arsehole. Hahaha! Came in. She looked over at Sow Wey and was not happy. Arsehole’s daughter looked embarrassed and explained it was the day to remember those who had passed before, and the day families got together. Graves were swept and adorned. “What’s with the crackers?”, we shouted. “That’s to scare the demons away”, she said. “Ohhhh” we said, not really knowing. We turned and Sow Wey was collecting her stuff. She bowed her head and made her way to the door. Arsehole looked down on her as if she was a piece of dirt, and Sow Wey seemed subdued and careful in her presence. I gently squeezed Sow Wey’s arm as she passed me stopping her momentarily and thanked her for doing it for us. She had arrived knowing we wouldn’t have a clue and done the traditional thing on Gilbert’s family’s behalf. Well they’re not from the same class in this village I quietly said to Gilbert and that was never more obvious than today.
The day was full of crackers and sweets and grave visiting and more crackers and drums, symbols and general loudness all day. We were marched around the village by Arsehole and the chairman and their family and finished with a huge dinner of all the village specialties. We met many of the families who had returned from all over the world and it was a great day that is celebrated every year around this time. More important than any other day it was impressed upon us.
Things that remind us of our visit to China in a display box.
As I was smiling to myself in the spa remembering this, the noise got louder and the bangs came closer till it seemed like it was next door and more definite sounds of shot rent the air. It was then I remembered it was duck shooting season and this was open day. The first Saturday in May. Lots of duck calling and two flew overhead, no doubt wondering where to go. I imagined one saying to the other. “I don’t know what the hell is going on. Let’s go to Nana’s, she’ll know what to do….” as I heaved myself out of the spa, my peace and quiet at an abrupt end.