Monday, May 18, 2009

Fireworks, again.

Fireworks are going off again. I don't even strain my neck to see if I can catch a glimpse, let alone get out of my seat to watch from the balcony. Every other day I hear fireworks going off, somewhere. Kaohsiung is not a constant party, although you might think so, at first, if you're a westerner hearing all the fireworks going off. But since I've been living in Taiwan, I've unlearned the happy, celebratory associations that fireworks normally bring, as when I hear them at home. Here, fireworks and firecrackers are often set off out of duty and fear rather than celebration and joy. Let me explain...

It was only my second or third day in Taiwan when I learned about this strange practice. I was sitting in the kitchen with Kate, speaking in whispers while Harley Jane had nap time upstairs. Suddenly, loud pops interrupted our conversation - and the lulling silence we had strained to preserve.
"Crack Crack Crack!"
Kate cringed, and rolled her eyes.
"Are those-" I began to ask.
"Firecrackers," was Kate sneered. I started to wonder what motherhood had done to Kate's sense of fun and revelry. A few more whistled through the air and nearly exploded the naptime dream. When it was clear Harely hadn't woken up, Kate went on to explain her party-pooper position.

Kate's neighbors had been setting off firecrackers on a set schedule for a week. She knows exactly when they set them off, because it repeatedly happens right after she puts Harely down for a nap. Was it for some special occasion, I wondered. No. Did some mischievious kids somehow get a hold of some? No, that wasn't it either. Why were the neighbors setting off firecrackers every day?

"Ghosts" was Kate's answer. Ghosts? I thought I had misunderstood her. She continued. "Yes, Ghosts. They were probably having bad luck or something, and have to set off fireworks to scare away the ghosts," Kate explained. She was obviously used to this. I paused for a second, reviewing what I thought I had heard come out of Kate's mouth. She might as well have added, "Duh!" at the end, just to really mess with me.

I don't know about you, but I don't believe in ghosts. I mean, I like to consider myself open-minded, but I have yet to be convinced of their existence. I am a lover of science and a follower of materialism, however lame and hum-drum that may seem. I can't help it! That's the culture I've been steeped in - a culture of the Scientific Method, the laws of physics, chemistry, all of that. I compulsively psychologize anything that sounds paranormal. I was raised by a psychoanalyst. When I hear "ghost" I think "complex".

In Taiwan, people believe in ghosts. They not only believe in them, but they often undertake peculiar rituals surrounding them, and go to extreme lengths to please them. In the case of Kate's neighbors, she guesses they were probably having bad luck with business or family affairs, or whatever, then called on the services of a spiritual specialist. He assessed the situation, diagnosed the ghost problem, and perscribed a strict schedule of fireworks and whatever other necessary measures, accordingly. If mental sanity is defined, not as an absolute state, but relative to the average person in a community, then in Taiwan, I am absolutely bonkers; here, ghost rituals are a long-established, wide-spread institution that virtually everyone but the foreignors takes part in.

Ghost Month, which takes place during the seventh lunar-calendar month, is dedicated to ghosts. During Ghost month, ghosts get to wander freely. Stores and businesses must remain open all day, as in, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, so that whenever a ghost might want to come in, he or she is free to do so. How convenient! Kate especially likes Ghost Month for this reason.

Unfortunately, Ghost Month also has its downsides. On certain days during Ghost Month people burn "ghost money" as an offering to the ghosts. Ghost money isn't real money - it's fake paper money. Tons and tons of fake paper money are printed, sold, bought and burned in Taiwan. Tons. The air quality suffers, but at least the ghosts are happy, right?

That is only the beginning of the ghost stuff...but all I feel like writing, for now.

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