‘The Old Man Isn’t There Anymore’
Travel Stories: Kellie Schmitt shared a big house in Shanghai with a dozen neighbors she hardly knew. Then she got an invitation to a funeral.
11.15.10 | 12:27 PM ET
I found myself in a Chinese funeral parlor because of a phone call I made to my cleaning lady.
The previous evening, my husband Gregg had seen our neighbors crying in the hallway. We’d wondered if the old grandpa, the one with the buzz-cut hair, had died. Gregg had suggested we shouldn’t interfere, but curiosity had gotten the best of me. I’d called the all-knowing cleaning lady.
“Do you know why the neighbors,” I paused. I knew the word in Mandarin for “crying” but not hallway.
“Do you know why the neighbors are very sad?” I asked.
“The old man isn’t there anymore,” she replied, which I guessed was her baby Chinese way of telling me he died.
“Ah, the old man who lives on the second floor?” I asked.
Even though we had lived in this old three-story house in Shanghai for more than a year, I couldn’t map out the neighbors and where they resided. While we lived in a spacious apartment on the renovated top floor, the other two floors remained as they had been during the height of Communism: cheap, basic and subdivided. As a result, we shared the house with many neighbors. They’d pop out of doorways, hallways, and hidden bathrooms, often wearing just slippers and underwear. There were at least a dozen, all local Shanghainese.
When we had first seen the apartment, I had created stories in my head of the relationships we’d establish with our cohabitants. I’d wander into their kitchens in the late afternoon and we’d sit around sipping green tea and chatting in Chinese about our lives. That fairy-tale ended when we moved in: Nobody would even say hello to us.
I grilled our Chinese teacher for an explanation. Am I saying ni hao wrong? Was there some moving-in etiquette that I’d forgotten? In China, do people not speak to those who walk around in their underwear under the same roof? My teacher said she wasn’t sure.
Still, I was persistent. I would repeatedly try to engage them, saying hello at every encounter. Sometimes, I’d offer a comment on the weather, or tell the grandpa with the buzz cut: “We’re off to America for two weeks! See you when we get back!”
Around month three, I got a disgruntled nod from one of the underwear men. One day, the second-floor dad, who was always cooking in the communal kitchen, told me his family’s white cat liked me. And, miraculously, when I returned from Christmas vacation with two heavy suitcases, the burly second-floor mom helped me lug them up the steep wooden stairs. We had turned a corner.
I was so grateful that I wanted to show my appreciation. I dashed down the stairs and offered the mom and grandpa a plate of fresh brownies. Grandpa didn’t say anything, just looked at me with a bemused smile. I shoved one onto his plate, blushing as it occurred to me that Chinese traditionally don’t like excessively sweet Western desserts.
From there, I progressed to exchanging pleasantries, mostly commenting on the lazy white cat who liked to sleep all day in the nook beneath the banister.
When I hung up the phone with the cleaning lady, I made the bold decision to buy sympathy flowers. After all, grandpa and I had often exchanged hellos. He would stand in his undershirt in the doorway, a stout man with full cheeks and an easy smile. His face had few wrinkles though it was patterned with age spots, and I had imagined he was in his 70s. He always looked perplexed by our presence and I’d sometimes wonder what the China of his youth was like, when the country was closed to the West. What a contrast to be spending his final days living a floor away from two Americans.
With my basket of roses in hand, I knocked on the family’s door. The dad, dressed in loose white fabric, opened it with a surprised smile. In Chinese, he said, over and over, that I was too polite. For the first time, he beckoned me into their one-room space, now covered in white floral arrangements. The sweet scent of lilies perfumed the air.
My local florist didn’t do funeral-specific arrangements so I’d asked her to create an appropriate alternative. Apparently something got lost in the translation. Nobody had mentioned I should have requested white, the color associated with death in China.
The mom wrote my Chinese name, 可莉, on a long paper scroll and hung it across my scarlet-colored flowers like a beauty pageant sash. Great, I thought. Now everyone will know who got the wrong color.
Their rarely-seen, 25-year-old daughter, Lili, spoke up in English. She explained that her grandfather had died from cancer, and while they were very sad, it was considered a good omen for the family that he had a long life.
“We would be very honored if you’d attend the funeral on Saturday,” she said. “Since he died at 91, it’s a joyous occasion and we want you to be there.”
I deflected the offer, using the words I had learned for “don’t want to bother you.” I was aware that the Chinese often extended invites just to be polite. It was my job to refuse. Still, they insisted and insisted, which made me wonder if they were seriously asking me to attend grandpa’s funeral. When they mentioned that it would mean a lot to the deceased, I wavered. And when they told me that everyone who attends will also live a long life, I finally agreed.
As soon as our coach arrived at the funeral home that Saturday, Lili began translating the remarks of the passersby: Wow a foreigner is here! What is a foreigner doing here? We’ve never seen a foreigner here.
As we silently filed into the room, trumpets and saxophones sounded, a little off-key, punctuated with a clash of symbols. We all wore black fabric swatches pinned to our arms to acknowledge we were part of the grieving party. Inside, there were about 30 people, mostly family and some old friends. I urged Lili to join her family in the front while I shuffled to the back of the room.
The emcee orchestrated the order of events with short commentaries. Soon, the microphone was given to the mom’s older sister. I was able to follow her speech for about two sentences, up to the point where she said she’d be representing her siblings. She quickly lost me, but I still understood the parts where she cried, “Baba,” or daddy, then sobbed. She wailed, her voice broke, and then she repeated it, “Baba, Baba.” In the front row, her three sisters joined the chorus.
There was something about the sister’s impassioned cry to her daddy that stirred my own emotions. Suddenly the grandpa was my own father, or my mother’s father, who’d died young, years before I was born. Tears filled my eyes, and before long, I was turning my face toward the lilies to hide my sobs. Now I wasn’t just the foreigner, I was the foreigner drawing attention to herself by crying at her old neighbor’s funeral, a neighbor with whom she had only exchanged ni haos.
I watched Lili in the front row, leaning slightly against her father, and I was filled with longing for my own family. They were thousands of miles away in Baltimore, and I hadn’t seen them in months.
After the speeches, we filed around the coffin in a circle. I could see my red flowers positioned on the mantle directly in front of the casket. I snuck a glimpse at the grandfather. He was mostly obscured under mounds of flowers, but his bruised face looked much older than I remembered, his hair grayer. I focused on the actions of the people going before me—a ritual sequence of pauses and bows. I sighed with relief when I passed the casket and entered the receiving line of grieving family members.
The ceremony ended at the crematorium. We walked down a hallway past orange plastic chairs and crammed, elbow to elbow, into a small room. The casket, now closed, sat in an elevator shaft of sorts with a row of buttons. This was the last chance to say goodbye before plunging grandpa into the depths.
Lili whispered: “We paid extra so he’d go to the fire alone.” Apparently, there had been some problems with getting the wrong ashes if you went economy style, and had your loved one cremated alongside other people.
Perhaps Chinese are more comfortable with the inner workings of cremation since, in crowded cities like Shanghai, the rate of cremation approaches 100 percent. I felt uneasy though as I watched the staff send grandpa into the fire.
Afterward, we did a final walk around the place, this time tossing the black fabric patches we had worn on our arms into an outdoor fireplace. Then we each took one leaping step forward—away from the fire—to help the deceased transcend the gap between life and death. Before boarding the bus, we all sipped sugar water, a symbol of heavenly bliss that came in the form of iced tea juice boxes.
As we headed back on the bus, I tried to justify my presence at grandpa’s funeral.
“Once, I brought him a freshly-made extra chocolate brownie,” I told Lily, brightly. “I am not sure if he ate it, but he was sitting there smiling in the kitchen.”
“Really?” she said, looking at me a bit strangely. I figured she didn’t know the English for brownie so she wasn’t quite sure what I had offered him. We didn’t have much more to chat about, so we sat in silence and watched the skyscrapers emerge again.
Back downtown, at the post-ceremony lunch, I struggled to eat a helping of chicken feet as the entire table watched. Apart from that, though, it seemed as if I had made it through my first Chinese funeral with minimal social missteps. Maybe I was finally getting into the swing of life in China.
Then one day I breezed down the stairs and saw a familiar silhouette in the second-floor kitchen. I grasped the banister and stared. If I believed in ghosts, I might have fainted in fear. It was the old grandfather, the same buzz-cut hair, the thin white undershirt, even that same bemused look he always gave me.
This elderly man, I realized, must have been just another of the numerous neighbors, without any familial relation to mom, dad and Lili. But, if it wasn’t the buzz-cut man in the coffin, who was it? And had I ever even met him?
I realized that I had unknowingly committed the most egregious of cultural misunderstandings. Forget the glaring red bouquet, my self-conscious sobs, or my battle with the chicken feet; I have absolutely no idea whose funeral I attended.
I kept that information to myself, though, and focused on getting to know the family downstairs. Since the funeral, our relationship achieved a new level of familiarity.
The dad offered to teach me how to cook Kung Pao chicken. Lili invited me for tea, and asked for advice on her latest love interest. The mom insisted on carrying my luggage down the stairs, even if it was only a duffel bag. And, without fail, every single time we passed in the hallway, they gave me a friendly ni hao.