Memorial Day, the American federal holiday on the last Monday of May, marks the start of summer that culminates in Labor Day in September. Began in memorial to the American Civil War dead at first, for the Union soldier, and later to include the Confederate, it evolved as a solemn occasion to honor, salute, and celebrate lives snuffed prematurely, valiantly dying fighting for a cause.
The memorial expanded to include all soldiers who perished in all U.S. wars, even those who in peacetime died while in military service. Now, it has become what the Chinese has long observed during Qing Ming holiday, a simple remembering of those who we love who have gone before, those who we respect in our memory.
I promote the Qing Ming spirit in my oral English class through the Titanic movie soundtrack, "My Heart Will Go On," from its promoted sentimental sob story line to the recognition of the normal emotion of loss. Celine Dion croons:
"Every night in my dreams, I see you, I feel you, that is how I know you go on. Far across the distance
and spaces between us, you have come to show you go on.
Near, far, wherever you are,
I believe that the heart does go on. Once more you open the door and you’re here in my heart; and my heart will go on and on.
Love can touch us one time and last for a lifetime, and never let go till we’re one. Love was when I loved you, one true time I hold to,
in my life we’ll always go on..."
China is undergoing a massive transformation where the primordial metaphors of English-speaking countries are echoed in the country’s observed holidays. It is heartening to see it appropriating its own tradition. The Qing Ming was not observed after 1949 in the mainland though Taiwan, HK, and Singapore kept it in their books. Hu and Wen’s Zhongguo restored it in 2008.
A Quaker acquaintance of Dutch Pennsylvania stock who teaches English at the university is being courted to have his Santa Claus image (white mane and beard with natural sumptuous girth) be marketed widely to promote consumer products. His quietist sense of simple honesty is proving too strong to allow himself to be just another glorified KFC Colonel Sanders! Lucrative offers accompany the temptation!
This past Christmas showed pictures and figurines of Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer harnessed to pull Santa’s gift-laden sleigh through the abundant Dong Bei white snow. Mistletoes and bells, candles and poinsettias graced storefront doors and windows, with Jingle Bell Rock playing in the background. One could easily pretend one is in the Great Mall of the Americas in Minneapolis! Never mind that the religious essence of Christ-mass was missing; the transference of holidays is not along cultural lines as it is in the commercial bottom line.
America and the West are already in China, with many of its forms in gaudy attire, from Burberry of London to the Cowboys of Houston and the carolers of Pasadena. But the Qing Ming spirit of China is observed in cemeteries of Hispanic Asia (All Souls/Saints Say), and here occurs the confluence of Memorial Day honoring the fallen while merging with a pause to be present to the memory of the dead. The word "Qing Ming" means "treading on the greenery," denoting a time for people to go outside and enjoy the freshness of springtime as well as attend to the graves of the departed.
It was the practice in the American South to hold potluck dinners on church grounds, and since cemeteries were beside the country chapels, the segue to honor the dead came easy. This continued with Memorial Day, though the event is now observed in the more secular and rowdy surroundings of the ballpark and the beach. In America, it includes the running of the Indianapolis 500, not unlike the fanfare of the running of the bulls in Spain, though in this case the bulls are steel-cased in high-octane engines and spectators stay in the bleachers!
Death is a dreaded subject in the West with its mind addicted to eternity; time-in-memorial is cherished. The Qing Ming, however, is more rooted on the taste of the temporal expressed in the aesthetics of space. Time as here-and-after is celebrated in available here-and-now of location.
Ancestors are not treated as ghoulish souls or disembodied spirits. They are, in fact, offered actual food. Paper money is burned (fake ones are now printed since it is illegal to burn the actual paper currency) to physically accompany the departed to wherever spatial dimension they may be lodged. Life after, in Chinese imagination, is in the realm of the temporal. This makes the memorialized subjects be more accessible and real.
Of course, much of America today will hear of abstract nobility of heroism saluting the patriotic image of Pentagon in uniform. But Memorial Day is a holiday of spilled flesh-and-blood, about simple and often naive people who take on megalomaniac orders of so-called superiors, and in the process, give up their lives. But as the old grunt saying goes, "We do not die for the notion of country, freedom and democracy; we die in the mutual protection of our comrade-in-arms."
The hearts of Juan and Juana de la Cruz will go on. Honor, salute, and celebrate their memory today.
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Jaime R. Vergara (firstname.lastname@example.org) previously taught at San Vicente Elementary School on Saipan and is currently a guest lecturer at Shenyang Aerospace University in China.