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Finding my lot in Life

By Nelson Landry | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2017-11-01 15:00

During the 2017 Spring festival holiday period, I was lucky enough to be invited to stay with the family of a close Chinese friend in the countryside of Yong He, north of Lanzhou in Northwest China's Gansu province. My Chinese friend, who goes by the English name Sarah, invited my friend Joe and I to spend the week. Plenty could be said about our stay, each day filled with new sights and experiences that one short story could hardly do justice to. Whether it be how we trudged through the rocky and dusty hills of northern Gansu province to burn money for the Qiang family ancestors; or how after ingesting copious amounts of rice wine it was the children, with whom we usually played loud and rowdy games of cards, who came to take care of the two drunken foreigners; or just the day-to-day struggle with outdoor squat toilets in winter. These glimpses at a week-long adventure into northwest China hardly even scrape the surface. If, however, I had to choose one experience that really left an impression, I would have to speak of our last morning with the Qiang family.

Finding my lot in Life

Nelson Landry [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]

By the invitation of the eldest of the nine uncles on Sarah’s father’s side--a man who was never without a cigarette in hand or a leather fedora slightly tilted forward on his head--Joe and I were asked to partake in a Daoist ritual. The purpose was, so we were told, to keep the ghosts and ghouls who bring calamity upon families from entering their households. We were, of course, honored and gratefully accepted the invitation. On the day of the event, we sat frigid in below freezing temperatures as the truck began to warm up in the driving towards the temple. Arriving at the temple, and having been offered our courtesy cigarette and cup of tea, we sat in the temple caretaker’s quarters, where we both huddled around the coal stove to keep warm, leaning as close to the furnace as we could without burning ourselves.

As sunrise was upon us, so the men and women began to gather, passing around auspicious red bands that we tied ever so fashionably on our right arms. It was then that they decided: the two foreigners were to be the designated flag-bearers. In accordance with our high rank, we were assigned places in the back of the shoddy old pick-up truck that also carried the huge drum and the cymbals, as well as the men who were to play them. It was a tight squeeze and the air was crisp, so I was glad to find that there was no space in the back of the van. Bleary eyed, I found my way to the front of the truck where I was to fulfill the provisional role of co-pilot. My friend regrettably did not have the luxury of sitting in the heated truck and I smiled inwardly knowing mine was the real seat of honor. The dedicated crew of middle-aged men began to bang their percussion instruments with gusto. Again, I smiled to myself knowing that, as this cacophony started, my friend was right there with them feeling the thunderous vibration of the drum and the cymbals as his fingers slowly lost all circulation and feeling in the frosty early morning. Although my friend was not a smoker at the time, the village people who would greet our passage by setting off deafening Chinese firecrackers and fireworks that whistled up in the air saw that he could not use his hands, so they would put the cigarettes in his mouth and light them for him. I would go back to see him when we would stop, smiling and laughing at how fun all this was, though he did not seem to find the situation as funny as I did. When it was my turn to sit in back, I realized why.

Even as the sun reached a descent height in the sky we continued on our way, making the rounds of the countryside beating our drums, clanging our cymbals and swinging our flag, what was meant to scare the evil spirits away did not seem have the same effect on the winter winds. In fact, it seemed to only get nippier with the quickening tempo of the drums, and though the old man who played with such gusto seemed to almost be working up a sweat, the flag-bearer had to remain inert - a glorified mast freezing in the unforgiving February cold. The driver dauntlessly drove on narrow dirt roads with his band in tow. Peeking over the side of the truck, never daring to lean too far, I could see that we were driving precariously close to a 20-foot drop to the fields below. At the time, I think I was perhaps too cold to know fear, and so I continued to vigilantly grasp my flag, without knowing exactly how or why I was there. That’s when it dawned on me. This was my true lot in life, to lead the van that chased the evil spirits and that invited the “king of the law” into the homes of those lucky enough to receive him. I was a flag-bearer, and I was bringing peace to the country side with my band of merry ghost hunters. I was told by one and all that I was doing a great job at it, too, and so with such support I doubled my efforts to be an even better frozen flag mast.

By the end, we were both quite glad to be dropped off near the main family home, leaving the important work of making more raucous noise in the expert hands of the old man with no sense of rhythm who was giving the beat for all the other percussionists to follow suit and make as raucous a noise as possible. My delusions of being a flag bearer dissipated and I began to see clearly again as my body began to thaw. However, I couldn’t help but feel I had not seen my job to its proper end. There were still spirits to chase away, lest the village meet with some calamity because of me. But then again, even though we were not as safe from evil spirits as the further the van got from us, a bit of peace and quiet is always a welcome thing after a tough morning working as designated flag-bearers in northwest China.

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