Interior Design: Coffin in the Living Room?
In the early 1980s I visited many places in Sichuan Province during a two-week period. I traveled with a colleague as well as some executives of a local company we had a cooperative project with. Sometimes, local officials also accompanied us.
This involved quite a lot of driving as well as some train trips. Unlike today, the roads were mostly two-lane, and the driving was much slower than on today’s modern highways.
At one point, as we drove along a rural road far out in the countryside, I had to answer the call of nature.
I guessed there would be no public restroom for many miles to come, so I asked our van driver to stop outside a local farmhouse.
As I walked toward the house I saw a lady doing chores in the front courtyard. Behind her was an elderly lady sitting outside the main door of the house.
Several black dogs eyed me curiously, but it was hot, and they were too lazy to investigate even the approach of a foreigner to their courtyard.
My colleague asked the lady of the house if there was a place I could pee, and she gestured to the side and back of the house, where there was a big manure pond. It was the size of a small swimming pool and the smell was almost enough to knock me out, but it provided welcome relief at that moment of need.
On the way back to the van, I noticed a large wooden coffin right in the middle of the main room of the house, directly behind where granny was sitting.
I was puzzled by the presence of the coffin right in the middle of the main room next to the door, and asked my Chinese colleague why in the world they would put a coffin there?
My colleague explained that, especially in some parts of the Chinese countryside, this would give granny or other elderly family members peace of mind, that arrangements for her eventual funeral were already taken care of. Thus, no need for them to worry about that any more. Traditionally, rural people in China place great importance on proper funeral and burial arrangements, both for the sake of the departed as well as those who remain on.
While this explanation made sense to me under the circumstances, my first reaction upon seeing the coffin was quite different, that somehow it might convey the impression that the family was anxious for granny to go. That’s why it struck me as particularly strange at first glance.
The moral of the story is that from one culture to another, and even from one place to another within the same culture, people look at the same thing in very different ways. Without a spirit of open-minded inquiry it is all too easy to make the wrong judgement as an outsider.
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