Friday, March 5, 2010

If wishes were flammable

"If wishes were horses" was a favorite expression of my grandmother's. The rest of the equation reads "then beggars would ride." This kind of thinking appeals for obvious reasons to people who worked hard all their lives and were told that nothing is easy and that only through toil and honesty can one achieve one's ultimate desires. No one understands this reasoning better than the hard-working Taiwanese, for whom a "weekend" is a few hours of family time on a Sunday, and one vacation per year, usually during Chinese New Year. All of the wishing is reserved for that time. On the last day of Chinese New Year, it is traditional to write one's wishes on the paper of a large lantern, held together with thin wire and equipped with a small combustible element to fill the paper sack with hot air, and send one's wishes skyward to be read and summarily ignored by the Chinese space gods.

One place where the lantern festival is particularly widely celebrated is the small mountain village of Pingxi, a hour's train ride north of Taipei, near the north coast of Taiwan. I had no inkling, when I set out to watch the activities of the festival, that the town's proximity to Taipei and its location in a narrow valley would also make this one of the most crowded events I have attended in Asia. Actually, when I left my house in the early morning to ride the train for the nearly 5 hours needed to complete the journey, I had no idea that for the duration of my travel day I would be standing. This is something the traveller must contend with, just as one who casts his wishes to the sky must face the possibility that they will not come true, or the possibility that they will.

I woke up in the morning with the memory of last night's parting with Amanda still fresh in my mind-- her downcast eyes focusing on the bowl of soup steaming from the table in front of her, the awful finality of the no longer needed keys to my apartment pressed into the palm of my hand. Though we would not spend the day together, we ended up meeting on the train anyway, and I tried to ignore her conversation with a friend where they discussed future plans-- plans that no longer included me.

I sat silently and immersed myself in Peter Hessler's "River Town" a firsthand account of two years spent teaching English to Chinese students in Fuling, a Sichuanese town now partially submerged in water due to the flooding of the Yangtze caused by the relatively recent completion of China's Three Gorges Dam-- the largest in the world. Hessler describes his students' theories that "the Chinese were collective minded, which inspired them to help each other through Socialism, while the individualistic Americans followed the selfish road of Capitalism." I had trouble seeing his argument, or theirs, as I was nudged and elbowed every time the train pulled to a stop and more people got on, all headed for Pingxi to cast an "individualistic" wish into the heavens.

After much queuing and clattering and pushing and shoving, we arrived at the station where we walked around and observed families and elderly couples and young teens launching lanterns into the sky. The trees along the steep hillsides were littered with the carcasses of the fallen lanterns, because dreams must eventually come crashing to earth. The air was redolent of gunpowder and fermented tofu (Chou Dofu--literally translated it means "stinky tofu"). I watched one family try to set their dreams in motion. The white lantern had been painted with Chinese characters. The children held the corners and scurried about, excited. Dad ducked under the shroud that his wife and children held aloft so that he could light the oily paper underneath, the source of the heat which would send their wishes skyward. He lit it, but something had gone awry in their wishing. Though their lantern drifted and floated above their heads, it never took off, and eventually through much poking and prodding and demanding, the woman pulled a tissue out of her pocket and lay it gently over a small hole in the top. The lantern shot skyward.

I watched others sending their dreams up into the spiraling cloud of floating lanterns. Occasionally one would burst into flames and plummet to earth. Some would grasp the corners of their dreams until it was so full of hot air that it looked as if it would burst and explode. Finally when released they would rocket straight skyward and disappear, the Chinese characters a mere myth of the mind, the light receding into the sky. Others poked and pleaded until their lantern began a slow diagonal ascent, drifting on the warm breeze fore and aft before climbing slowly into the gloaming.

I myself could not compose words to describe my longings and thought about whether to release a lantern. I thought of my friends as I sat there and how some of their plans had come to nothing, whereas others had seen a turn of events and their dreams had morphed and changed along with the changes in their faces over the years. I know some people who are vaguely dissatisfied, I know others who would not struggle to come up with something to wish for. Most would have been able to pick out a colored lantern that stood for one of the five categories of wishes that could be made-- red for money, blue for marriage, and other colors representing health, good fortune or knowledge. I saw students wishing to do well on their exams, young women wishing for marriage, young men wishing for money so that they could get married. Many of my friends would be able to fit their desires into those boxes. I thought of them and sent my hopes and intentions and wishes spiralling upward into the night sky attached metaphorically to the fragile Chinese voices, until they disappeared into the darkness. I shoved my way onto the train, unable to muster any wish for myself-- content for now in the knowledge that I am here, and that it is beautiful.