Xin nien kuai le! (Happy New Year!)
Nine years ago, I spent Chinese New Year in
. I was an undergrad teaching English as a foreign language to children and earning internship credit through the linguistics department at Brigham Young University (BYU). In addition to earning linguistics credit, I was also taking a World Religions class which required me to document my time spent observing at Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian temples. I recently found my write-ups for the course, and thought that in honor of Chinese New Year this week, I would insert a portion of the write-up as I feel that it captures a significant element of the culture associated with the New Year holiday in Taiwan . Taiwan
The following excerpt comes from my observation at a Taoist temple during Chinese New Year:
The time is 10:30am on January 30, 1999, two weeks before the Chinese New Year. The day is sunny and humid, and the temperature is warm. The place is
Feng Yuan, Taiwan, Republic of , at a popular Taoist temple downtown. Today is a special day. Many people are here on this special day to celebrate the gods. It is the day designated to worship Mazu, a female god, to give thanks to her for a peaceful and blessed year past, and also to pray for specific blessings for the next year. Although this is a Taoist temple, worshippers of all faiths are welcome and in attendance—including Buddhists. China
Mazu is a goddess of light and direction. In ancient
, a ship carrying Chinese seamen was tossed on the sea, but a light seen in the distance on an island directed them to safety. Mazu, the goddess, was holding this light, leading them from danger. She is the principal goddess of this temple; thus, she is receiving much praise. This is a day preparatory to the New Year. Perhaps the worshippers are praying to the gods for wishes similar to making New Year’s resolutions. China
Taoists take yellow paper with red ink patterns—counterfeit, paper money designed for the purpose of burning—and toss it into a furnace. Traditionally, counterfeit money is burned in a large furnace at the temple to provide means for worshippers’ deceased relatives to live in prosperity in the after life.
The temple is full of smoke from the incense sticks that many people burn, as well as from the furnaces where people burn money. It smells like a campfire, quite frankly. People wave the smoke out of their faces as they make their way through the thick, gray haze.
Near the furnace stands a woman, homeless and disabled. She wears a white patch on one eye and holds an old, small, yellow bowl. She is begging for money, holding the bowl out to people as she lifts her shirt to expose her stomach which bears a scar, perhaps in hopes to earn the pity of those whose attention she captures. She is saying something in Chinese as she shuffles around with her arm outstretched holding the bowl, perhaps begging the worshippers who burn money for their ancestors to give her money for her own sustenance. She stands at the furnace where people burn paper money deliberately. She sees an abandoned plastic grocery bag containing some kind of food. She looks in, decides the contents are not to her pleasure, and moves on. Her begging continues.
Another kind of begger is present here at the temple today…a Buddhist monk…a “homeless wanderer”—a female with a shaved head and a long, mustard-colored robe. She also holds a bowl—her begging dish. She sits patiently, counting her Buddhist beads, in a conspicuous place at the entrance of the temple in hopes that passersby will give her of their substance, either money or food. She wears a solemn expression, with downcast eyes as she counts her Buddhist beads. She sees a man on crutches pass, perhaps homeless, and looks a bit concerned. Then, as if to catch herself staring, she quickly looks away. Another Buddhist nun is present and is likewise holding a begging bowl. This nun is receiving food. The homeless wanderer looks over in curiosity and almost concern—concern that she herself is not receiving such provisions herself. But she does not display a look of jealousy. Rather, she displays a look of humility.
I contemplate the contrast between the two beggers: the scarred woman and the Buddhist nun. Both are “homeless wanderers,” but I consider the contrasting motives. Interesting…
All of us are "homeless wanderers" in some regard; we're all dependent on others in one way or another. Most of us, however, are not dependent on others for our immediate needs, such as food and shelter. But there are other basic needs that we earn or are given that are just as sustaining, though they may not be as ostensible. How much do we give and how much do we receive? How do we respond to others who give? How do we respond when we see others receive?
In the teaching profession, we see firsthand the contrasting motives of those students we teach. Some students receive well, while others resent what they are given. Perhaps we can learn from the "homeless wanderer" as we contemplate the humility involved in witnessing others' receiving while not always feeling that we receive ostensible rewards. The rewards associated with teaching are generally intrinsic, such as those of the "homeless wanderer" who sits humbly counting her Buddhist beads.