“But you have to come with me to the bathroom,” the little girl says, her eyes filled with fear. “No,” I say, frustrated that this child is taking so my attention away from the rest of the class. “You are a big girl, and you can go to the bathroom alone.” She stands there, stubborn, her hand on the handle of the door. “But I can’t go. I’m afraid of the ghosts.” The way she says it, the conviction in her eyes, her refusal to move, all make me realize at that moment that what I am asking her to face is far different for her than for a child from another country. In an American classroom, I would urge the child to go alone to face the darkness that held no monster, that there was nothing under the bed or in the closet to be afraid of. But here in Taiwan, a land rife with beliefs in the other world, what I am asking of her is not fair at all. Not only does she believe in the ghosts, but most likely so does her father, mother, grandmother, aunts and uncles.
When I read the guide books, watched the documentaries, talked with Taiwanese people themselves, I heard about the myriad of holidays, rituals and traditions that fill up the Taiwanese year. I heard about the Chinese New Year festival, full of sparkling firecrackers, red and green dragons and money, money, money. I heard about The Moon Festival, where a food’s shape matters; a festival deeply rooted in the agricultural traditions. And yes I did remember hearing a few words, anecdotes , or a brief mention in a guidebook about “ghost month”. I only remember it was the month of August, when spirits ran free and as such it was wise to lay low during this time.
Like many other people in countries around the world, the Taiwanese, I assumed, had learned about this holiday vaguely from their grandmothers before bedtime, but never actually practiced it themselves. And it is true many other traditions are archaic now in Taiwan. Most girls have never worn the traditional “qipao” Chinese dress, a red satin dress that you see in old Chinese posters, for example. So I assumed that like a lot of other traditions, “Ghost Month” was one forgotten, like a dusty heirloom on the shelf.
A few weeks after being here, I did notice something very peculiar. Every few weeks there seems to be a day filled with smoke. It rises from the mountains, curls from the city skyline and wisps from around the corners. This day, many shops put out a small red or gray trash can. It is about 3 feet high and it’s full of holes on the sides, cut out in different shapes. Out from the wide mouth of the can, pours gray and black smoke that comes from the fire within. The shop owners come out periodically and feed paper into the trash can. I asked around to coworkers and friends and found out that this ritual was to appease ancestors or those spirit that had most direct control over good fortune for shops. Often next to the trash can is a small fold-out table. On the table, there sits an array of offerings: Potato chips, pineapples, cookies etc. Incense burns amidst this collection. I often catch a glimpse, while I wait for bus, of the shopkeeper coming out and bowing in that monotonous way, while waving the incense sticks before her.
Not every shop does this, and those who do it never seemed very attentive to the task at hand, but their gaze drifts to the people walking by, to what is happening behind them in the shop or to the weather, constantly changing overhead. Their non-chalant behavior led me to believe that this is just a tradition, that the only reason do not stop is just in case, like those of us who still knock on wood. Their attitude led me to believe that the beliefs in ancestors were reserved for those in the small villages and for the grandmas. That is until I came to the month of August.
I reconnected with a friend, and decided to go to visit her in a town outside of Taipei. The town was breathtaking, full of light green glorious rice fields, backed by emerald mountains, towering pleasantly against a hazy blue sky. I was excited to visit this town because it is known for its beaches.
As I tried to get to know the family I was visiting, I tested my little Chinese to introduce myself and start to make the mother and sister feel at ease. At lunch, I talked to my friend excitedly about going to the beach. Her younger sister sat across from us, enamored and wrapped up in the Pokémon Go game happening in her hand. She heard me talking about going to the ocean and her eyes dragged from the red ball on her screen and the fantasy world before her, to look me straight in the eye. She shook her head quickly and said “But you cannot to go swimming.” I smiled tightly, wondering if she didn’t understand my English or if she meant that as a question, not a statement. But she went on, “You cannot swim now. What about the ghosts?” She looked to her sister for help and then they began to explain to me. This was August. You could not swim in August; the ghosts would get you. I sat still, my chopsticks awkwardly clutched in my hands, a half smile on my face. I wanted to laugh it off, I was waiting for the punchline, but then I realized that they were serious. I felt like I was in a 3-D world that had suddenly turned to 2D or that I was living in watercolor and suddenly everything became an oil painting. I didn’t understand what I was seeing in front of me. This 23-year-old girl, playing Pokémon Go, wearing all the new fashion, was telling me there were ghosts in the water? They would clutch my legs, she continued, and pull me down before I could scream for help. They would be waiting for me beyond the shallows. They would kill me. We moved from the subject quickly because I simply could not reply, but the shock stayed with me.
Later, I tried to urge my friend to go to the beach with me, hoping that the sister might just stay home and continue her search for Pokémon, but the mother poked her head into the conversation. She became very stressed. She again explained about the ghosts in the water. She tried to tell me, through the translation of her daughter, how it would simply feel like a cramp, while I was swimming, but it would most definitely be a soul escaped from hell, who had come to wreak havoc on the beach. I lightly tried to explain to her how I was a Christian, how I believed in angels. I didn’t want to deny her reality, so tried to bring mine into hers. She nodded quaintly when her daughter translated, as if to acknowledge my sweet belief, but she continued on fervently about how she would feel terribly if something happened to me as a guest in her home.
We did go to the beach after all, but we only waded. To my amazement this beautiful beach was sparsely sprinkled with people, and none of them went out very deep. I’ve since learned that it’s not only ghosts in the water, but that they believe there ghosts the air, thus less flights this time of year. On the 17th, they have the “Ghost Festival”, which I didn’t really experience except for more trash can fires and the smell of smoke that remind me of marshmallows, summer nights and fireworks.
“The ghosts are hungry,” said a boy somberly, as the smoke from the fires wafted past our classroom window, “We must feed them very much”. “I cannot come and hang out with you this weekend,” a friend texted “I must offer incense and bow”, her broken English sounding oddly poetic.
My bemusement at this reality turned to confusion, and slowly to strong curiosity. “But what about those who don’t believe? Surely not everyone believes this?” I asked my language partner. “Yes, but non-believers still don’t go swimming, out of respect,” she explained patiently. “Out of respect for those who do believe?” I asked. “No,” she said a bit exasperated, “Out of respect for the ghosts!”
I wanted to go swimming. I wanted to splash in the water and defy this “holiday”. I want to tisk, shake my head and roll my eyes at my students that insist that their parents, uncles and aunts have seen ghosts. I want to laugh at my friends when they tell me they always knock on a hotel room door before entering, so as not to startle the ghosts. But I didn’t. I don’t, I wouldn’t. I think being a good friend is not taking on your friend’s beliefs, superstitions and fears, but if they’re strong fears, strong beliefs, that really affect lives, I think to be a good friend there’s something to say for acknowledging, exploring and respecting those fears.
And so now, everytime, I turn on the light in the bathroom, check all the dark corners, and wait patiently outside for her. I may not be able to tell her there are no ghosts in the bathroom, but I can at least tell her I’ll always be right outside.