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Honoring the Dead
"We're here," Dad said, yanking open the rental car door.
As I stepped out of the Toyota, a wave of humidity hit me. Fields of sprouts surrounded the muddy road, separated by wide ditches filled with dirty water. A pair of chickens ran clucking around the car.
"Where's the house?" I asked, stretching my legs. In the sweltering climate, my shirt clung to me, and mosquitos pecked at my neck. Even with its wide-open fields and flat green expanse, China gave me the stomach-clenching sensation of being trapped.
"This way. The house is over there." Dad gestured toward a narrow path along the irrigation ditch. I dropped my suitcase and trudged after him, the wheels marking trenches in the mud. Grass hit my knees and the earthy scent of fertilizer rose from my shoes.
"How much farther?" I asked.
"Around that bend."
A large mud-stained concrete structure emerged from behind the hill—a typical house in rural China. My aunt and uncle stood outside a heavy iron gate that revealed a dirt yard.
"Come inside," Uncle said, hugging us. "We have tea and sesame candy."
Uncle led us to the living room, where a water cooler sat next to the couch.
A table rested in the corner, displaying a black-and-white photograph of my great-great-grandfather, Gu Bing. He wore a black cap and sat on a wooden chair. Half-lit incense sticks emitted wavy lines of smoke rising up to the ceiling. A ceramic jar with blue dragons flying on the side rested on the table. It was typical in Chinese culture to display shrines of our ancestors, to align ourselves with someone noble and great.
"Your great-great-grandfather was a famous poet," Uncle said to me.
“I’ve read some of great-great-grandfather's poems,” I replied.
One line I remembered read: "Bananas over the fence, and bamboo leaves outside the window." If this was his great poetry, then I could be the next great poet of China: Pencils on the table, and pens in my drawer.
"He was a great man," my aunt added. "We all try to live up to him. His works are still studied in universities in China."
"Did you ever meet him?"
"No, he died before we were born," Dad said. "He was your grandfather's grandfather."
As the adults talked, I sat on the couch and chewed my sesame candy. So far, the trip to China had been a colorless blend of meeting old relatives, visiting old buildings that dead people made in places that smelled bad, and hours trapped inside a car. The chatter died down.
"Come, we need to visit the graves," Uncle said.
His bulky shoulders shifted as he stood up and pulled his shoes onto his large feet. Dad and Aunt also rose and began putting on their shoes.
On the way out, I stopped at Gu Bing's altar. In his photograph, he rested his arms on the chair like a judge, and his black eyes accentuated his frown. With delicate fingers, I picked up the white-and-blue porcelain inkpot. I held it up in the light, inspecting its chipped and worn corners and black-stained belly. I imagined my great-great-grandfather dipping his quill in it to write his famous poems and stories.
As I set it back on the table, Dad yelled, "Come on! Let's go." His voice shattered the silence, and I jumped. The slippery porcelain pot slid out of my grip and fell to the hardwood floor with a crack. A fracture ran through the pot, and when I picked it up, the two halves fell apart. With shaking hands, I slipped both pieces into my pocket.
Outside, I found Dad, Aunt, and Uncle standing in the sun.
"What took you so long?" Uncle asked, slapping me on the back.
"I went to the bathroom.” My breathing quickened. Dad always told me to be open, and to never keep secrets. He said that hiding mistakes was shameful. But I didn't want to be known as the kid who broke famous great-great-grandfather's inkpot.
Uncle said, "Follow me," and walked down the dirt path.
I followed along another muddy irrigation ditch towards a hill in the distance. The humid air felt like a blistering hot shower on my skin, and no trees blocked the sun from our faces. Strange-looking bugs the size of my thumb flew around my face, making a constant droning noise. In my pocket, the inkpot became a chunk of uranium, slowly cooking my insides with radiation until I would fall dead. When Uncle looked behind at me, I smiled.
A single scraggly tree grew on the summit, casting its shadow on a few large tombstones.
"Those are the graves of our ancestors," Dad said.
The small graveyard looked like Mars. The big rocks were only boulders on top of a hill, inscribed with Chinese glyphs I couldn't read. Was my family even buried here? I had to take Dad and Uncle's word for it. I was pretty sure they wouldn't let me dig down and check.
Uncle stepped in front of the tombstones. "This is your great-great-grandson, from America. He came all the way to see you. He writes poetry, like you. He won the best poet contest at his middle school."
It took a second before I realized he was talking about me. Of course, Uncle didn't know that the night before I copied a poem off the internet and submitted it. Nobody at school bothered to do a plagiarism check before they handed me the “Best Poet” plaque on stage.
My cheeks burned and I shuffled my feet. I pictured my great-great-grandfather, whom I never met, standing with us on the hill, like my dad, only taller than a tree and wearing a massive silk robe. He saw through everything, all the lies I ever told and all the mistakes I ever made. He knew about the time I snuck behind the altar at church and ate a piece of holy bread, and about the time I spilled acetone on the lawn in the shape of a middle finger. He said to me, Keep it up and you'll never win a poetry contest again.
"Bless us with good fortune," Uncle finished.
On the way back, rain drizzled from the dark clouds and drenched us. My shoes stuck in mud so deep that it sucked my tennis shoe right off my foot, and I had to fish it out.
Back at Uncle's house, I stuffed the inkpot inside one of my socks in my suitcase. I showered and changed out of my muddy clothes. I knew my great-great-grandfather had a legendary reputation, but who was he? Why was his inkpot a valued artifact?
Sitting on the bed, I scrolled through his Wikipedia page: "Gu Bing. 1871-1940. A contemporary Chinese poet known for his poems about nature and life. Critics say that his poems were heavily derived or transcribed from ancient Chinese poetry and artwork."
So he plagiarized, too? I snorted.
That night, I fell asleep thinking about how my great-great-grandfather was a figure who everybody revered, but who was a fraud.
The next morning, Dad threw open the blinds. "Come on, it's eight. Get dressed. Your relatives are coming."
"Okay," I mumbled, sitting up in bed and rubbing my eyes. A large yellow sun sat above the mountains on the horizon, blasting its rays through my window. My room already felt like a pressure cooker, and it would become even more unbearable by afternoon. I got up and got dressed. Unzipping my suitcase, I examined the two halves of the inkpot. Could I fix it? Find some super glue and replace it before anyone noticed?
I trudged into the hallway and back into the living room where Aunt, Uncle, and Dad sat.
"Good morning," Aunt said. "Your relatives will be here any minute."
Sure enough, the rumbling, crunching noise of wheels on gravel announced the arrival of Uncle's guests. In a flash, the house was filled with more relatives than I'd ever known: old men with beards, middle-aged women with husbands, and many screaming young children running between everyone's legs. The living room was saturated with the buzz of dozens of conversations until it all blurred together into a loud hubbub.
I was shoved around the room and given a hasty introduction to Aunt Ming the interior designer, Uncle Zhu the acupuncturist, Mr. Huang the insurance salesman, Mrs. Wu the business consultant, and more names than I could ever remember. I shook peoples' hands and forced myself to say, "Thanks for coming," but I wasn't even sure if these were really my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Did they even know me? I was a piece from a different jigsaw puzzle mixed in the box, disconnected from the rest. Or were we all just a big family of phonies?
Over the din, Uncle rang a bell.
"Everyone, line up in front of the altar," he called.
The roar of conversation died down to soft whispers, and the crowd moved to form three roughly straight lines opposite Gu Bing’s altar. My heart drowned in a flash flood that rose up through my legs and into my chest. My throat collapsed in on itself. My pulse was a stopwatch in my ears as my blood vessels dilated. But my hands lay limp at my sides.
"We gather here to honor the great Gu Bing," he started. "He was born 150 years ago today. Come, let us rise, and honor the dead," he finished.
At this signal, the crowd formed a single line snaking along the four walls and between couches and the coffee table heading towards the altar. Uncle beckoned the first person towards the altar. My eyes widened as he grabbed a stick of incense, lit it, muttered a prayer, “Praise our great ancestor,” and placed it inside the incense pot.
Were they all pretending that my great-great-grandfather wasn't a fake? Would he notice the conspicuous dustless square on the table? Should I just admit to my crime right here and now, and tell them all that he was no poet?
One by one, each relative, old and young, performed the same ritual at the altar—right in front of the glaring empty spot where the inkpot used to be. The acid in my stomach churned as I shuffled forwards the altar.
Then, I grabbed a stick of incense. Uncle stood behind me, nodding for me to continue. I touched the tip to a small candle flame on the altar, closed my eyes, copied the incoherent whispering of the other relatives: "Praise our great ancestor," and hoped I wouldn't burn the house down. Like everyone before me, I dropped my stick in the incense pot. After, I sank onto a couch and watched my relatives file through until nobody was left. Then, one by one, they waved goodbye. In twos and threes they walked out of the door, until the living room was empty except for Aunt, Uncle, Dad, and me.
When it was time for us to leave, Aunt and Uncle stood at their front gate waving goodbye.
"Come back to join our ceremony honoring Gu Bing next year," Aunt called out.
"Go win some more poetry contests!" Uncle said.
I waved back and smiled. My right hand gripped my suitcase, which felt as if it were sinking through the mud to the center of the Earth.
"They do this every year?" I whispered to Dad.
"They are very devoted," he chuckled. "Do you want to come back next year?"
"No," I replied too quickly.
The next thing I knew, I was strapped into my seat on the flight home, my suitcase safely stowed overhead with the inkpot inside. I breathed a sigh as the plane flew away from the rural countryside of China.