Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Why the Earth God Is My Favorite God

Image from here

The best god ever.

As you may remember, recently we'd found out we'd have to move. I was stricken - although of all the things I value, the least horrible to lose is our greatly-cherished living space, I still felt sick at the thought of having to leave it when I didn't want to.

Well, things have changed. Although I don't believe in God, or any gods, at least one of these supernatural nonexistent beings is awesome.

One thing I love about folk religion in Taiwan is that you can participate in it without necessarily believing in it. It's hard to wrap one's head around this from a Western mindset, but there is nothing about Chinese folk religion that has a problem with atheists praying at temples. I suppose it is preferable if you believe in the god, but if your question or problem is sincere and visiting a temple gives you some unnameable comfort, or is done out of family or traditional obligation, the act itself is good enough and the mind does not have to be behind it. If you're in Taiwan, ask your friends or students - some really believe, but you'd be surprised how many are agnostic or atheist or "vaguely spiritual" without any clear convictions, who see no problem in participating in temple rituals.

I know in a lot of Western cultures, worshipping when you don't believe is somewhat taboo. I have heard, however, that in some Jewish circles it's fine: you can be an atheist and still participate in the culturally prescribed rituals, but feel free to correct me if I'm wrong there. It seems to be fairly common among cultures where the dominant religion and the culture itself are so deeply intermingled that there is no clear line where secular "culture" ends and "religion" begins.

As I wrote in my last post on the topic:

Side note: one thing I like about Chinese folk gods like Tu Di Gong is that they don't care if you're an atheist. They care that your issue or question is sincere, and that you show up to pray. Even if you don't pray, they may help you. If you do, they may or may not, it depends on their mood or whatever heavenly politics they're involved in at the moment. The idea that an atheist could go to an Earth God shrine in Taipei and pray, despite not believing, is not irreconcilable in this culture. To me this is realistic (either a god will help you or he won't, and praying may help your case, or you may get lucky), echoing how things work in the real world (either you get lucky or you don't). It's a way to make myself feel better, and feel more connected to life in Taiwan. I can do that, and be an atheist. Thanks, Earth God. You're cool.

I also quite like that religion in Taiwan is not a closed-off thing. There's no conversion process. You don't have to attend meetings or go through a ceremony in order to be considered a true believer or "congregation member" of Chinese folk religion. The gods are there, according to local tradition, and you can believe in them or not, pray to them or not (but if your family is traditional you'd better pray to them no matter what, just in case). You don't have to be a believer at all!

And while it's uncommon, and perhaps surprising, when a foreigner goes to a Chinese temple to pray, it's not forbidden, nor is it particularly taboo.

So, when I found out I'd have to move, my Chinese teacher and I went off to the nearest Earth God (土地公) temple, which we were directed to by my doorwoman (who thought it was cute, but wasn't entirely shocked, that I wanted to go). The Earth God isn't a one-off god, every area has its own shrine which oversees property, moving, farming, business and other issues for that area and you have to go to the shrine in your area, so I figured it'd be best to go to the one my doorwoman goes to.

And, lo and behold, that weekend our landlady's sister gave us up to a year to move rather than the original two to three months. Thanks Earth God!

Over the next few weeks, we looked at 5-10 apartments, and liked only one of them. It was in our lane, so the neighborhood was the same. It had a different - not better, not worse, just different - layout. I liked the better-designed kitchen, separate living and dining areas, two large bedrooms (one could be both a guest room and an office), and two recently renovated bathrooms, one of which had a Japanese fancy magic toilet.  The downsides were refrigerator and washer/dryer spaces that didn't quite fit our appliances and some traffic noise, no outdoor casement for my bougainvillea, orchids and mint, and no window looking out on a courtyard.

We wanted to take it, but the agent's fee was one full month paid by us, and we had to move in almost immediately. Yeeeaahhh that's a big ol' sack of NOPE. We told him we were interested, but the highest agent fee we'd ever seen was half a month paid by tenants, and we couldn't move until April. He said he'd "let us know" and then we didn't hear from him for two weeks, so we figured the answer was "no".

About two weeks later I was doing my morning tutoring in Zhonghe (I don't do it for the money). My bus sideswiped a car soon after I boarded, and rather than wait for the next one after traffic cleared, I walked to Burma Street (華新街) for lunch. Then I grabbed a bus to Ximen, figuring I needed to pick up some more Imigran and it would be fun to wander around Red House and the arts&crafts market. I passed a few people bearing huge flags that said "Normalize the Recognition of Formosa State" and took some photos. At some point on my jaunt, my phone battery died.

I didn't buy anything at the market, figuring I needed to watch my cash flow if I was going to have to move at some point in the near future, and grabbed another bus home. This one stopped very close to the Earth God shrine, so I decided it was time to go back and say hello, thank him for his help so far and ask for his continued support. You know, like ya do. 

But this time I was alone, no Chinese teacher. It was a stuffy afternoon, with a pale yellow sun whose light felt blunted by the haze. The sky was that hot Taipei white that is neither cloudy nor fully sunny. I felt a bit weird - being a weekend, there were more people at the temple and I felt watched. Why would she need to pray? I sat at a bench at the far end of the temple enclosure. Is she just tired? Do foreigners go to temples? Hmm. 

Nobody said that - but I could feel it. Or I was making it all up in my head. I don't know. I still have a lot of baggage from growing up in a culture where it's odd both be an atheist and go to a place of worship. Plus, I still wasn't entirely sure a foreigner would be welcome to take part in this cultural ritual, although all of my experiences have pointed to the contrary. 

What's more, I really, really did not want to get involved in cultural appropriation - real or seeming. And I wasn't sure if this counted.

And yet by doing this, I did feel more connected to Taiwan. I live here, my "property" (well, my rental property) is here, and the god looks out over that property, and there's no set of rules on who can pray to him and who can't. I was looking at this as someone who wants to be more connected to the place where she lives and learn about it by living it, not someone who wants to take on the elements from another culture so she can feel cool or special. But I wasn't sure if that would come across to others. So.

I sat on that bench for a good 40 minutes, both gathering the courage to talk to a god I didn't believe in, and waiting until there were fewer people around so I could do so in relative privacy. After swinging back and forth on it, and feeling really out of place in a way I hadn't since I'd first moved to Taiwan 8 years ago, I decided to go for it. 

The way to pray is this: you check the number of incense sticks that go in each burner, and what order they go in. You light the appropriate number (it's usually posted on a sign near the incense). First you stand facing away from the shrine, toward the large burner in front - that usually gets a few sticks, this one got three. You should repeat your prayer. Then you face the temple and pray again. You can murmur but don't speak out. Add a stick to that burner. Then go inside, on the right (the side with the dragon) and pray to the gods inside and put a stick in that burner. Then there's a small tiger god under the Earth God - only at Earth God shrines - he gets a stick too. People looking to succeed in business will put their business cards around the burner down there. Then you exit via the tiger door. When you pray, you should give your name and address so "the god knows where to find you".

I lit the incense, walked to the burners and started the familiar murmur (in Chinese, although one would think the gods could understand any language): My name is Jenna, I live at Fuxing South Road Section....number...I want to thank you for...and I hope you can...

My phone had been out of batteries for about 2 hours at this point. When I got home and plugged it in, within minutes it lit up with a message from the agent of the one apartment we'd liked. The call was time-stamped at about the time I'd been at the temple.

I called him back - we could have the apartment on our terms! Yay!

I punched Brendan's name - he agreed. Let's do this.

I called the landlady's sister. And...

Oh, I was going to tell you. 

You were?

I found another place to live. You don't have to move. I'm OK in this new place.


I confirmed three times: so we can stay? So do we have to look for another apartment? So you won't move in?

Then I confirmed with the landlady, who didn't really know but confirmed later that her sister was telling it true. We didn't have to move.

We don't have to move!

It was probably a coincidence, but the idea that I'd find out right after I'd been to the Earth God temple to ask for his continued help (and to admit I still did not, in fact, want to move although I'd accepted that I'd have to), with the catalyst being a phone call that came at just about the moment when I was praying...that's odd.

A week after that, I got together some Ghirardelli dark chocolate sea salt squares, a box of brown sugar mochi (I hear the Earth God likes sweets, especially mochi) and three tasty ripe oranges. You're supposed to bring three or five things, and if one of them (say, a piece of fruit) is small, you should bring three pieces to make up that one part of your odd-numbered offering.

And the fact that the landlady's sister wouldn't think to tell us we didn't have to move until right after I'd been to the temple, in a way that seems kind of weird (you'd think she'd have called us once she'd made that decision - the whole thing seemed rather sudden) - that's odd too. Odd and wonderful, like offerings numbered one, three, five or seven.

This time the sky was a roiling gray, spraying rain down at random intervals like someone spastically turning a showerhead on and off. It was a Friday - the temple was almost empty. I unpacked my offerings - this time I didn't feel weird about it. The Earth God (who isn't real) did us a real solid (which was very real), he deserved this offering and I was going to give it to him.

1 comment:

J. Lin said...

I think the Earth God seems like a pretty chill god as far as gods go and your story was pretty amusing to me.

Really enjoyed your post!