September, 5th 2017 was a warm autumn night, and my roomie and I decided to go on a food item hunt at 11.15pm. What began as a little adventure around the block to five different convenient stores turned into another classical case of too little cultural knowledge clashing with too much of it.
The minute we stepped outside, we saw the fires. We had unwittingly made our way into a minefield. It was China’s Ghost Festival, or Hungry Ghost Festival, the day on which people honour their dead by burning paper money, houses, cars or even iPhones.
I learnt very early on from Mr Li that the white circles that people draw onto the sidewalk with chalk, and in which they place the items to burn, need to be avoided at all costs, since this is where the ghosts lurk to pick up their offerings. Walking over their circle is tantamount to walking across their grave. It can only end one way: you will be haunted by a pretty pissed off ghost. My roomie knew even better than me to stay away from the white circles.
However, as well as our intentions might have been, this proved a lot more tricky than we initially thought. With half of the lanterns not working, spotting the circles was incredibly difficult and once you found one, there tended to be a whole cluster, so we started hopping in between this supernatural minefield, half wondering if anyone was filming the crazy foreigners jumping around chalk circles and giggling manically (out of fear of lingering ghosts, more than anything).
In the end, we decided to walk on the street, choosing rather to be run over by a speeding car than risk the wrath of Beijing’s deceased. We made it all the way to our final store, and upon having discovered the items we were after, euphorically made our way home.
“WAAAAAAAHHHHH, SHIT!”, my roomie screamed.
In our celebratory mood, we had started babbling about random things and…walked straight into the biggest minefield of white chalk circles with grey and white ash heaps in the middle. Four years ago, I would have laughed about it and walked off, but four years in China and I found myself cursing. It seems the superstitions I always made fun of had come back to haunt me after all.
Luckily, my switched-on roomie had the solution – when we got home, we would throw salt over our shoulder.
“A Western solution for a Chinese ghost problem. It’ll work”, I decided.
When we did return, it was straight to work, though we couldn’t decide which shoulder to throw the salt over. We started with left for Communism, and then did the right for good measure. Let’s hope our failure to pay attention won’t, in the end, come full chalk circle.
Addendum: As I was researching for this piece, after I had returned from a stroll past midnight, having complained about the circles being everywhere and taken photos of the food items I purchased (luckily not of myself), hung up my wet clothes and combed my hair in front of a mirror, I found this helpful slideshow that only made matters worse. It was nice knowing you, everyone!