Tuesday, July 03, 2007

"Thank you for the ride, Train!"

There's a tradition in Chinese culture where we gather every year at the graves of our ancestors and relatives, to have a celebration in their honour. My grandparents, uncle and great uncles are buried in Mount Royal cemetary in Montreal, and we, the Toronto gang, would travel back to Montreal annually in June to meet with our Montreal relatives for this tradition, and also as our annual family reunion.

We bring flowers, and my aunt orders a roast pig, lots of yummy Chinese treats including dim sum favourites such as shrimp dumplings and pork siu mai. And the sweetest "butter rolls" that we swear are only available in Montreal. After the gravestones are cleared and the flowers are planted, there are three small cups of liquor set up, with three chopsticks, three small dishes with egg and pieces of meat, we light some incense candles and burn fake paper money (as an offering - apparently my grandpa liked to gamble and drink!). Then, according to hierarchy (with my Dad now being the eldest), we all take turns paying our respects, by bowing our heads three times in front of each grave. They in turn will bring us luck and good fortune. And then we literally have a picnic at the cemetary - eating and drinking something with my deceased relatives. When I was a teenager, it seemed slightly morbid to me, but now I see it as something that is part of my culture and the closest I can get to my grandmother (who cared for me as a tot) and uncle, who had passed just before I got married. I never knew my grandfather, so the only time I've spent with him is on Mount Royal. Ian took some nice pictures of the site, but I'm not sure whether it's bad karma or verboten, so although I really wanted to, I decided against publishing them here.

I remember the first time we brought Ian with us, we were just engaged so he was officially pretty much in the family. He was awestruck by the whole thing, and bowed his head in respect as my mother directed. She said to him "do it, it will bring good luck and money!". You wouldn't believe this, but on a pitstop on the 401 where we had stopped to have a washroom/coffee break from the drive, a piece of paper came flying up to Ian and it turned out to be a crumpled up $20 bill! Since then, he's only too happy to bow to the graves!

I'll have to admit that since we've had kids, we haven't been regular participants. Either I was trying to get pregnant, or actually pregnant (which wasn't ideal to make the trip or climb the hill) or work schedules made it difficult. But this year we thought we should go, as most of my Montreal relatives hadn't yet met the littlest one, and she's already 2 1/2. But with all the driving Ian does regularly on his commute to work, the last thing he wanted to do was embark on a 6 hour journey of boring highway. So we decided to take the train with our parents and the kids. We had already been talking to Liam about taking the train since he began his fascination with Thomas the Tank back at the age of 18 months. It took us almost 7 years, but we finally booked it.

And then had to cancel and re-book it. Yes, the first train ticket I booked to take my son on a long-awaited train ride for June 29, had to be cancelled because of the first National Day of Action to be held in Canada. I won't get into the politics of it all, as the native dispute goes back centuries, but it was just a minor inconvenience for us in the whole scheme of things. Nevertheless, we still made it to Montreal, just a day later than planned.

The train really is the way to go. Although it wasn't entirely relaxing for me (it never is - I mean, I'm the mother of a 7 year old and a 2 year old, it's just not in the job description!). They have pre-boarding, so we could find seats for the 4 of us, and grandparents not far. We brought our own food and drinks, DVD players, reading material --- we were all set. Leaving the house at 6 AM on a Saturday morning did make it a long trip - with all the delays due to the VIA rail cancellations, we rolled into Montreal closer to 2 PM than the scheduled 12:30. It was an adventure, and both kids had fun, especially Giselle, who we had to remind to use her "quiet" voice every so often as she exclaimed in wonder about the scenery outside or the funny noises that the train would make as it hit certain bumps on the track.

Montreal is such a happening city, but with the visits with family and the shortness of each visit, we haven't been able to see much of it every time we go. We managed to see some of the Jazz Festival when Liam was about 3 years old. My objective this visit was to take the family to the Biodome, which is having its 15th anniversary this year. We took our folks with us and it was a real treat for them to see the kids enjoying the penguins, birds, monkeys and fish, all in four different ecosystems that while not the real thing, was probably the next best thing for our animal friends.

Giselle managed to wrangle a cute little piggy toy from Grandpa as a souvenir of the visit. He was impressed at her restraint as he offered to buy the bigger one but she wanted the baby!

We caught up with most of the cousins (they are older than me, so their kids are either living elsewhere or away at university). My youngest cousin has two boys aged 12 and 13 so Liam got on very well with them, and he is very anxious to start learning French now that he knows they're bilingual.

As the train rolled into Union Station yesterday, Giselle pretty much said it for all of us as she yelled down the car "Thank you for the ride, Train!".


Cherry said...

I recently learned that this very tradition is what has torn me from my Chinese heritage. My father's refusal to continue to pay as he rose up the heirarchy ripped the family apart and I haven't spoken to his side of the family since I was little, and haven't seen my cousin's since the last trip to the cemetary, and all I remember is the yummy roast pig.

I find this incredibly sad, as I have now married and am about to change my last name and my remaining connection I have to that history. Now I will have to read books/the internet to tell my future kids of the culture, instead of having them experience it.

I think it's wonderful that you took your two on the trek. A wonderful trip I'm sure they will remember.

therapydoc said...

Beautiful kids, lovely tradition.

pinks & blues girls said...

Wow, what a wonderful tradition, and how nice that you could make such a fun trip out of it for all.

Great photos, great memories for you all! Thank you for sharing!

Jane, P&B Girls

Chrissy121875 said...

Lovely post, Karen! I wish I had learned more about my Chinese heritage. I learned a bit about our traditions and past, but I know more about my mother's cutlure (she's from the Philippines). I wish I had learned the Chinese language and more about the traditions.

Now that I'm married to John, our kids will be Chinese-Trinidadian-Filipino-Spanish-Scottish-English-Welsh-Canadian. *phew* That was a mouthful!

PS. As a Montrealer, I have to agree with you about Montreal being a happening city! It's still my home and I can't wait to get back there in August for my cousin's wedding in Old Montreal.

Karen MEG said...

Cherry - that is very sad, and from a personal perspective I have seen some breakups in families because of the sometimes very rigid views in some Chinese communities. My family is quite liberal in the whole scheme of things. The good news is that Chinese culture is fairly prevalent in N. America, so it won't be totally foreign to your future kids. Although I feel more Canadian than anything else, you are right, this type of trip is important for my kids, if not just to stay connected to their family and roots.
Hi Therapydoc! Thanks for popping in!
Jane, I hope to do this more often although it will get harder once the kids get their own actvities going.
Chrissy, what a beautiful mixing of cultures your kids will be! Ours are Chinese-Scottish-German-Canadian. With a very German surname, we've thrown people a curve with our Irish named big boy!


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