Ghost Day 9-5-09

Today is the 15th day of the seventh Lunar month, otherwise known as Ghost Day, a day people gather to burn incense and hell money, and lay out lavish amounts of food to feed hungry ghosts. During the seventh lunar month, the gates of hell open up to allow ghosts of the deceased to roam the earth. For the entire month, ghosts haunt the streets looking for trouble, which is why people do all kinds of things to appease them. For the past few days, I’ve seen altars full of food, incense, and hell money set up in front of shops, banks, and police stations to appease the hungry ghosts that may pass by their establishments. Some people were even burning paper clothes, cars, and houses for the ghosts to use in the underworld.

When I was little, my biggest memory of Ghost Day was of my mom cooking a huge feast that always included a whole chicken for the altar that we would set up on the front balcony. Along with the chicken, there would also be a whole fried fish, vegetables, a bowl of rice, some fresh fruits, and maybe some packages of sweets as a treat. I would hungrily ask when we would be able to eat, trying to sneak a piece of a cookie when no one was looking. Sometimes my mom would save me the chicken giblets to keep me quiet rather than put them on the platter along with the chicken for the ghosts. I always thought this meant that like most people, ghosts didn’t really like liver either. I would stare at the altar full of offerings and ponder deep philosophical questions such as can ghosts really be hungry? Who opens up the gates of hell and why do they get opened in the first place? Since the food doesn’t really appear eaten, how do we know when the ghosts have finished? Why do we burn hell money for them? I mean, it’s not like there’s a shop in the underworld for them to spend this money, is there? My mom would simply tell me to stop asking so many questions and stop touching the food; the ghosts and ancestors have to eat first!

Today was the first time I’ve spent Ghost Day in Taiwan since I was a child and I quickly realized that many things have changed with the times. The neighborhood association of the condominium where I live decided to have all residents set up a communal altar in the courtyard of our apartment building. I suppose this was to help appease hungry ghosts who might otherwise have thought about messing with our neighborhood. Tables were laden with food, drinks, ghost money, and incense, while neighbors gathered to chat and catch up on the latest gossip. I looked for the whole chickens and fried fish of my youth on the altar tables, but instead found Lays potato chips and super-sized liter bottles of Coca Cola, instant noodles and seaweed crackers, cases of rice crackers and more cans of foods I didn’t recognize. I realized that I often expect things to stay as I remember from my childhood, and become surprised when things have changed. When I was little, there was no such thing as Costco-sized Doritos or “Family” size bottles of sodas. But with Taiwan becoming more internationalized and westernized, it seems that people strive to change. However, as a returning Taiwanese, I find myself wanting things to remain as I remembered them two decades ago. When chatting with a neighbor, I mentioned how we never offered diet Cola Cola to the ghosts when I was little. She said jokingly that the ghosts today are younger and cooler so it’s more fashionable to set up offerings of diet Cokes and Cheetos than the old-fashioned spreads of my childhood. I began to feel very nostalgic. And this lead to more unanswered questions: how do ghosts feel about eating cases of instant beef noodles instead of my mom’s fried fish? As the ghosts now eat more westernized processed foods, are they becoming fatter? What do Taiwanese ten-year-olds snack on now while waiting for the ghosts to finish their feasts? And what other ways do we need to appease the younger, more fashionable Taiwanese ghosts so we can be spared from their wrath?

About the Author

Chieni was born in Taiwan and moved to the States permanently when she was 12. This means she grew up both in Taiwan and in the US. Now she looks at Taiwan both as an insider and an outsider. She is an insider because she speaks the language and knows some of the customs. She is an outsider because she doesn’t always understand the customs. She has a beautiful little girl now to show off to her family and the locals.

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