Travelling to the remote Tibetan plateau to cremate my own mother and bringing her ashes back with me on Mother’s Day.
Perhaps it is unfilial of me not to spend the entire time sobbing away and mourning the loss of a great woman who happens to be my parent; perhaps I was too absorbed in the pain of altitude sickness at 3500 metres and clutching to my head which felt like it was caught in a wheel clamp; or perhaps it is the entire incredulous facade of China that made me feel that we are all headed for a doom in the near future.
Sipping on a cup of coffee that tasted like ground tea bark in Chengdu airport which reminds me of a busy bus terminal, thousands on passengers on little Boeing 737s jetting off by the minute to little cities littered around the western provinces, I was surprised that 1. Tree Bark tasting Coffee cost more in China than Singapore and 2. people were sipping tree bark coffee and taking flights like nobody’s business in a land where income per capita was averaging SGD700-800 per month.
Throwing away the coffee in disgust, I was confronted by another aspect of Chinese value system. Business class consists of only 8 seats with Cartier decked folk preferring to endure the torture of economy class on rickety old planes than pay for business.
Arriving in Lhasa, another confounding discovery. There are no Tibetans there. Everyone I came into contact with was, at most, half Tibetan or Chinese. Wandering around in a bureaucratic maze, involving political negotiations that required about a dozen slips of little papers to be stamped 5 times each, I waited to see my mom. No half measures in doing business with the authorities there; a sympathetic nod but eyes on the wad of RMB I had brought along, 1 official payments for every 3 unofficial ones; and absolutely no sense of urgency in leaving my mommy in the mountains until the money has been wired in, all USD6 thousand for the car to set out, which was finally picked up by insurance.
Everyone profited from my mom’s death. The driver who said it was inauspicious to drive me to the crematorium, the interpreter, the guides, the undertaker, the undertaker’s companions and finally, the tour guide who led my mom’s group on a trip to hell probably earned 3 times his annual wages with thousands of RMB coming from the survivors and the families of the non survivors. What a great boost for the underground economy driven by graft at all levels.
I saw my mommy 5 days after her death. She looked at peace and with a pinkish glow despite weathering the harsh elements of the Tibetan outback without proper morgue facilities ie, kept in a tent and a bit of snow. I felt a mixed rush of pride and deep sadness as tears poured forth. I was taking her home with me, arriving on Mother’s Day, not before paying the driver who delivered the ashes a ransom of RMB 1000. Is it any wonder that I feared for my life there, repeatedly assuring the Chinese tour operator in Singapore my family would be not suing her for fear of an accident to befall me ?
Back to the modernity of the Chengdu airport with its assortment of random buckets to catch leaks in quick fix repairs compensating for rapid progress. We have aluminium taped air con ducts wearing out fast along with patched walls and broken tiles that looked quite new. This is China. Root Rot Country with tree bark coffee.
I clutch to my mommy as we head home.
Great on China and the megapolises of its cities. Great on China and the awe it inspires in the rest of the world. Great on China that the GDP is probably understated in a big way.
So great that I better avoid the place as a destination or investment opportunity. Because root rot goes a long way, even to the top of the world.