I think about death a lot.
But not in a morbid way, sitting in dimly lit corners of dreary hotels, chain-smoking and muttering Albert Camus quotes.
Only Albert Camus does that.
The feeling I have towards death is not anticipation but apprehension. A curious nervousness about a probable future, the way prepubescent girls see an anatomical drawing of a penis in sex-ed class for the first time and think, What is that monstrosity? Where am I even supposed to put one of those things? I mean, do you get some measurements first, like at an Ikea, or is this more of a flea market situation where you just bring it home and hope you can find a suitable place for it?
Like sexual activity, death is something you eventually have to plan for. In the meantime, it is something you had a better plan around. But at any stage of life, it seems unwise to just ignore its existence and hope it never finds you.
Unfortunately for me, America is unusually squeamish about death. In many other countries, where people are still accustomed to dying of tuberculosis or hepatitis instead of old age, I would be considered perfectly normal. But in the US, people seem to have an unnatural obsession with avoiding death. Elderly dogs are sent upstate. Elderly people are sent to senior homes. Even the killing of household pests is usually outsourced to professionals, to say nothing of the slaughter of higher-order vertebrates for food.
When my parents purchased their house in California, they learned that real estate agents were legally required to disclose if anyone had died in the home within the past three years.
“Where else would people die?” I asked.
It was a reasonable question. I recall seeing a Chinese movie as a child in which an older man with some terminal illness is sitting in a hospital bed, crying inconsolably. His son asks if he is afraid to die. “I am not afraid to die,” the old man replies with a wail. “I am afraid to die here.” The son takes his father home to die with dignity in his own bed.
The movie was not particularly sad by Chinese standards. For all I know, it may have been a comedy. One of the highest-grossing Chinese films of all time is The Mermaid, a 2016 movie that devotes a great deal of screen time to a graphic genocide of merpeople. The copious amount of death did not preclude this movie from being classified as a romantic comedy.
I know all this runs counter to the perception that Chinese people are a superstitious bunch who fear the concept of death so much that they will avoid something as mundane as the number four (sì) because it sounds similar to the word for death (sǐ). This is true in the same sense that Americans are a superstitious bunch who put so much stock in horoscopes that they are published daily in major newspapers. In both cases, you can certainly find people behaving that way on special occasions. Still, if someone took the issue so seriously that it actually affected their day-to-day life, it would be grounds for some kind of intervention involving mental health professionals.
Death is actually bandied about quite liberally in everyday Chinese speech. Pleco, the bilingual dictionary app of choice for Chinese Americans, lists extremely, stubbornly, inflexible, closed, rigid, and damned, among other words, as secondary definitions for sǐ. The correspondence isn’t exact, but if you imagine the word death taking the place of all those words in English, that will give you a decent idea of the frequency with which it crops up in everyday Chinese speech. Fastened windows and clogged pipes are shut to death. To stop pursuing a romantic interest is to let your heart die. Common dangers include not only being worried to death or scared to death but also annoyed to death, delighted to death, laughing to death, angered to death, and so on. Preferring death to admitting a mistake, changing one’s mind, letting something go are all common expressions, hardly considered hyperbole.
Children are not shielded from death either. Chinese children could expect casual threats of being kicked to death, beaten to death, choked to death, and all manners of crude homicides for mild misbehavior, without ever experiencing physical child abuse.
“If you don’t finish your food, I will twist off your head and pour it down your neck,” my aunt told me at the dinner table once. “And then I will screw your head back on.”
I gulped. I was about five at the time, old enough to know that decapitation was an irreversible process usually resulting in death. But I was not old enough to know if my aunt also knew that. I had learned about beheadings from a TV show, one that I didn’t think she watched.
It did not occur to five-year-old me that there might be multiple TV shows from which one could learn about beheadings.
Perhaps my aunt would carry out her threat and discover, too late, that simply realigning my head with my torso did not revive me from the dead. And then she would be sorry.
Of course, I would be sorrier.
I was already much too full. My aunt was the one who had portioned out rice for the whole table, and my bowl was just as full as hers, despite a significant size disparity between us. But I started eating again as my life depended on it, which I thought it did. Eventually, my mother noticed me crying into my food and took pity on me by scooping the rest of my rice into her bowl.
But she was not exactly a coddler on the subject of death either.
“There’s trouble with Taiwan,” she warned me not long after we moved to America, pointing to the TV.
I looked over. A news program was on, showing some military-looking ships at sea. “What is that?”
“Chinese-American relations are not good right now,” she said. “The mainland and Taiwan might go to war, and America is going to side with Taiwan.”
I later found out this was the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-96. Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui wanted a visa to enter the US to attend a college reunion at his alma mater, Cornell. The US Secretary of State promised China no visa would be issued, as US policy did not officially recognize Taiwan in any way. But then Congress complained to the State Department, and a visa was issued after all. China took great offense at this sudden change in diplomatic relations and began conducting missile tests in the Taiwan Strait. The US got counter-offended, and President Clinton sent a fleet of naval carriers to the South China Sea. Eventually, things settled down, but it was a very exciting few months on the international stage of will they or won’t they… nuke each other?
For families like mine, living in America without American passports or even green cards, this was an awkward situation, to say the least. We were in the country on valid visas, but visas were sort of like library books. You had to be vigilant not to lose them. The short loan periods hardly allowed you any time to enjoy their benefits before you had to start worrying about renewals, which were sometimes denied with no warning if too many other people wanted them. Certainly, no one would give a damn about them if a war broke out.
I wasn’t clear on how such things worked at the time, but even at the age of eight, I knew our immigration status was a constant source of background anxiety in the house.
“What does this mean?” I asked my mom.
“It means we may be deported,” she said absent-mindedly. “Or executed.”
I don’t know how serious a possibility my mother really thought this was at the time. But I was at that magical age when death was real, all truths were literal, and childhood was just the default state of existence, not some rose-tinted period of innocence that granted immunity from real-world troubles like capital punishment.
Do we get to choose? I wanted to ask. Because deportation sounds preferable.
It did not occur to eight-year-old me that it was possible to be both deported and executed if you did it in the right order.
I also did not yet know that executions in America were typically the lily-livered type done with pentobarbital. The only execution-style I was familiar with was the type in historical Chinese dramas, where anyone who displeased the emperor was thrown onto a wooden block and their head chopped off with an ax. I had seen my father cut up meat with a butcher’s knife before and knew that the neck tendons often required multiple hacks. I wondered how much of the head had to be separated before you were dead, and it didn’t hurt anymore.
When I hesitantly voiced a question about death by decapitation, my mother helpfully informed me that Chinese executions were carried out by firing squad instead.
In America, you could not tell children such things. I don’t think you could even tell adults such things. Any child who had been threatened with execution by a parent, however idly, would likely spend their adult life making some therapist very wealthy. But no one raises an eyebrow about such things in Chinese families. If children are old enough to die, they are old enough to know about it.
It occurs to me that I do not know the Chinese word for therapist. I pull out my phone and open up my Pleco app.
No results found.