Incense and Sons: A Family Tragedy

For sons – and the parents who both love and endure them

Today is Lunar New Year’s Eve, and throughout the world people are celebrating the arrival of the Year of Ox in the company of family and friends. I, too, am filled with joy during this happy season, though my festive mood on this day is always complicated by the memory of an event that happened long ago on a Lunar New Year’s Eve in China.

taiwan-flagIt was my immense good fortune to be able to teach for a year at Chung-Hsing University in Taichung, Taiwan, Republic of China. I have always had excellent students, but those whom it was my pleasure and honor to teach at Chung-Hsing were simply extraordinary in every meaningful way. However, they play only an incidental role in what proved to be my New Year’s Eve calamity.

In order for this tale to have any sort of cautionary value, which I certainly hope that it does, readers need to know that when I went to teach in Taiwan it was in the company of my pregnant wife and our two-year-old son, and this boy is at least partly responsible for the tragic mistake that I made in a temple on the advent of the Year of the Rooster. I know that engaging in stereotyping is always risky, but this child has aggressively red hair, and in his temperamental character and wayward behavior he confirmed everything that my wife and I had been told to expect; he is also left-handed, and so many intelligent individuals reading these words are already asking, “Why did you keep him?” I do not mean to avoid responsibility in this matter, but for some reason his mother is fond of this boy, and so, despite the evidence of her senses and my constant pleas for her to allow me to set him adrift on the Arctic ice floes, she insisted on feeding him and letting him sleep indoors. My Asian readers will understand when I state that this child was misfortunate enough to have been born in the Year of the Horse. He even has a Chinese name – “Heavenly Mountain” – and he has certainly continued to dominate the horizon of our family life.

Our first semester in China did little to disabuse this capricious brute of the notion that he was the most important being on the planet. Every time we would push him in his pram through the market or down the street, people would come up to him, rub his hair, and give him treats. He soon began accepting these tributes as his due, and his carrot-topped arrogance reached a pinnacle of insufferability when, as a courtesy, several students insisted on taking the Little King for a walk each day, so that my wife could rest in the late afternoon. This might sound immensely considerate on their part, and it was, but it also had unforeseen consequences. One day the boy returned home from his walk, demanded a piece of candy, and when my wife said “No,” he got a puzzled look on his face and asked, “What is ‘no’?” It turned out that the students were buying him any confection that he pointed to, and he simply could not imagaine anyone contesting his imperial whims.

At any rate, the point of this digression is that we already had a son, a profoundly problematical son, and so we very much wanted our second child to be a daughter, not the least because we feared that a second son would push our family life beyond disaster and into outright calamity. I will now move forward to New Year’s Eve, but readers must keep in mind the stupendous hardships that my wife and I had endured in trying to raise a red-headed, left-handed, Horse child.

lung-shan-templeOne of my students courteously invited us to spend part of our holiday vacation with her family in Taipei, and on New Year’s Eve, one of her uncles took me to the city’s magnificent Lung Shan – Dragon Mountain – Temple to witness the evening’s festivities. As we entered the temple, we each purchased a huge bundle of incense, and as we proceeded down its many corridors, we would place an appropriate number of incense sticks in the urns standing before the icons of deities and important historical figures. The urns in front of the City God, Lao-tzu, Buddha, and Confucius were enormous, but I made certain to pay my respects to all the Worthies, including and especially the God of Literature. My guide, a very successful businessman, urged me to place a large number of sticks in the urn reserved for the God of Wealth, and I did, though to no discernable effect. We had been in the temple for more than three hours, it was very early in morning of the first day of the Year of the Rooster, and I was tired, and so my fatigue contributed to my making the disastrous error which would forever change the course of my life.

We were approaching one of the temple’s many exits, and I was placing one or two incense sticks in the urns of some minor deities, when I noticed that the next urn was actually a full-fledged conflagration, since it was filled with so much burning incense that people actually had to stand back and toss their sticks into the fire from a considerable distance. My guide urged me to throw my remaining sticks into this urn, and since I had so many left, it seemed like a good idea. I looked at the figure of the deity above the urn, but I did not recognize him, and I had grown too sleepy to bother asking who he was. I therefore tossed about twenty incense sticks into the inferno, more than I had offered to Lao-tzu, Buddha, and Confucius, and then turned to ask my student’s uncle who it was that I had just so deeply honored. “Oh,” he casually replied, “this is the god who assures that you will have only male children.”

I immediatly jumped into the urn, in a desperate and futile attempt to retrieve my incense, and in the process singed my eyebrows, scorched my shirt, and torched my hopes for a daughter. Two months later our second son was born, we named him “Heavenly Ocean,” and we began our slow but inevitable family journey beyond disaster and into calamity. My students tried to console me after my disappointment by telling me that I was probably too virile to father female children – a claim which my wife inconsiderately disputed – and while I have no doubt that these wise young scholars were in some measure correct, in subsequent years this suggestion proved to be but a small crumb of comfort. However, I can at least claim that one of my sons is Chinese, and if you doubt his ethnicity, he will be more than happy to show you his tattoo, which reads “Made in Taiwan,”
though skeptics should also be warned that its location on his body is somewhat unorthodox.

I wish that my chronicle of folly ended there, but it does not. When we returned to the United States, I decided that the influence of the god who assures that you will have only male children could not possibly extend beyond the precincts of the Middle Kingdom. My pride was, of course, appropriately punished, and in 1984 we moved beyond calamity and into catastrophe with the birth of our third son, “Heavenly Aspiration,” though as in the case of his older brothers, the term “Heavenly” in his name has come to have decidedly ironic implications. This boy at least has the Chinese-sounding nickname “Chan,” though this is small compensation for my having had to endure the vagaries involved in helping to raise Moe, Larry, and Curly.

I sometimes curse the god who assures that you will have only male children, though silently, to be sure. I try to look on what I call the bright side of things, by which I mean the less dark, of course, by thinking of how much worse it would have been if this cruel-hearted deity had decreed that our last two sons would be twins, but this is not something that I can contemplate for very long without either weeping or seeking solace in strong drink. At any rate, I concede that this is not really a very effective cautionary tale. If its point is something like “always keep your wits about you when in a Chinese temple on New Year’s Eve,” few people would find my advice worth heeding. If I were to state that its message is “don’t have sons,” I run two risks: Happy couples – by which I mean those without sons – could not possibly appreciate the depth of my sincerity and would likely regard me as a sort of Ancient Mariner who wanders the planet uselessly and annoyingly recounting his tale of woe to people who don’t want to hear it; conversely, misfortunate parents already burdened with sons have nothing to learn from my narrative, though I do hope that they give some thought to taking their boys for a “vacation” on the Arctic ice floes. Despite my disappointment in this matter, I do offer people who want to have sons (called “fools”) and parents who have sons (called “martyrs”) a last bit of advice that could someday prove useful. I once saw a wonderful Chinese painting called “Drowning the Unfilial Son,” and I have thought about it often while suffering the countless provocations of my offspring, and if I am ever able to find reproductions of this masterpiece, I will send a copy to each of my deserving sons. I urge both those who want sons and those who already have them to consider doing the same.

I wish everyone a Happy New Year, but I wish especially good things for all sons and for the parents who love them so deeply.

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One Response to Incense and Sons: A Family Tragedy

  1. madelinehoran says:

    Dr Neralich, I remember you telling this story in class, but I’m afraid I heard it wrong. Knowing your distaste for women in general, I thought that once you heard that this would ensure male children, you threw everything into the fire in a passionate acceptance!

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