By Laura Bowden
Today we woke up early for breakfast to eat with Paul’s sister and mother. It was good, as usual, but strange, I never thought I’d eat seaweed salad for breakfast. Then we left for Paul’s uncles only an hour or so away. The temple was in the middle of a poorer county far away from the city. The road was dirt and we passed a donkey and cart on the way to Xingcheng. The actual temple, however, was big and new. One of Paul’s uncles rebuilt the entire series of buildings in the 80’s. The colors were brighter than the traditional authentic temples and buildings we’ve seen like in the Forbidden City or the Temple of Heaven, but it was refreshing to see what the temples would look like when they were new.
When I stepped inside, right foot first, as women are supposed to do, I was immediately hit with the strong scent of incense and smoke. The smell was overpowering at first, but it only took a few minutes for my focus to return to the statues of gods behind glass. There was food and cushions in front of the gods and Paul reluctantly showed us how to pray. The food wasn’t anything fancy like we’ve seen for Buddhist offerings, only small rolls and other types of bread that tasted like watermelon.
There were a few temples, each one with different gods, some men some women, each serving a different purpose. The temples were surrounded by dirt and sand, when we asked they told us that the construction was only 30% finished. There were many gods we learned about but the one that stuck out the most was a goddess that could change into 32 different identities. I didn’t pray to any, not because I didn’t want to but after 16 years without a religion I didn’t want to pray to an unknown deity without a reason.
After Xingcheng we ate with Paul’s father and uncle in a house three times bigger than my own. There was more food than the six of us could eat on their own. We weren’t excited to leave due to the four hour bus ride back to Beijing, but we said our goodbyes to Paul, who we won’t be seeing for a few days.
Nothing significant happened after this, but there were some things that I noticed today that were unfamiliar. There was one man who came to visit us at Xingcheng who, when he came to greet us, skipped over me when shaking hands. I didn’t really notice at first, just thinking it was my own fault for not raising my hand on time or some other mistake. Then it happened again when we were leaving – he noticeably skipped over my hand and shook the other’s. I was rightfully offended but didn’t say anything until we got in the car. Fortunately, everyone else on the trip noticed as well, leading to a lengthy discussion about sexism and gender roles in China.
Today was an eventful day but I’m glad to go back to Beijing. I’ve missed the city for a while and I was excited to go on a trip to one of the largest in China. So, after a four hour car trip we found our way back and we’ll stay here in Beijing for the rest of the trip. I’m sad that we only have a few days left. I hope the rest will be just as amazing as the beginning!