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Buddhist Builders

September 5, 2008

From The Telegraph
By Rosie Milne

You know that old chestnut about moving being almost as stressful as divorce or bereavement? I simply can’t let myself believe it, or I’d crack up.

So far in my life, the longest I’ve ever lived in one house is four years, and in the last 10 years I’ve lived in three countries with lengthy sojourns in two others. Amongst expats there is nothing unusual about this.

Hubby – and yes it is still usually Hubby – gets posted from Hong Kong to Houston, or from Jakarta to Rio de Janeiro, or from Beijing to New York, and Dear Little Wifey packs the bags and off everybody goes.

But last year The Banker and I decided it was time to settle down. Indeed, we went further, and decided that it was time to buy a house.

So now we’ve moved five minutes down the road from our old rented shack to our new owner-occupied building site. Yes, alas, our new place is so new it’s not yet finished.

The thing is: we bought it halfway through construction. Or so we thought. But, in fact, construction dragged on and on and on and on. And on and on and on.

In the end, we decided we’d better deliver the builders an ultimatum by moving in, whether they were ready or not.

Hence I’m writing this to the background of drilling and grinding and hammering as busy workers put the finishing touches to various exterior features, such as those fairly critical structures: walls.

Still, I shouldn’t moan. Though the builders have been frustratingly slow, they’ve been very nice about it.

They’re Buddhists, and throughout the building process they’ve performed a series of protective and purifying rituals about the site – I don’t suppose you’d find English builders doing that would you?

On the day we moved in, The Buddhist Builders performed rituals in triplicate. This was because as well as being moving day, which itself required rituals, it also happened to be the 1st of the month, demanding more rituals, and, unluckily, it coincided with the beginning of Hungry Ghost Month. Horrors!

Buddhists believe that at this time the gates of hell are opened, and the ghosts of those who died violent deaths, or without leaving descendants, roam the earth, looking for souls to snatch.

Thus it is a terribly inauspicious month, and most people avoid moving, marrying, starting new projects and so on and so forth, for the duration.

I’m all for respecting ghosts, but, foolishly, perhaps, I was prepared to go where Buddhists would fear to tread, as it were, and to move despite the date.

This didn’t go down terribly well with the Little Darlings. Though I haven’t heard the term in Singapore, in Hong Kong, westernized Chinese were often described by less westernized Chinese as “bananas” – yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

I often think my children are the inversion of this: white on the outside, yellow on the inside.

The Darling Daughter, in particular, was most distressed by the idea of moving on the first day of Hungry Ghost Month.

“Ghosts will come!” she wailed, in the hearing of one of our kindly Buddhist Builders, “Ghosts will come!”

“Don’t worry,” he soothed, “my prayers will make it so only rich ghosts come.”

I didn’t quite understand why wealthy ghosts would be any more benign than their more impecunious peers, but I didn’t say so, and the Darling Daughter seemed satisfied.

On moving day, our Buddhist Builders duly lit a ghost-repelling fire on our new patch of mud – a patch of mud that will one day become a garden, or so I hope.

They kept the fire stoked all day and burned incense, and paper money, thus filling the whole house with soot and ash. Mind you: what sort of stickler would moan about a bit of soot when metaphysical cleanliness was at stake? Not me.

As evening drew on, one of the Buddhist Builders took The Banker and me aside.

“Keep lights on all through” he said, “then prosperity all the way.”

He was telling us to keep the lights blazing all night, to ensure good luck in our new home.

We didn’t fancy sleeping with our bedroom lights on, but we compromised, and left all the downstairs lights on until the next morning.

As well as being given a glimpse of Buddhist building practices, moving has also enabled me to pick up a couple of handy household hints, not that I’m likely to be joining the ranks of domestic goddesses any time soon, but I pass them on for what they’re worth.

For a start, the carpenter who built our cupboards told me to place loose handfuls of Chinese tea inside them, to take away the smell of varnish.

Then again, I bought both a new kettle and a new wok for my new kitchen.

The first time we boiled the kettle, our Amah added a tablespoon of rice vinegar to the water. She said this was to disinfect the metal.

The new wok, meanwhile, got more elaborate treatment. Our Amah prepared it for its first stir-fry by filling it with water previously used for cooking rice, and bringing this to the boil.

Once she’d drained out the rice-water, she rubbed the wok down with vegetable cooking oil, and then heated it, empty, but oil-anointed, over the highest gas flame. This was to make it non-stick.

While we’re on the subject of woks, I’ll just mention I could have bought a fancy version from Europe, but I chose instead the cheapest, most basic steel wok, from China, on the grounds that when it came to everyday Chinese cooking, you couldn’t beat the equipment that millions of Chinese themselves chose to use, everyday.

But I digress. I’m supposed to be talking about moving.

If it’s your bad luck to be moving this week, commiserations. At least since Hungry Ghost Month is over, you won’t have to worry about supernatural impediments to your packing.

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