14 June, 2012

A Spring Festival Story

In my previous post, I explained, “a student has invited me to celebrate the Chinese New Year (known as Spring Festival) with her and her family. This is an opportunity I’m really excited to have. I really want to experience the holiday first-hand, as Chinese people celebrate, instead of from a voyeuristic perspective as a traveller or tourist.

What follows is what I wrote following Spring Festival. Enjoy!

I knew growing up and joining the Peace Corps would lead to adulthood. Often now, I find myself forced to make adult decisions. Take right now for instance. It is 8:42 a.m. on 23 January. For those unaware, today is the first day of the Lunar (Chinese) New Year. Commonly, it is referred to in English as Spring Festival. I just returned to my apartment after spending the last seventeen hours partying and celebrating Spring Festival; also, based on the current time, I have been awake for ten minutes shy of twenty-four hours.

So which is the adult decision: sleep away the rest of the morning in hopes of healing my sleep-deprived body, or productively write and record my adventures to eventually become a transcendently great blog post?

Most of my friends and family Stateside have expressed hesitancy, scruple, pity, confusion, apprehension—I could continue indefinitely…—about China not celebrating holidays the West holds sacred and replacing them with unheard of or otherwise bizarre festivals. I understand these sentiments, but culturally, it makes complete sense. Most of our holidays are based in some kind of Christian tradition, and that's not something they have a lot of here in China. If there is one Chinese holiday that people are at least obscurely familiar with, it is the Chinese New Year. The Chinese calendar (lunar calendar) begins around the end of January on the Roman calendar (solar calendar).

Because China adopted the calendar the rest of the world uses, and doesn’t egocentrically refer to things, it celebrates Chunjie (春节)—Spring Festival in English—every lunar new year.

As I mentioned before, I have been looking forward to celebrating Spring Festival because a student invited me to join her and her family. I was going to get to experience the ritual and tradition from a more authentic perspective, rather than just spending the evening with my friends (even though they text me and said they were having a smashing good time), and the celebration did not disappoint.

Now, I do not want to spend too much time explaining Spring Festival and its importance; I would prefer to focus on my experiences. Most things I would write would just be transposed from other internet sources anyway. So if you are interested, find some helpful and informative websites to help you know more.

For those of you who refuse to click links and love inaccurate generalisation buried in a cooking metaphor, here is my summation of Spring Festival (it should also help those who cannot fathom why they do not celebrate Christmas): Spring Festival is the BIGGEST holiday in China. The only way to put a U.S.-perspective on it is to dice the pomp, circumstance, and rituals from Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and Independence Day; mix in a bowl of peanut oil, ground hua jiao (花椒) and red food colouring; pour mixture into a wok over high heat, stirring continuously. Add four cups of cooked rice to wok, stirring continuously until rice is coated and browning slightly. Remove from heat and serve immediately, adding a sprinkle of other holidays for which there is no Chinese equivalent—i.e. Flag Day, Black History month, Boxing Day. For an extra kick, add soy sauce while the rice browns and enjoy with a large glass of smog.

All the nonsense of that last paragraph aside, Spring Festival really is a huge holiday, celebrated by everyone and marked by a grand, homeward-bound exodus to see family (which is particularly noteworthy in such a familial pious culture). It is celebrated as a fresh start to the future year, with lots and lots of fireworks (but more on that later).
I asked Flora for a photo of
Choudan, because I didn't
take a good one. Here he is
in the snow I mentioned.

Flora and her beautiful dog.
曾丹妮 Zeng Danni (her English name is Flora), only lives a twenty-five-minute walk and twenty-minute bus ride from the university, so getting there was easy enough. She asked me to arrive a bit before we went to her Grandparents’ home so I could meet her dog. She’s told me stories and showed me many pictures of her beloved pet—a giant husky named Choudan. However, while we chatted about my recent visit to Xi’an, she got a text from her cousin (already at Grandma’s), demanding to bring Choudan. Flora’s uncle was already on the way, with his car large enough to transport the blue-eyed beauty. Donned in her new sweater—Flora explained that it is customary for Chinese people to wear brand new clothes to celebrate Spring Festival and the new year—we loaded into Uncle’s car. 

Quick! Reading comprehension test! Chunjie is the name of: A) my student, Flora, B) Spring Festival, C) a numbing pepper or D) Flora’s dog. Chinese names are hard. If you had to scan back up the blog to remember, welcome to my world. I have the hardest time recalling Chinese names after someone tells me. Flora’s family was gracious enough to not have such expectations of their waiguoren guest.

As not-a-dog person, I was pretty
excited about taking this photo...
Anyone who has known me for more than a day knows that I am not a dog person. I like animals, in general, but have an irrational fear and distrust of domestic canines. I have a bad experience when I was young that will take paying a psychiatrist $900-an-hour to discuss. Now, as we go over the Yellow River and through the snow (yeah! it snowed nearly an inch the other day; Flora tells me that’s a lot to have all at once in Lanzhou), I am in the back of a sedan with a dog that probably weighs more than I can bench. (Joke from my brother: So what is that… like twenty pounds?) What’s worse is that the dog is losing his mind—freaking out and making noises I didn’t know dogs could make. Another idiosyncratic tic I have most people become aware of in twenty-four hours: I’m compulsive about keeping my clothes clean. This dog is running around the back seat (read: my lap) like it’s the Circus Maximus. It was the most terrifying moment of the day—other than nearly having fireworks explode at my feet (Did I mention lots of fireworks? More on that later).

After a charming drive with a terrified dog, I thought my troubles were over. Alas, in Grandma and Grandpa’s apartment was already three other dogs, none of which seemed fond of seeing Choudan. Random bursts of barking and snarling soundtracked the rest of the evening, and added to my lingering unease.

Here's me with Grandma, Grandpa
and the kids.
It turns out Chinese families are pretty similar to families everywhere. Before and during dinner, I spent quite a bit of time talking politics with Flora’s uncle (Flora, the sweetheart, translating everything back and forth). I’ve come to expect questions and opinions about U.S. politics; for obvious reasons, I try to steer clear. However, after a few questions about Obama and the two parties, the Uncle seemed more interested my favourite president and what I thought of Jimmy Carter.

I was the first foreigner Grandma and Grandpa had ever met, and in addition, this was the first time any of them had celebrated Spring Festival with a foreigner. Everyone was gracious and kind. Chinese hospitality is acclaimed for being both of those things, but on such a special day, it seemed to be amplified ten-fold. They even let me light the string of 5000 firecrackers which are traditionally set off before dinner. At the time, I thought it was a lot of firecrackers. Little did I know what was coming…

They wanted me to try a little bit of everything at dinner. It was like living with a host family again, the way they kept filling my bowl with more food. Luckily, I avoided eating pig ear—I tried it once in Chengdu; too crunchy—but everything else was delicious. The family was fascinated to see I liked peppers so much. There was a shrimp and cucumber dish that was scrumptious. After that was a dish with squid and sea cucumber, which led to an amusing explanation of why its English name was the same as the vegetable we recently consumed.

Celebrating Spring Festival with Flora’s family reminded me of my NewYears’ celebrations in Tennessee with my family. When dinner was finished, the food was cleared, being replaced by plates of sweets and snacks to munch for the rest of the evening. It was about the family talking, laughing and enjoying each other’s company.
Uncle had one special treat for
everyone, imported from Australia.
It was cold and delicious. They were
all rather amused by how much I
enjoyed it.

Just like back in Tennessee, the background to confabulation was the television. We always turned on Dick Clark’s New Year’s programme. Instead, the soundtrack was the state-sponsored entertainment—airing on every CCTV channel—a staged pageant of songs, dances and skits. One channel was even airing the programmed dubbed with English translations. (I found that to be particularly kind when the family turned it to that for my benefit. Flora was annoyed. She said they were doing a poor job of translating. I told her she’s found a future career.)

Insisting that the evening was too boring for me, Flora wanted to take me out to meet some of her friends and celebrate Spring Festival in a youthful way. After promising Grandma we would be back to help make 饺子 (jiaozi, or dumplings) before midnight, we departed into the frigid night air (Grandma wanted to give me a second coat to wear because mine “didn’t look warm enough”). We met Flora’s friends and found a firework store, dodging burning offerings to ancestors.

The sidewalks and streets were polka-dotted in small black circles of charred paper and candles. I assume an bird's-eye shot would have resembled a dalmatian. On the eve of Spring Festival (as well as multiple other times of the year), it is tradition for Chinese people to burn special money. The belief is that doing so sends this money to their ancestors in the afterlife.
Any guesses what language
this is?

So, back to the fireworks? We find a place selling fireworks. Flora was excited for me to see all the fireworks they were selling. Now, if I’d grown up somewhere other than Indiana, I may have been amazed. Indiana is a state known for its fireworks. People from Michigan and Illinois cross state lines to buy fireworks in Indiana. However, I must say it was fascinating to see because these pyrotechnics were international. There were explosives from all over the world, or at least that’s how I assume it to be, as the language on the packaging varied wildly. Some were Chinese, others English; I found some in Spanish and Russian.

Bang for our buck, indeed.
While the caboodle of combustion we bought failed to surprise my midwestern roots, there’s no way that, back in Indiana, we could have gotten so much bang for our buck—literally. We trek another few blocks to this park and wander onto the soccer field. It’s deserted and snow-covered, spotted with the remnants of other people’s similar ideas from earlier in the evening. Walking onto the field would be beautifully serene, except you can hear other fireworks exploding in the distance, and an occasional flash of light from explosions peaking over the buildings.

Lighting fireworks always brings joy to my inner-pyromaniac, as it rightly should. Everything was going great until we unwrapped one of the cannons. It was a tube with the mid-sized mortar shells, designed to go hundreds of feet in the air and explode beautifully. Instead, it went off less than twenty feet from where I was standing, exploding the tube it was in because it never left the ground. Flora’s friend with the lighter did not read the directions, nor did he already know, that there’s a charge on the shell that sends it upward into the air, and unless that is pointed downward into the tube, there’s a failure to launch. Even though this failure to launch made my life flash before my eyes, it was still far superior to that other Failure to Launch
I didn't realise it was so difficult
to take pictures of fireworks...

Fantastic firework fun time did not last too much longer, as our only lighter was dropped in the snow. We admitted defeat due to the lack of spark and blistering cold. In hindsight, it was perfect, though. We’d lost track of time, and had we been out too much longer, we would not have made it back in time to make jiaozi.

The walk back was a fast one. Even more motivating than the below-freezing temperature was the adrenaline. The clock was getting closer and closer to midnight, and with that, more and more people were exiting their buildings to set off an array of fireworks. Actually, some people weren’t even going outside. I watched multiple people simply hang long strings of firecrackers from their sixth-, seventh- and eighth-floor windows. I’m used to lots of booming fireworks. What threw me for a loop was the gratuitous amounts of fireworks exploding in such a dense urban jungle. It sounded like the gunfire soundtrack to Modern Warfare 3. I assume for years to come I will have PTSD from that walk home.
Let's play a game: Spot My Jiaozi!

Who's got two thumbs
and is ready to ring in
the New Year?
We made it home in time for a crash-course in how to properly wrap jiaozi. Alas, no matter how hard I tried, I always illicited laughter from Chinese women. My jiaozi-making skills are just inferior. After entertaining Grandma, Mom and Aunt, 11:59 approached; we had to be outside ready to light off more fireworks when the clock struck twelve. And we were. Remember the 5000 firecrackers before dinner? Well, we had another roll of those, as well as one twice its size to ignite. There were plenty more mortar shells to fire into the air. However, this time, we were not in the middle of a field; we were right next to an eight-story building. And we were not the only group lighting off fireworks from the building. There were a lot of explosions, a lot of bright lights, a lot of colours flashing and a lot of car alarm-triggering booms. A lot.

After this deafening round of fireworks, we all returned indoors to enjoy the end of the television programme and feast on jiaozi (you eat quite a lot of food at Chinese gatherings). Well past midnight, the final tradition I witnessed was the giving of red envelops. The adults give gifts of red envelops to each of the children full of money. Flora, being the oldest, explained that she’s probably old enough to stop receiving such envelops, but enjoys being spoilt too much to refuse.

Someone was pretty tired from
all the excitement.
The hour was late (early, technically) and the festivities were winding to a close. Earlier, Flora had made plans to meet her friends again to play mahjong. She asked if I would be interested in joining them; they needed a fourth player. I learned to play in Chengdu and was eager to show off my skills, so I accepted. But now, as Uncle drove us to her friend’s flat, we learned that the size of the group had increased. Mahjong was no longer an option. So instead, we did something else that is almost clichély Chinese (just from a different generation of Chinese), we went to KTV.

I’ve been to a half-dozen KTV places since coming to China, and it’s always a gamble to figure out if and how many English songs they have. Navigating the computer interface (in Chinese) is also a feat. This KTV lounge had the largest, and greatest, collection of English songs I have seen in China. And to make matters better, there were language options on the interface! I could use the computer in English. It was magical. I mean it when I say it had the best selection of songs, too; I sang a Mumford and Sons song.

Like Vegas casinos, it is easy to lose track of time in a KTV room. After impressing everyone with my remarkable rap skills, we emerged from KTV on the later side of five a.m. Flora said they were going to go partake in another Spring Festival tradition, and asked if I wanted to join. They were going to climb Wucheng Mountain and make a wish in front of a Buddhist temple. Doing so on the first day of the lunar year means the wish will, without fail, come true.

I’m ashamed to say I initially declined. I was starting to feel tired, and my flat was only a fifteen-minute walk from where we were. However, I am so glad I changed my mind. I re-watched Yes Man a few days previous, and as soon as I said no, I felt pangs of regret. So instead, I was a yes-man. We hopped in a taxi and sped away to the mountain.
They were selling all sorts of things
to burn at the temple.

As we got out of the taxi, Flora made a joke about how I’m probably too old to still be out. (My students take great delight in calling me old; mostly because I’m only a couple years older than most of them.) Now, I would consider climbing a mountain at six a.m. without sleeping first something I’m not too old for, but that doesn’t mean I was prepared. I didn’t really dress for this kind of adventure. I chose to forego wearing long johns for the sake of comfort (thinking I'd be inside most of the evening). At this point, I regretted that decision entirely.
Fortunately, the temple was not all the way up the mountain. Double fortunately, Buddhist temples like this have a lot of fire, especially on a day as active as the Spring Festival. People light different candles or incense and say prayers to their ancestors (at least, that’s my understanding of it). The incense sticks sit in a trough, and are knocked down and burned after a while, so when we arrived, there was a large fire welcoming us. At the explanation and coaching of Flora and her friends, I lit my incense and made my wish. They told me to ensure the wish came true, you have to make it facing all four cardinal directions. Here’s to hoping my wish comes true...

This was my favourite candle I saw people lighting.

Returning to the bottom of the mountain, we do what everyone does at six in the morning after being out all night. We go get breakfast. I wish I could remember the name of what it was I had, but I cannot. It was a rice porridge with three different things in it. One was chopped up leeks; I couldn’t identify the other two. To go with, we had a traditional Chinese breakfast food I hadn’t had since Chengdu—deep-fried bread.

I wish I could say the celebration ended on the highest note. Flora and her friends walked with me to the bus station so I could catch a ride back to my flat, but there was no bus. Every other bus was running but this one. Taking a taxi all the way back would be pretty pricey, so I was upset there was no bus. Instead, the four of us hopped in another bus and travelled to another part of the city, where a different bus, which stops at the gates of JiaoDa, picks up. However, we had no luck there, either. This bus was also nowhere to be found. At this point, frustration and cold won, so we decided we would just take the expensive taxi back to my part of town. However, hailing a cab also proved an elusive task at this time of the morning (and it didn’t help we weren’t the only ones vying for one).

It’s important to know that for Spring Festival, the city is lit up. Christmas lights EVERYWHERE, covering EVERYTHING (well, I see them as Christmas lights; I’m sure Chinese people see them as Spring Festival lights). Anywho, as we finally took a taxi toward home, we watched the lights click off. The trees, shrubs, bridges, light posts—everything that was covered in lights were slowly turning off as we drove along, symbolically ending the festivities.

I said goodbye to Flora and my new friends. As I walked back to my flat, I pondered what to do when I arrived. What would be the adult thing to do? Should I sleep, or should I write? Decisions are hard, and I didn’t have a coin to decide for me. 

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