Thursday, 21 March 2013

Chinese New Year/Spring Festival

I am a month past due with this blog. Luckily for me, there's no real deadline in China :]

Bringing in the New Year, I informed my newest Chinese friends how we celebrate:
A house party. Flashy attire. A bar. Dancing. Champagne. The midnight ball drop in Times Square. Midnight fireworks. Midnight banging of pots and pans. A midnight kiss. Blowers. Beads. Resolutions. A day off from school and work.
Deals of the century. But mostly, a million new gym memberships.
I vaguely knew what the Chinese New Year was all about. I imagined an overabundance of decor of whatever the zodiac was for that given year. 2012 was the dragon and 2013 would be the year of the snake. I envisioned monumental parades and people in the streets drinking, wearing festive clothes, and confetti in the masses. I envisioned fire. Perhaps a sacrifice of a canine or a pig churning in the middle of the street by short, tanned men with paint or masks on their faces??? Where do these thoughts come from!? I imagined that at the stroke of midnight, fireworks would launch into the congested Chinese sky and crowds would roar in drunken disorder. Older generations of parents would shed unwiped, thick tears of happiness in light of the snake and no baby would rest in the comfort of their mother’s bosom due to the thumping sounds of music, fireworks, and coughing.

Chinese New Year is nothing like that. Here it goes:

First of all, this holiday lasts much longer than a day or two and also goes by the name of Spring Festival. Chinese New Year/Spring Festival lasts 15 days, if not longer for some people. It is the most important annual festival of the year.

I'm sure it is a celebration of many things, but I have been told by my Chinese friends that it is a celebration of family togetherness and new life which is symbolized by what newly blossoms each spring. Love is in the air.


                   My Chinese New Year Experience

Boom! Ppppop! Pppppop! Pshheewwwww! On February 9th, I woke up at 5:50am assuming China was in warfare. Ah shit, Japan! Keep the damn useless diaoyu islands! Keep them! We surrender! After coming to, I realized they were just fireworks. I wish I could say that quelled my agitation. Unforeseen fireworks at 5:50 am. I heard crackling and popping which mimicked the sound of a hand grenade right outside my window. It was a constant crescendo of noises which gradually escalated throughout the day (even when I thought they could not escalate any more). The cat I am cat-sitting, Vendetta, instantly became obsessed with my window and the meowing became that of a hungry stray. Headphones in, back to sleep I went.

I got up around 9:00 am while the fireworks were still in effect, though I saw nothing out my window. I had no visual of active life, but simply a vista of barren apartment windows. Where were the clothes and hanging raw sausages? I saw no car, no dog, and no people (not even the morning "trash pickers"). Maybe it was an invasion!

I decided to take a walk around noon with my pepper spray, just in case I did in fact hear terrorists. My grandma would be so proud! I knew places would be closed, but I was hoping something fun would be happening in the streets or I would see something cool like a person in a snake costume or a crazy old man trying to swallow fire. Maybe someone would offer me a Harbin (a cheap beer). Not knowing what thrills the day would bring, I wore my most expensive mascara (makeup is way too pricey here) and actually styled my cavewoman-like hair.

I followed a yellow-brick-road of red tissue paper outside of my apartment complex. Not a single human being in sight, but this flashy red paper was everywhere. After making my way to a main street, the movie 28 Days Later came to mind: Here I am in a flowing city that is exhaustively overpopulated, produces endless loads of uncultivated traffic, emits sounds of spitting and phlegmy throat clearing every millisecond, and where you must walk in a pivoting motion in order to avoid bumping into other people. However, there was no sound. I saw nothing. There were no people. Forget about traffic, I barely even spotted a car on a usually frenzied street. There were no dogs. There were no cigarettes. Shops, cafes and restaurants were gated closed. Did I miss something? Surely zombies or whatever infectious outbreak caused this evacuation or execution would find me soon.

Eerie. There weren't even any bums. I have become so accustomed to the constant sounds of life here in China (alarms, beeping, the ba-ba-ba Chinese language, nose blowing, spitting, the coughing up of phlegm, laughing, garbage being wheeled around, the music that water-blasting-machine-on-the-road-that-kills-everything-it-rains-on makes, etc.) that when I was subjected to silence (normalcy), I felt uneasy. It didn't feel right. Zombies!

I continued my walk. I saw an occasional car or two. I walked down a generally busy, haggard side street where I go for hole-in-wall food (so unhealthy and delicious) and for the first time ever, I saw it deserted. Everything was shut down. I would have no joutsa or Taiwanese banana wrap today. All I heard was the cool wind blowing and the occasional firework somewhere in the distance. Aha! Coming to the end of the street, I saw a sign of life: a man and his firework stand. Eying up the fireworks, I was clueless of their assembly. They did not look like the fireworks I was used to seeing. I seriously contemplated buying in, but resisted when it occurred to me that I had nobody to celebrate with and that if something went wrong (I blew my hand off), nobody would be there to call an ambulance. Come to think of it, I didn’t even know how to call an ambulance or the police. I colored too much Primary school.

I walked in a few directions and for the most part saw nothing but a hazy, sunlit sky. I did occasionally see men lighting firecrackers in the road. I would either find them chucking something similar to a “popper”, only much louder, or I would find a firecracker that flew around at waist level in gold-spirally-shapes that lasted about four seconds and was over. It made a piercing decrescendo sound of dzshoooooo.

Heading home, I passed through Hongkou Lou where I saw a stretched line of vendors selling everything from fireworks to festive kid’s clothing. There was so much red it madfe everything look the same. Men were wheeling fireworks down the street and women were selling balloons on their bicycles. I actually found a place that was not closed: McDonald's. Well what do you know! I lingered in for kafei (coffee). I've been to this McDonald's before and unless you're here bright and early or late at night, you can barely find a seat unless it’s directly next to the squat toilet. It’s as if every day is a holiday at Mickey D’s. It must be their hotdog wrap. At 2:00pm, I was shocked at its emptiness. I was welcomed to any seat in the house. I stopped dead in my tracks just to stand there and take in the unimaginable reality that lay before me: McDonald's in China, dead. Far across from my seat in the corner were two Chinese guys drinking their own beer. Funny how you can bring your own beer to McDonald's in China.

A usually PACKED McDonald's was empty.

Everyone traveled home to be with their families and would remain there for days or weeks. The New Year is a time to forgive and forget any drama you share with your family members and start fresh. They celebrate with a lavish dinner (within means of their income) and participate in a feast of good luck to the New Year (without using words such as "ghost" or "sick" because it will bring bad luck upon the new year). They put their troubles behind them and chow down in celebration.
I wonder if forgive and forgetting is truly that easy?

To participate in their Chinese traditions, I shared a "lavish" dinner with Vendetta which consisted of vegetables and tofu; and forgave her for breaking my kitchen window at 1:00am, AND for knocking over a full pitcher of clean water on the kitchen floor in the process. Happy New Year. 

Vendetta trying to hide behind my water kettle.

She models in her spare time.

Getting back to my apartment was the worst. For one, I wasted my expensive mascara. More irritably, I found the silence unbearable. It was awkward enough that I didn't have to work, but most of my friends were on some vacation, and my roommate left. Now it was so deadly silent that the only thing I could hear was my own thoughts with the occasional interruption of firecrackers. I would walk in my apartment and think, "Okay, what now?" It was just me and Vendetta celebrating this still, sober Chinese New Year.

I would say the fireworks became a little over-the-top once 9:00pm hit. From 9:00pm to 2:00am, fireworks were going off like it was everybody's business (right outside my apartment). They weren't the type of fireworks you might imagine (LiteBrite in the sky). They were the traditional orange/yellow colored ones and they did not shoot as high or last long at all. Don't get me wrong, they were better than nothing, but they weren't anything I'd catch myself gazing at. As a matter of fact, I was ready for it to be over. At home, we go for effect and aesthetic appeal. Here, I think they just go for the loudest most obnoxious sound they can emit. Long periods passed with a blank sky, and yet it sounded as if machine guns and grenades were launched, over and over and over. China never ceases to puzzle me. Vendetta was going absolutely mad. At 2:00am I was forced to plug in ear phones and call it a night. Vendetta would just have to suck it up.

                                                      Spring Festival

Though the initial day of the Chinese New Year was over, that did not mean the fireworks were over or the streets would go back to normal. It was the same as the day before: barren streets, no traffic, and fireworks all morning, afternoon and evening.

I could not stand being in the apartment any longer. I had an invitation from my Chinese friend, Candy, to stay with her at her parents house in another city called Zhenjiang. I took her up on her offer. After cat-proofing the apartment, I took the metro to the train station and using the Chinese ticket information Candy sent me, booked a ticket and headed out of Nanjing. It was nice and easier than I thought. A few months ago, going to a Chinese train station and having to buy my own train ticket would have intimidated the hell out of me.

Candy and Scott picked me up around 2:00pm and we headed to a popular temple/park in Zhenjiang. It was okay. It was centered around the most popular Buddhist in China or something. Honestly, I was a little under the weather and just did not give a damn about any history. I just wanted out of the apartment and to check out Candy's hometown. At this temple, there were were so many incents my eyes I couldn't blink my dry eyelids; people were praising some sacred ash; praying; coins were being thrown at dragon heads for luck; candles were lit; there were a lot of steps; and I was coughing up as much phlem as every old man in Nanjing. At home, I can control my bodily fluids. Here, nasty "matter" just comes out of me and I have no say in the...matter.

After the temple, we took a taxi to downtown. I really enjoyed seeing another city. Candy pointed out her old primary school and we were all sad to see that one of the best places you can purchase stinky dofu (apparently they were even showcased on American tv) was shut down for the holiday.
Who knew a tiny little cart on wheels could provide one of the world's best stinky dofu? How is there such thing as world's best stinky dofu? What's next, best toe fungus?

side note: stinky dofu is fried tofu that smells really, really, really, really bad.

We ordered street food from a cart across from it. This guy was selling stinky dofu, fried hotdogs, and fried radish cakes. Apparently they have amazing fried radish so I tried it. It was yummy! I've had radish a few times since I've been here and it is really decent. I had no idea you could do so much with a radish. I have a sweet radish soup recipe I will be sure to bring home with me.

Later we picked up some Harbin from a marketplace and took the bus to Candy's parents villa. Now that was scary. The neighborhood, not the villa. They live in the countryside, and being it was a holiday on top of being out of the city, there were NO CARS. It was Nowheresville.

The villa was neatly polished, cultured and tasteful; one of the finer homes I've been in. It was large and spacious; too large for only two residents! Much like the other homes I've been in, it is taller in height than it is wide. They all extend upward. Perhaps to save land space? It was four floors. The walls were white; free of dust; rooms had high ceilings; modernity throughout; and I admired the view of the upstairs open kitchen/dining room from the first floor. I also loved that they had two pet chickens and a lovely vegetable/orange garden.

Her parents made us dinner. It was a delicious assortment of beef, peppers, broccoli, cabbage, greens, (real) chicken soup and I'm not sure what else I was eating. Her mother did not know any English, but her father knew a little. He was so cute. I felt he tried using English at every possible moment he could, as if he were excited to show of the English he practiced in high school. Ah, I give him credit! His generation, the Mao generation, mainly learned Russian.

Later that night we sat around and watched a ton of Chinese tv. There were spurts of English here and there. We watched a cooking show: Chinese vs Western cooking, music awards, Chinese Idol (yes, they have a Chinese Idol and it was hilarious), a few music videos, comedians and a concert which included American artists. We listened to and watched booming fireworks from the windows. Candy's mother served us diced pears. I enjoyed myself. I can get down with Chinese tv and pears.

That brings me to today. After a nice lunch, served again by Candy's parents, we took a walk and later caught the bullet train back to Nanjing. The fireworks are still going and it still looks like China was evacuated. I tried to pick up medication for this nasty cough I've had for weeks now, but they were closed.

*You know, for the longest time I couldn't FIND medicine. I didn't know they have special stores for medicine and you have to tell a guy exactly what you want and he gets it for you. You can't just pick up NyQuil or Tylenol on a shelf and be on your way. Candy had to text me the closest thing to Robitussin she could think of in Chinese for me to show the man. Thanks Dr. Candy!


Remnants of fireworks



The only street life

These 2 kids were lighting firecrackers

Clean up your trash!

This man was selling fruit and fireworks on the curb. Totally normal.


This will never happen again. NO TRAFFIC!



Scott and Candy


I wish I had a constant tour guide to explain to me what goes on.

Street food in Zhenjiang

Scott and Candy waiting for their stinky dofu

Chinese New Year Decorations

Raddish cakes, fried hotdogs, stinky dofu

Raddish cake (yummy)!

Chinese New Year Decorations

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