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A Tale of Two Chinese New Years

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

I thought I'd experienced China by bargaining at the market for myself. However, it wasn't until I visited student's homes during the Spring Festival that I encountered the real China.

It was the coldest of times, it was the warmest of times, it was a time of great laughter, it was a time of heavy tears, it was a time of massive explosions, it was a time of quiet reflection – in short, Spring Festival celebrations in Henan Province, China, are a multi-faceted experience.

Of my five years living in China, I spent two New Year’s celebrations at the home of a student. Those few days spent with families taught me a great deal about Chinese culture, my students and myself.

Nearly all of China is in motion leading up to Spring Festival, a mass of nearly 1.3 billion taking whatever form of transportation to return home. In the spring of 2007, I joined the throng and traveled by overcrowded bus and train to Anyang, which sits on Henan’s northern border.

Anyang, a former capital, is a massive city by western standards. With slightly more than five million inhabitants, it’s average for China. The city boasts many historical sites, museums and has a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I was traveling with another teacher. Both of us wanted the experience of being immersed in another culture but neither of us was brave enough to try it alone. We meandered the maze of streets with our students, picking up ingredients for the week-long feast.

The city was a chaotic cacophony with people shouting, horns honking, firecrackers cracking. The streets in front of the temples and shrines were littered with itty-bitty shreds of red paper from the pyrotechnics. (During Spring Festival people don’t sweep because tradition says you may sweep away your fortune.)

The multi-course meal – I lost count as empty plates were taken away and new ones appeared – lasted for what seemed like hours. The hot and cold dishes were sometimes too pretty looking to eat, while others looked like something I really shouldn’t eat. Tossing caution to the wind, I dug into each plate.

My palate was pleased with most dishes. There were a few times my mouth felt as if it were melting from the spices and peppers. Let’s just say, I have never enjoyed hot tea so much in my life.

As midnight approached, the whole family gathered the bags of fireworks and we walked the outer steps to the patio on the roof. The night sky was black with twinkling stars. Looking out across the city, certain areas exploded in color as citizens got an early start with fireworks on the ground.

“Dad” hands all of us a firework about a yard long and covered in colorful paper. He holds his out at arm’s length and points it toward the sky. I copy his stance; he nods and lights the end. There is a hissing sound, and I wait. Nothing happens, I go to lower my arm, which causes a burst of Mandarin that I don’t understand but gather that pointing this anywhere but up is a bad idea. I raise my arm again as a ball of flame and sparkle shoot out the end. This happens four more times.

With the countdown started, a two-by-three-foot box is lit and we move to the opposite corner. Fireworks rocket skyward and explode in brilliant colors above the house. Suddenly, the same thing is happening all across the city. It’s the Fourth of July, New Year’s and Christmas all rolled into one and jettisoned into the night sky. The concussions vibrate through me and I am, for one of the few times in my life, speechless.

After the fireworks show, my friend and I are given our own room and double bed to share. With the temperature dipping near freezing, sharing a bed doesn’t seem like a bad idea. The family also gives us a heating pad to keep warm. We use it to warm up our pajamas. In addition, we are given extra quilts, which we use to wrap ourselves like individual spring rolls.

Laying in the bed, I can see my breath. Too cold to sleep, despite thick sweatpants and the quilt, we talk about the day. Eventually, sleep claims us – but not for long.

At 4:30 a.m., “Dad” sets off a 1,000-round roll of firecrackers in the living room. I shoot up out of bed. Dazed, confused and still freezing, I watch as the smoke fades and the pieces of red paper float to the ground. He gets up and goes back to his room. My friend and I named the event, “Half past death.” (In Chinese culture the number four is considered bad luck because it sounds very similar to death.) I never asked him why, but it never happened again.

The rest of our days in Anyang were spent exploring historical sites, the downtown, climbing pagodas and eating, always eating. My first full immersion into the culture had been a success.

My last year in China, I went solo to a student’s home in Bo’Ai County. Because her village is so small – about five hundred people – my student insisted on riding the bus with me. I was very thankful because her bus stop was a random outpost in the middle of I don’t know where. “Uncle” picked us up in his van and the roads turned from paved to dirt as we turned into the group of houses.

The same families have lived in this village for hundreds of years. Many of the residents now worked in major cities and returned only for the New Year’s celebration. My student’s grandma lived in the family home, while my student’s parents worked in different cities in southern China. The trek home took them each nearly twenty-four hours by train. “Brother” is giving up his room for me, and “Grandma” has placed extra quilts on my bed. I also have a heating pad, but it must be turned off when I go to sleep because “sometimes they catch fire.”

There was no UNESCO site here, no pagoda, no museums, but it overflowed with tradition. Grandma put food on the family shrine, Brother hung up hand-painted signs to bring fortune for the New Year and Mom was preparing dinner.

My student and I were given permission to join the men of the village as they visited ancestral graves and bring all the family home for the celebration. We packed baskets with meats and fruit; we had a bag of firecrackers; and a bag of gold and silver papers. Before dusk, we walked down the road and joined another group of family members and the village elder.

The Elder led the group to the oldest burial site. Some food is placed on the ground. The men line up and bow toward the ancestors. Aside from some soft-spoken Mandarin, there is very little noise. There is a quiet reverence in that corner of the village.

It is time to move to the main burial area. Brother and other young men walk ahead, randomly tossing firecrackers to the side of the road. Uncle stops at the local store to pick up Grandfather’s favorite cigarettes and liquor. Grandfather has been dead for three years now.

There are no headstones. There are random mounds of earth in a field. The group splits apart into immediate units.

Uncle takes the gold and silver papers and place them on Grandfather’s site, while Brother unrolls what seems like 20 yards of firecrackers. Uncle lights three cigarettes and places them on the mound. He lights the paper on fire – which sends gold and silver to Grandfather in the afterlife – and pours the liquor around the paper. For the first time, he shows emotion and cries as he toasts his father.

The firecrackers are lit all around the plot of land. The sound is deafening and between the blasts and flying red paper the field appears to be on fire. All the noise is to let Grandfather and other ancestors know that it’s time to get up and go home for the celebration.

It is dark as we walk back to the house. We step over the threshold and are joined by the women. The family bows to welcome home the ancestors. Now, that we’re all home, Brother pulls out one more roll of firecrackers and sets them off outside the home. This is to scare away any non-family and unfriendly spirits who may have tried to tag along.

The doors are shut. It’s time for dinner. A multi-course meal is placed on the table. Glasses are raised to toast the family, and we begin to eat.

This year, as I celebrate in warm, sunny California, I recall the moments of rich tradition and spicy food. I am thankful for and humbled by the generosity of spirit shown by all those I met in China. No matter where I may be in the world, Spring Festival will always be a time to respect old customs and enjoy new adventures.

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