Spring Festival Time. . .Lock and Load

I went to my favorite tea shop with my friend Dan yesterday to buy some good white tea. When we got there, about six people were packing tiny foil bags full of tieguanyin oolong tea as though the end of the world was coming and they were taking tea to the Judgment. The owner, who looked far more harried than usual, asked apologetically if I was planning on buying anything that day. (In these tea shops, people regularly come just to drink and talk, and usually I just buy a tiny bit at a time.) I assured her I was, and she set about serving some of the white tea I requested. As we sat and talked, I nodded towards the growing pile of foil tea bags. “Is all of that going out to customers?” I asked.

She nodded, so busy she didn’t even look up from her notebook ledger. “Yes, this was all ordered for Spring Festival gifts.”

An older man who often helps in the shop got my attention and pointed to two huge garbage bags. “That’s what we’ve packed so far,” he said.

“Wow! Whose is this?” I asked.

The owner motioned over my shoulder to two Chinese men sitting and chatting at a table in the corner. I asked, “Did they order all this?”

“Yes.”

“How much did they order?”

“About 300 kilos,” she said.

Seriously, you only think Christmas shopping is stressful. Getting 200 employees gift certificates to Starbucks is one thing. Buying up 300 kilos of tea? That’s something else again.

And so it is that we approach Spring Festival Eve (Chinese New Year’s to many of you), that wonderful, glorious time of the year when families reunite, people rest from their labors, students have a chance to travel and relax, gifts and booze are bought up as though lives hung in the balance, parties are held on a scale so massive that Caligula would have nodded in approval, and enough recreational munitions are set off to make the Battle of Waterloo feel like a suburban bar mitzvah. You’ll notice my careful word choice here: “recreational munitions” rather than “fireworks.” “Fireworks” as a term carries with it more celebratory, even innocent connotations, but you can’t define Chinese celebratory fireworks by the intent behind them. Certainly they’re set off with great excitement and joy, but you can, after all, also lob a grenade into a dumpster with great excitement and joy, and most of what is being set off these days qualifies for inclusion in the dumpster-grenade category. So: recreational munitions.

It’s been a while since I’ve been in town for the Spring Festival experience. I had forgotten how it all worked. Most of you have never been, and may never be, in a major city for this experience, so I’ll describe it as best I can. The week leading up to the day is marked mostly by a daily incremental increase in recreational munitions payloads. A few days ago, for example, I was biking through an apartment complex and ran over an unexploded gunpowder cap, which went off with a bang and a flash and nearly made me wet myself. That, however, was just one of those toy things kids fling on the ground for fun. That was also several days ago. I’m listening to right now to a fusillade of large roman candles being fired off in the apartment complex. Mark that: “in the apartment complex.” In Tianjin there are NO rules as to when and where you should use fireworks. There weren’t in Beijing either, a few years ago, but then some office workers in one of the largest buildings in downtown Beijing were firing Roman candles out the window (!) and ended up burning the building to the ground. For now, we’re relatively safe. Yes, there are Roman candles being fired off, and yes they’re more dangerous than gunpowder caps, but people are mostly confining themselves to their homes. The trick is that after Beijing made it harder for people to shoot off fireworks, the sale and usage of fireworks skyrocketed in Tianjin by way of compensation. We’re about five days out, but I guarantee by Thursday it will be dangerous to bike at night.

I’ll never forget my first Spring Festival here, when my tutor asked if I was going to travel. Before I could answer, he said, “If you are, I’d be happy to come by and make sure your windows are all right.” I had no response to that, and asked him what he was talking about. “It’s actually very dangerous on Spring Festival Eve,” he said. “Many people’s windows are shattered by the fireworks.” He was right, too. Mine didn’t shatter, but I understood why he was concerned. I’ll save further comments on the subject until we get closer to Spring Festival Eve.

For now, I’m noting the subtle increase in volume and frequency of explosions, not unlike an infantry colonel in the Battle of the Bulge noting the same things in enemy artillery. In a way, though, that was simple. There was your side. . .and their side. But if everyone in the 101st Airborne, as well as the Nazi army and all of the villagers and townspeople in the surrounding areas, had been merrily lobbing grenades about, blowing holes in trees and bricks out of walls, it would have made for a far more interesting experience. Such is life here.

I’ll give you a little spoiler. There’s one type of recreational munition here that you can literally hear across town. It goes off with a distinctive “whump!” and might be confused with a mine explosion were there a mine nearby. You generally hear those once in a long while. I’ve been hearing more and more over the past week, and as train tickets get bought up, people start mobbing the train stations, and the kitschy New Year’s products flood the stores, I’m pretty sure the “whumps” will increase.

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