Spring Festival Reflection 1: Goin’ to the Country

A disclaimer: I meant to post this several weeks ago, so my apologies if it’s now a bit dated. Also, I keep promising I’ll post pictures, and I will, but I need to go someplace to scan them first. So for now: text only.

Ah, the Spring Festival, that wonderful time each year in China when you can expect to have the best dumplings you’ve ever eaten, and also to be woken up at 4:00 in the morning by fireworks that are only not battlefield munitions because of a semantic technicality. This is a good place to start, because if you want to gauge your attitude to China, and also take the pulse of the nation generally, look no further than this one festival. I was talking with a friend a few nights ago who’s been in China for not quite a year, and he told me, “I really do think the Spring Festival is the most fun holiday I’ve ever experienced, and that includes Christmas.” That’s one approach. Then there’s me. It isn’t that I hate the Spring Festival; it’s just that after a certain amount of time the massive fireworks and crazy traffic really aren’t funny or interesting any more. But here’s the interesting thing: that particular attitude isn’t too far off from the Chinese mindset itself. I’ll illustrate how this is so with two Spring Festival memories, one in 2003, my first full year in China and the other 2012, last year, which I figured was going to be my last in China but which ended up being the penultimate. So let’s dive right in.

The first was in Shandong province, in a little village near the coastal city of Penglai. When I say “little” village, by the way, I don’t mean “relatively little,” as when the Chinese chuckle about my having lived in tiny little Taian, a city whose official population is up around a million, because “big” in this case is a city like Shanghai or Beijing that has upwards of 12 million people. No, this was a village of around 100 people, all of whom were either related or at least intimate with someone in the Zhang clan. This guaranteed that my presence there was so far into the realm of the bizarre that most of the villagers weren’t even startled by my presence. All except my friend John’s aunt, whose house we visited the day after the official advent of the Spring Festival. She hadn’t been told I was coming by, and when John and I  walked through the door she smiled and nodded familiarly to John without at first noticing me, then turned to face me and started like a frightened horse. Her eyes shot open and her jaw dropped. I just smiled and said “Happy new year” like I belonged there and walked right past her. I have other vivid memories of my time there. We had dumplings many, many times, which I have no problem with. Homemade dumplings are hard to beat. John’s parents also bought several large bottles of Pepsi because they’d never met a foreigner before and had no idea what I’d want to drink. All they knew was what they’d seen on TV shows and in movies and in those cases Americans always drank booze or soda. I smiled and drank every glass they gave me, even at breakfast. Even at that early date I’d learned how important it is to enthusiastically accept hospitality in China. That was a crucial lesson to carry with me when we ate leftovers for breakfast. In the Chinese countryside you eat what you’ve cooked until it’s gone, and that means if you have a clam-bake for lunch (which we did one day) and don’t finish it that day, you have it for breakfast (yep, I had clams for breakfast; I don’t even like clams for dinner, and for breakfast it’s about like eating a shoe-sole. . .with a glass of Pepsi). Don’t let that fool you into thinking the food was bad, incidentally. People in the Chinese countryside REALLY know how to cook.

I also remember not taking a shower for 10 days because it was cold on a level you can’t imagine. Outside it was probably in the 20’s (fahrenheit, which puts it below zero for all of my metric-system readers), which is not exactly frigid, but as this was the Shandong countryside, there was no central heating, or any other kind of heating for that matter, inside the house. It was warmer than outside, but it wasn’t WARM. There wasn’t a bathroom, either. For that, you had to go to a little wooden shack with a single unshielded lightbulb dangling from the ceiling and a hole dug into the ground. As for a shower, that came down to a choice: do you take a basin of hot water out into the courtyard and rapidly scrub yourself down before you freeze to death, or do you just keep your many layers of clothes and hope they stifle the stench? I chose the latter. And that was a wonderfully comic choice because when I left John’s village I spent a few nights at a nice hotel in Beijing, and walking into the lobby carrying my military kit bag (that my dad had bought me at Fort Leavenworth before they moved) and looking and smelling like a boxcar hobo was funny on every level.

This visit was also why I started learning Chinese. No one in John’s family treated me like a visiting foreigner. When the family gathered on the kang (a large bed heated by the kitchen cookfire through a duct in the wall) to play cards because it was the only warm place in the house, I played right along with them, even though I didn’t understand the rules of the game. Uncles clapped me on the shoulders and enthused loudly about one thing or another without caring in the slightest that I had no idea what they were talking about. John’s parents joked with me and even played jokes on me (“The bus is coming!” “It is?!?!? Oh, no! I’ll run and get my things!” “No, actually it isn’t.”) as though I had been a member of the family for years. And yet. . .I couldn’t say more than about ten phrases to any of them. I had already decided by that point that I wanted to stay in China beyond that year, and as I sat with John’s family in their very simple country house, I came to the conclusion that being unable to talk with people so warm and outgoing was unacceptable.

I remember something else, too: joy. In the countryside, at least in the Shandong countryside near Penglai, though I expect it’s similar in most rural areas, the chance to link up with family is rare, and likely the only time during the year when you’ll be able to see certain people in your family. That kinship is extremely important because life is hard. Even fairly well-off farmers are dependant on the weather and the whims of the urban markets, and things can go south quickly. Keeping up with family isn’t a convenient, check-the-box-every-few-years reunion after which you can assure yourself that if someone dies soon, at least you saw them before it happened; it’s insurance and retirement fund and social stability, all rolled into one. If your aunts, uncles, and cousins still come by to say hello during the most important holiday of the year, then regardless of what convulses the central government or the local party apparatus, you’ll survive. So when you set off firecrackers, eat dumplings, and walk the dirt roads to visit the rest of the clan, you’re not just celebrating simply for the visceral enjoyment good food and loud noises provides, but also for the sake of still having family, still having a place to live, and still being able to look forward to spring, which is coming in two months or so.

And trust me, if you live in a village with no inside heating, spring is a big, big deal.



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