Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Chinese New Year

This past February was my first, and likely only, chance to spend the Spring Festival in China (I went home during my first winter vacation in China). The Spring Festival is the 15-day holiday that begins with the Chinese New Year, and is by far the most important holiday of the year, when practically all 1.3 billion Chinese people return home to spend time with their family. My friend Joy invited me to visit the home of her family and the families of some mutual friends in the area of Jiuquan (酒泉), a city roughly three hours from Zhangye.

Chinese holidays seem to mostly revolve around seeing family and eating, and I arrived on the evening of the Chinese New Year just in time for the large and excellent meal prepared by Joy's family. CCTV broadcasts a lengthy holiday show for the occasion, full of pop singers, acrobats, and skits that is the most-watched television event of the year, but I seemed to be the only one interested in it of the group.

Firecrackers are also a tradition of the holiday, to the joy of Chinese children and the dread of myself (for someone who doesn't like sudden, loud noises, China was a strange choice). The stroke of midnight on the New Year in China is the closest I ever hope to get to the sound of war.

The following day Joy and I took a bus well outside of town to the village where our friend Beth lives. Beth graduated from Hexi University and is now a teacher in her town. The people in Beth's family were as warm and welcoming as any I have met in China, and I really enjoyed my stay. Unfortunately, I could not say the same for the warmth of the unheated household--it was the coldest Chinese winter in 50 years, and we spent much of our time huddled around the cooking stove. I found her father to be a hard and silent man, but I gradually came to feel that he did like me. He was a farmer who only rested for five days during the year (for the Spring Festival) after all, a lifestyle that would leave me on the quiet side as well.

We passed the holiday much in the same way I usually pass time with Chinese people--chatting, eating a lot, pretending to understand the conversation, eating, and taking photographs. It was not action-packed but there was a simple charm to it that I appreciated. The Chinese I know in Gansu province always seem to act much younger than their age, and I don't when I've seen college students take that much pleasure in playing in the snow.

One of the moments that stands out in my mind was watching Joy play with a cat, an animal her own family had clearly never owned before. Not knowing how to pick it up, she firmly grabbed its front left leg and lifted it straight off the ground. The cat didn't seem too traumatized, however, as it did start to purr once she got it into her lap and started to pet it. But confused by the noise the cat was making, Joy exclaimed "he is very angry!" I told her it was purring because it was happy. "How would you know?" she laughed. "Are you a cat?"

When I left Beth's family after a few days, they seemed sad to see me go. Her two younger male cousins, who rarely spoke but spent much of their time around me, actually cried a little as I prepared to leave, which was touching and unexpected. Overall it was a relaxing and memorable experience, and I'm glad I didn't pass it up.

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