Sunday, February 6, 2011

How I Spent My Chinese New Year

I did not spend much time in American Elementary schools, where essays titled in this format were the norm, so now I’m making up for it. And, just for the record, I didn’t spend much time in American Elementary schools because I grew up overseas… just in case you thought I was a leather-clad, pre-adolescent hoodlum determined to make the least of my education. No insult intended to those who are leather clad, of course.

And I’m overseas again, as you well know. It is my pleasure, my honor and my joy to report to you how I spent my first Chinese New Year in China, after years having lusted over the idea, drooled at the prospect and dreamed of that day finally arriving. OH, how to begin?!?

Well, at the beginning, obviously.

I am in Xi’an, literally the city of my dreams. No joke: I have dreamed about living in this city for as long as I’ve known it existed. Although, for right now, home is in Wuhan. That will change: I guarantee it. My good friend of 3 years, YaLong, AKA Ken – he of the hip-hop dancing contest fame (see I Danced at a Hip-Hop Contest entry) lives in Xi’an and he invited me to spend the holiday at this home, with his family. Frankly, I cannot think of a better friend to spend this momentous occasion with. So, without further ado, let’s get on with the celebration, shall we?

Ken works the overnight shift at a youth hostel in the old part of the city, so he had to go home and get some rest. Besides, festivities would not start until that evening anyway, so he said I should just head to his house by 5:30PM and he would meet me at the bus stop. He is aware that I am already familiar enough with Xi’an to navigate the buses alone. I like that he doesn’t feel the need to caution me every time I turn around, like my students do. And in fact, I did make it to his house without any problems. Except I was very early… but that just gave me time to walk around the neighborhood some.

The first thing that struck me strange upon arrival to Ken’s house is that his parents were running around in longjohns. Even Ken went to his room and stripped off his jeans, reappearing shortly afterward in just his longjohns and a shirt. I had the insane urge to strip off my jeans as well, because I too was wearing longjohns. Talk about feeling like family! Talk about being welcome in a home environment! I did not strip off my jeans. That might have been taking that ‘make yourself at home’ invitation a bit too far on the first visit. But, Ken did provide me with a pair of house shoes to wear. I thought that was a nice compromise. Maybe I’ll get to the longjohns stage next time I visit there.

In Ken’s family, Dad is the chef and Mom the assistant. I came prepared to assist as well, but the kitchen is very small and there was no room for me. Besides that, Chinese custom dictates that the guest offers help twice and is refused both times. After which said guest is to park him/herself on the couch and enjoy all of the snacks and entertainment (TV) provided until the meal appears on the table. This time, there wasn’t just TV to watch but great conversation with Ken. The TV went virtually ignored. Ken and I didn’t even notice that nearly an hour had passed since my arrival until his mother put chopsticks in our hands and told us to eat. We have always been like that: getting so lost in conversation that hours go by without our noticing.

As he and I ate our obligatory bowls of jiao zi (pronounced gee-ow dzuh) – meat stuffed, boiled dumplings that are traditionally served on New Years’ (or upon meeting a new friend for the first time), his parents went downstairs to burn paper for their deceased. That is a custom that I will write a whole entry about, so significant and poignant is it. A brief aside: the more I learn about Chinese culture, the more in love I fall with it. Well, maybe not in love, but the more I discover my understanding and affinity for it.

They came back upstairs after a thirty-minute absence. Ken told me not to feel compelled to eat that whole bowl of jiao zi I was served because the real feast was coming up. He was right… in one hour, his father whipped up all manner of specialties for our celebration meal.

Soon the table was laden with food: sliced and fried pig ears (not bad), sliced and fried pig stomach (better than the ears), lotus root in vinaigrette dressing (excellent), cucumber in vinaigrette dressing (tied for first place with the lotus root), preserved fish and fried shrimp (gave them a pass), peanuts coated in sea salt (should be a dietary staple), jellied beef gristle (kind of bland), pig knuckles and chicken feet (same treatment as the fish and shrimp), and a home made, mildly spicy dipping sauce (we could get rich selling it!) Ken’s and my contribution to the event: mashed potatoes (a hit!) and deviled eggs (didn’t go over so well). He and I also provided liquor: Captain Morgan rum and Bailey’s Irish cream – both well received.

As the chopsticks clicked and the lips smacked, conversation flowed. Ken’s parents have known that I have been in their son’s life for years and they have met me before, but we had never spent time together and, when last we met I did not speak enough Chinese to hold a conversation with a baby, let alone two adults. This time, I didn’t do so badly. They asked questions and I answered them, only occasionally calling on Ken to translate for me. This was their first time to have a foreigner up close and personal, and it appeared they intended to make the most of it. Seems like we all wanted to make the most of the occasion: toasting each other, eating, drinking, talking, laughing. Just what I’ve always imagined such a celebration to be like.

Having virtually no family that I’ve celebrated anything with over the years, save my wonderful kids and sister with her kids, I’ve usually partaken of celebrations with friends – those who, over time, have become family in my heart. I have always felt a sense of reserve at those get-togethers though. Not because of anything my hosts did wrong but just because I have always felt like an outsider. This time, I did not feel like a guest at all. I felt completely included and at ease, even with my limited speaking ability. It helped tremendously to have Ken nearby to translate. And maybe everyone sitting around in their longjohns had something to do with it. Still, I have to say that, language barrier aside, any worries about making the right impression or committing a social faux pas simply did not exist.

Strange. I’ve noticed that happens a lot to me here, in China. Perhaps because I intuit I will be excused of such things because I am a foreigner. Maybe it is because I genuinely feel at home here. Maybe because the culture is so familiar to me that a social faux pas simply hasn’t happened yet and my confidence is growing. Whatever the reason, it takes a lot of pressure off my socially awkward self, and allows me to just be myself. What a great feeling.

There is so much more to tell you about this evening I spent in the company of my friend and his parents. I will have to write another entry to complete it.

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