Gongxi facai – Congratulations and may you prosper.
Gongxi, Gongxi – Congratulations!
It is my first Chinese New Year and I’m alone. Like Christmas in America, when people see you alone on the holiday, they look at you with that ‘where are your people’ frown, or worse, the sympathetic, ‘maybe we should ask her to join us’ look.
Fortunately, I’m in China and I’m a blue-eyed, foreign woman, so most everyone leaves me alone. I stop and have dinner at the local noodle shop, after having seen my partner off at Hangzhou International airport for his trip back to the States, and they treat me normally, but wonder where my partner is.
In my halting Chinese I tell them that my zhang fu has left today for America and that I will mingtian hui jia — return home tomorrow. I’m left alone then to enjoy my noodles in their rich broth in relative peace. I qualify that, because blasts of fireworks and firecrackers are beginning to erupt throughout the neighborhood at Nan Du De Jia.
The noise continues throughout the night. A constant series of sharp bangs interspersed with rapid-fire snaps as long, red snakes of firecrackers explode in succession.
I enjoy them at first. I like the idea of scaring away evil spirits and hungry ghosts who might take my happiness, wealth or health from me. It’s a little harder to deal with as I’m trying to concentrate on calligraphy in our little ground-floor apartment in this usually serene apartment complex.
The bursts and booms rattle me and make my brush jerk. It was the same earlier when I practiced tai ji in the complex’s courtyard after dinner. So I’m a little jumpy from the noise and from my normal pre-flight jitters. I eat some chocolate covered almonds I just discovered at the local C-Store, which is like a 7-Eleven in America. I haven’t had chocolate in a long time and it really tastes good to me. Unfortunately, it also makes me feel jumpy. I was told that the noise will go on throughout the night. I wonder how I’ll sleep through it all.
Chinese New Year seems a lot like Christmas, despite the Fourth of July noise-makers. It is the one holiday, without fail, that everyone goes home for. No matter what. Last year, there was a blizzard in the north and east of China and people had a terrible time traveling. Still they made the effort and expected the government to ensure that everyone would get where they wanted to go because no one wants to be alone on New Year’s.
There is a mass of humanity traveling at this time in China and trying to get anywhere can feel next to impossible. But everyone goes somewhere and amazingly everyone seems to get where they are going. Migrant workers, people who have left their children or parents or spouses to work in the factories to make a better living than on the farm, return to see their families. For some it is their only chance to see them all year.
The holiday travel starts about one week before the New Year builds to a peak just before the actual day and then falls off and rebuilds for the return trip. In total it’s about three weeks of holiday travel, feasting and parties.
Naturally, emotions run high in the queues and check in lines at buses, airports and train stations. But everyone seems to have extra patience and despite some queue cutting, a typical Chinese response, crowds are generally orderly and friendly.
And everyone is carrying food, lots and lots of food, in bags, and bins and barrels. Some packages are strapped to their backs, some carry sacks on their shoulders. Everyone has rice and oil at least and is unloading it from cars, bikes, and vans. Little mandarin oranges are carried by children in bags while the parents carry the heavier items.
On Wen Er Lu, where we live, tents have sprung up everywhere on the sidewalk selling fireworks and firecrackers. Huge packages of bright red boxes filled with noise makers to celebrate are selling like crazy. I’ve never seen such a thing. Fireworks are illegal back home in the U.S. and to see people openly buying them seems so strange!
This year the New Year falls on Jan. 25. It is held at a different time every year, because it is a lunar New Year, not a solar New Year like ours in the West. The lunar New Year begins on the first new moon of the new year. I’m told that by tomorrow, the 26th, when I have to travel to Shanghai to make my trek home to Rhode Island, people will be out to visit friends after spending the 25th in the bosom of their family.
That means I’ll be able to get a cab to the Sports Center in Hangzhou to catch the bus to Shanghai. At least I hope so.
We were worried that my partner wouldn’t be able to get a cab today, but we were fortunate that our Mandarin teacher knew someone who could drive us to the airport. Fiona and her husband actually took the morning out of their vacation to join us on the trip. Fiona was very helpful in hundreds of ways and I sent a silent thank you to the Universe in gratitude.
Although It turned out that there were plenty of cabs this morning, despite the rumor that only about 25 percent of cabs would be on the street during the holiday, Fiona and her husband, newlyweds, and the driver made our trip less anxiety producing and lots more fun.
Finally, she and her husband walked me around the airport until we found the bus ticket window, she showed me how to buy my ticket for the bus back to Hangzhou and I hugged her and bid them both a happy new year. Comforted, and a little teary-eyed, I returned upstairs to waiting for the check-in with my partner.
After I returned from Hangzhou Xiao Shan Airport, I also managed to get my hair done. A local shop was surprisingly open and I walked in and got a hair wash — xi tou — and blow dry, for a pittance, 20 yuan or about 3 dollars US.
I miss the hair salons in Fuyang though. Last term I taught English at the No. 2 High School in Fuyang — about one hour west of Hangzhou. I loved it there. It is a city of about 300,000, surrounded on all sides by mountains and divided by three rivers. There’s some old architecture there as well. Fuyang was once the capital of China, during the Three Kingdoms Era, a very long time ago by American standards.
In Fuyang, a hair wash and blow dry comes with this remarkable 40 minutes or so of massage. After your hair wash, your ears will be gently cleaned with a q-tip and then your head and shoulders and arms and back will be massaged. Afterwards, you get a blow dry. I’d spend about two hours there with my partner — who’d get a cut and a trim for his beard at the same time. The price: 40 yuan total. An amazing bargain.
I have my fingers crossed for an easy trip tomorrow. It’s a long way home, moving backwards in time, to America and each leg of the trip takes its toll. I’m not as young as I used to be. The trip to Shanghai Pudong International Airport will take about 3.5 hours I’m told. I originally was going to take the D train — a fantastic high-speed train that gets into Shanghai from Hangzhou in under 2 hours, but I was told it would leave me far from the airport and that I’d have to take a subway and transfer to another subway before even getting near the airport.
The locals assured me that the bus is more door-to-door service and will be less stressful for an yidian Mandarin speaker such as myself. Again, the Mandarin school came to my rescue. Our calligraphy teacher, who was on his way after our class on Friday to his hometown, Huzhou — famous for its bamboo — about an hour north of here, walked me over to the Sports Center, very near Hangda Lu where the classes are, and in about 20 minutes I had a ticket to Shanghai on the bus at 10:30 am Monday morning.
John, the calligrapher’s English name, suggested that I get my money back for the D train ticket and I promised to try to do so tomorrow – in Mandarin. Shanghai bus ticket: 100 Yuan. D Train ticket: 54 Yuan.
How can I describe the New Year? There are decorations everywhere. In some cases, the front doors and pillars of entire buildings are covered in red and gold paper, lights are also put out on trees and bushes, very much like Christmas, and there are decorations of Chinese symbols for double happiness, wealth, prosperity covering doors and windows everywhere.
This year is the year of the Ox, so pictures of happy bulls, strong bulls, peaceful looking cows with horns and stuffed oxen of all sorts are available and hanging from every hook and nail. Fish, a symbol of plenty, are everywhere too. There are special foods eaten at this time and everyone, I’m told, must wear new clothes on the New Year. I’m also told by my students that they receive red underwear from their parents — both tops and bottoms — for girls.
My students blush, but give me no explanation for why red underwear is a custom. I wander into a local Wumart, like a Walmart, and sure enough, lots of red underwear for sale. I buy a pair of bottoms, just to get into the groove of the holiday. My partner likes ’em, but I wonder if they will bleed when washed next week.
There is special music as well. I hear the same Gongxi, Gongxi song over and over whether I’m at the hair salon, the restaurant, the Wumart or in a cab. Everyone wishes everyone, strangers included, a happy new year and Gongxi, gongxi’s are shared.
Despite the frenicity everyone seems happy and content. There are plenty of warm smiles and happy faces. There is a Christmas like spirit around everyone. I like this holiday and although I am not Chinese I feel the absence of my loved one’s as if it is my holiday too.
In some ways it is. I’ve finished my first term of teaching and I’m off to visit my family for the first time since coming to China last August. I have mixed emotions — happy to be going home, sad to be leaving my new home, China, excited about everything and all that I’ve learned in the last four months of my new life in China and nervous about the long trip there and back.
I tuck myself in after a light cup of tea at 9:30 pm, prepared for a long sleep into the night. There are still occasional blasts from firecrackers and such, but it is considerably quieter. I snuggle down into my electric blanket and drift off. Of course, as anyone from Hangzhou or China knows, I wouldn’t rest for too long.
At midnight, I was woken up, as it sounded like all hell had broken loose. There were screaming fireworks and hundreds of strings of firecrackers going off all at the same time and deep, blasts that shook my teeth and rattled my brains. The sounds practically knocked me out of my bed.
What in the world was going on? I got up in the cold room — our heater had taken this week, one of the coldest of the year, to conk out — and peeked out of the one window we have near the bed.
There was every kind of firework going off and reflected dozens of times over in every window of the complex. Green and white and red and sometimes showers of whistling fire were falling all over the sky. Boom, boom, boom and more firecrackers than I could ever imagine being fired at the same time snapped and popper ferociously.
From my window, on my tip-toes, I saw a father light a long string of crackers, while his young daughter bounced around the sidewalk in her quilted pants and jacket to keep warm. I have never heard such a racket! The small window in the apartment rattled and my breath steamed it up. Every complex in the area — and this is a huge residential part of Hangzhou — was setting off noise makers.
I looked at the clock and it was 12:07 am — New Year, I guessed — and I realized there must be lots of people outside. I hastily pulled on my pants, my boots and a jacket and went to the courtyard. People were everywhere, couples hugging, families and young men all watching fireworks being exploded where the fountain used to be. Tai xihuan, I like it a lot, I heard a woman say. It was so smoky I could hardly see anyone’s face.
Earlier, when I had done tai ji near the fountain in the courtyard of the complex, I had wondered why the statue of three children was covered up in bags and why the lights and floor of the fountain were covered with cardboard. I thought perhaps while everyone was away on holiday, the apartment management was going to clean or renovate it.
What I discovered was that this was firework central. This was the stage for all those huge red boxes I saw on sale for the last two days. Each box exploded with a succession of roman candles shooting into the air and bursting into fiery flowers with a loud bang to punctuate its beauty. Row after row exploded, while the neighbors watched.
The ground was littered with paper remains from the fireworks and now-dead firecracker snakes lay limp and quiet. Someone had set off a round circle of firecrackers in front of my front door. I didn’t know who to thank though. My belly shook from the sounds. My face turned up to the sky, I felt all the excitement of a child at her first fireworks on July 4th. I had some tears at the corners of my eyes and the excitement from the noise and the people made me shiver. I didn’t feel cold anymore.
Things started to quiet a little — not much, but in our complex — and some people drifted off. I saw more people on the balconies slip inside, arms around each other, and other windows were dark. I walked through the courtyard out to the front where the guards were and one of them shouted happy new year to me in English. I smiled and nodded. I peeked through the strings of Christmas-like lights in the front of our complex and Wen Er Lu was filled with smoke too. Every community was doing the same thing as ours. Making as much noise as possible to bring in the new year. There were no cries or screams or shouts though, just the bams and booms of fireworks. China invented fireworks. Now I know why.
At 2 am I am ready for bed again. It is mostly quiet now. I am warm and happy and a little stunned by the experience. I’m still worried about getting a cab in the morning. With all the noise and lateness of the hour. Would anyone be up at 8 am?
No matter. I would muddle through. There are constant surprises I’ve found in China. Not all as exciting as this night’s, but well worth the travel and challenges of moving to the Middle Kingdom.
Happy New Year China. I wish you many more and I hope to share many of them with you!