Saturday, January 28, 2012

Chinese New Year

Warning: This is post is a bit of a hodgepodge of thoughts. I don't make any claims to a cohesive narrative. Just some generally connected ideas / personal experiences.

Chinese New Year, or "Spring Festival" as it is usually called in China, is an interesting time to travel through China. On the one hand, it's a real nightmare trying to go anywhere or do anything. It's traditional for families in China to be together for the holiday, and modern China is full of migrant workers, college students, and others who live far from their families. Everybody is going home at once, which results in what is called Chunyun. Basically, several hundred million people take train trips within a span of a couple of weeks. Logistically, that is amazing. Think about that for a second. Imagine if every man, woman, and child in the United States tried to take a train ride within a two-week period. It would be insane. That's what we have here. It's the biggest annual human migration in the world. The point is, if you are a tourist and you are trying to buy tickets, you have to be prepared for the possibility that all tickets are sold out. Or, in a slightly better scenario, you can get tickets, but they are standing room only tickets.

This is the train station in Shanghai more than a week before the Spring Festival. Several days later, this place would be packed.

So travel is a pain. Additionally, most shops (especially small ones, like where you can buy street food) close down for a few days or a week right at the new year. This can be inconvenient if you were planning to do anything in China while you were here.

On the other hand, it's a pretty great holiday. It's especially great if you have Chinese friends who are willing to include you in their family events. I am fortunate enough to have a friend like that. When Leslie and I lived in China, Zoe was our best Chinese friend (she still is, in fact). Her family has always been incredibly welcoming and this time around was no exception. She included me in four days worth of events, the highlight of which was on the 24th (the second day of the dragon year) when we went to her husband's family's village in the countryside. They picked me up early for the half-hour drive to the village. The family occupied several homes in the village itself (Zoe's mother-in-law and father-in-law both came from the village, so that's a lot of family members), so we had breakfast, lunch, and dinner at three separate houses. All of the homes were spartan in furnishings, with concrete walls, wood burning stoves, and no heating.

It was relatively cold out (right around 32 Fahrenheit, I suspect), so many family members and one tall foreigner gathered around a ceramic pot filled with smoldering embers. Each of the three meals was a true feast. We had pork, cabbage, mushrooms, tofu, beef, liver, eggs...all sorts of things. Not to mention, of course, the copious baijiu and cigarettes that were constantly foisted upon me by all of the male relatives.

Outside of the meals, firecrackers were lit, mahjong was played, and good company was had. I should also note that this was an important year to visit this family because a family member (one of Zoe's father-in-law's brothers) had died, so everybody had to make an extra effort to visit this year. An interesting cultural note is that most families in China hang red banners around their doors for the new year, to bring good luck on all of the inhabitants in the coming year and (theoretically) ward off evil spirits. 

These red banners are hanging on almost every door in China right now. If, however, a member of a household has died in the past year, the family signifies this with yellow banners instead. Here's the outside of the house where the deceased had lived:

As I've ridden through the countryside on trains between cities, I have seen a couple more of these. It's a thoughtful and quiet way to indicate a family's woes.

So, as I said, Chinese New Year is a mixed bag in terms of whether or not it's the right time to visit China. It's difficult to move about the country or do much of anything, but you'll have the opportunity to hear thousands of fireworks and firecrackers going off at once in every corner of the city (imagine the 4th of July, except every household is setting off their own pyrotechnics). If you are extremely lucky like me, you will have chances to see a different side of China than you normally would. In my book, the verdict goes clearly to the side of "yes, it's the right time to come." So long as you know what you're getting into, it's an incredibly special experience--one that is celebrated annually by more than a sixth of the world's population.


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