Back in the Frozen NE， Dongbei (东北）
I’ve completed the long return up to the far Northeast and Changchun for the new semester, feelin’ drained from the journey up here but yet strangely refreshed and ready to get things going again. There are many experiences from the trip I’d like to share with you guys, especially the time with Kaizi’s family over 春节，the Spring Festival, and what that’s all about, so let’s get to it!
Boom Boom Bian Paoooo!! (鞭炮）
Most of this is from when I just returned to China after the trip home a little over 3 weeks ago, at the start of the Chinese New Year, so some is in present tense and some from looking back afterwards:
I’m back to my second home 😉 It feels great to return, but so happy I was able to make it home for a short stay to be with family. It was so worth it, though the extreme distance for such short time made it seem sort of like a dream looking back. I have wanted to taste what its like to be in China for this holiday for some time, so its sweet for that to come true. So far, there are really no words to properly describe it thoroughly, must be experienced! The fireworks have not stopped, very few moments of silence around here. They are REAL loud too, definitely not child’s play, easily could be mistaken for gunshots and kind of sounds like warfare is going on, but that’s how they roll for the holidays here, pretty wild! Of course, the most rowdy time was the 20 minutes right around midnight before the New Year, where the explosive 鞭炮 (bianpao) fireworks were nonstop coming from every direction and just gained momentum, it was chaos.. I was pretty much overcome with jetlag at that time, though I tried hard to fight it.. However, during the final showdown I still got up to look out the balcony of the 5th story apartment we were staying in and see what was going on. Boom, BOOM, boooooooomm!!! Full sized big bloom fireworks (don’t know what else to refer to them as) were being set off right in the middle of the entrance courtyard between apartments, with very little space to spare. Firecrackers were going offff all over, couldn’t hear what anyone was saying or one’s own thoughts basically, wildest and most reckless display I’ve seen. Pretty dangerous stuff, but no one seemed to mind it, just the usual thing. I was amazed at it all!
Over the next couple weeks, the fireworks and such continued at all times of the day, and most times it would startle me pretty good as I can’t control my reaction to them, much to the amusement of Kaizi’s family and friends who are not affected in the least by the spontaneous blasts.
The Main Event
The New Year performance, or 春晚(Chunwan), is a 4.5+ hour live show with nonstop small skits and singing performances, along with other stunts all to bring in the new year. It starts at 8 and goes until about 1AM, only gaining energy the whole time. Apparently, some 690 million folks tuned in for this epic night, setting a new record. It was very entertaining, and I’ve heard it said that if you can understand the majority of it, you’re more or less fluent; by that standard I’m getting close!
Why Spring Festival?? 春节有啥意思？
So, what exactly is behind all these performances and fireworks, the meaning of this holiday time and traditions? The history and ancient culture that this Chinese New Year and Spring Festival (Chunjie春节) is built upon is vast and complex, tough to really explain as I still don’t understand much of it. It seems the reasoning behind much of the tradition and what it all means has also been fading with time through generations, as much of the time to my curious questions I just get “No reason, it just is what it is, it’s what we’ve always done” 没有什么，没有原因，就是这样. This is understandable and just the way things are, most every culture has certain traditions like those of this holiday, but very few cultures have such a long history as the Chinese, so it’s a little different ballgame.
Describing my experiences celebrating with Kaizi’s family and learning about the holiday with them is tough to write about fully, I feel like there is no way to properly express it all! But I’ll start with the basics, and go from there. This year according to the lunar Chinese calendar is 羊年，or the “Year of Yang”, which could be Year of the sheep, lamb, or goat. The meaning of Yang year that separates it from other years is still unknown to me, and to many Chinese as well, including Kaizi :p We are still working on figuring that out… There are many traditional sayings, greetings, and wishes over this time, including “新年快乐 (Happy New Year)，三‘羊’开泰(Wish you good fortune)，‘羊羊’得意(Joy to you, or walking on air )，羊年大吉 (May your Yang year be lucky)，身体健康 (Wish you good health)，万事如意 (May everything go smoothly)” These are all said and heard very often everywhere you go, but mostly among family members, and in WeChat (Weixin微信) group chats with friends. (Most every Chinese has Weixin on their Pingguo(Apple)苹果iPhone, most reliable and convenient form of short message communication.) These sayings are also said over and over on all radio and TV commercials, from all businesses and companies alike.
红包Hongbao (Red moolah bags)
During the Spring Festival, red fortune packets with money inside(红包Hongbao), are given out to kids from parents and elders, customs vary depending on the place. I received one from Kaizi’s mom the first morning of the holiday, and was very grateful as I read the gold letters on the packet to her, “大大吉利”(Dada Jili), to which she giggled in response.. I thought I may have pronounced it wrong? Nope, a different mistake, as she explained I read it in wrong order. It is to be read up and down, not left to write, so it is “大吉大利”(Daji Dali). The meaning is, “Wish you big fortune”. Kids all over China during the festival receive much joy in opening these packets, just as I did opening mine ：）
^^Chillin’ with much extended fam 🙂
What didn’t we eat?
Of course, an important (if not Thee most important) aspect of any holiday season around back home is… what? Yeah, you already know, the FOOD. It’s what it all revolves around, the joy of preparing and eating a delicious meal (or one after the other in this case) with the whole family together. Definitely no different here in that respect, but the food itself is certainly of its own kind, yet tasty all the same. However, unlike our holiday time, they don’t only have one meal together for the occasion, but a whole week of them! Such a variety of dishes were prepared and shared throughout the Chunjie (春节，Spring Festival) most of which I was pretty sure of, but others still not sure even after being told as I’d never eaten anything like it. Kaizi’s dad and uncle did most of the cooking, insisting on little assistance, as the rest of us hung out and played games.
When all was ready, they’d call us over, and there was no waiting around at that point. All would leave whatever they were doing and dash to table; when it was mealtime, it was MEAL TIME! Just a warning, I like to talk about food and can go on for a while, hope you don’t get too hungry 😉 There would always be rice served to all, of course, but from there it varied. They would try to explain what most of the dishes were, and some like I said I still didn’t know, but I’ve pretty much always been one to try anything I’m served, so that’s what I did. Most everything was delicious, and something I would hear often around the table was 力伟，多吃一点！(Levi, eat more big man!) They enjoyed watching me eat and getting me to eat more, sometimes failing with 筷子（Kuaizi, chopsticks), only with slippery foods, not due to lack of chopstick yielding skills. Along with the ever present rice, there was always some sort a potato (土豆，Tudou) dish, a vegetable like 白菜 (Baicai, cabbage), other various dishes of the like, but always most important, front and center, the meat! All of them were delicious I would say, the beef （牛肉 ，Niurou), chicken (鸡肉，Jirou) and pork （猪肉，Zhurou)all not too different from home, but prepared differently. However, no matter what meat it was, most every part of that animal is eaten. The chicken dishes would always have the head in with it, and the pork with the pigs skin included, pretty tasty actually! Maybe just me..
There were also many fish dishes served a few nights, fresh from a sort of live-well in the corner of the kitchen where the poor little guys waited for their time. The fish was usually pretty spicy, （有一点辣，Youyidian La) as the Hunan 湖南region of China is known for its spice style, and that was something I was uncertain I could handle, but I enjoyed their spiciness. They also like to eat the fish heads, （鱼头，Yutou), a delicacy, something that I couldn’t get used to… One night, they even prepared 兔子（Tuzi, rabbit), or in their dialect Touzi. That may have been the best dish of them all, real nice and tender. We definitely didn’t go hungry, good eats! I
Bound to happen sometime..
However, one night the inevitable happened. I go by tasting whatever I’m served, but there’s a line that I didn’t want to cross… Yes, one afternoon while we were all watching a movie, they told me how excited they were about cookin’ up dog for dinner that night, (an infamous delicacy here and in several other countries in this part of the world), and I was thinkin’ nooooo whyyyyy… It is a question often asked after visiting China and whatnot, did you eat dog, (狗肉，Gourou) or anything else strange? Up til then I’d said no, never will, how could I do such a thing? My family has 2 dogs at home that I love, man’s best friend that I just visited… Nevertheless, when it was served in a big pot at the table that night, they agreed to that, dogs of course are great companions, but also added that their meat is very delicious and I should definitely try it. They told me they don’t eat it much, just on special occasions, and they really hoped I’d try a bit. They were all chowin’ down, so I thought well, when in China… Kaizi picked out a good piece and set it on my plate, and I gave it a go… Feel odd saying that it tasted good, so I’ll just say it wasn’t bad, but definitely not like chicken or anything else. It was certainly a shock mentally just knowing what I had eaten was indeed dog meat, yikes Levi… So yup, that happened, I tried it, but definitely don’t want to go for it again. I see dogs as great friends not to be eaten, but as a part of their culture it’s viewed as a savory snack. Fascinating cultural differences, what makes life interesting, eh? ：）
The meal times would last a good while, with little chatter while eating but after all had their fill there would be lots of talk and just hangin’ around the table. Between meals and such, their family, like mine back home, loves to play lots of cards. However, they mostly play Chinese style poker, which I tried to understand but it’s kind of a hopeless endeavor. It was fun to just watch, as it can get pretty intense, slammin’ money down on the table. They love it!
Over the holiday, there were also many showcased NBA games on CCTV5, so we watched some of those. A few games, they wore jerseys with their team names in Chinese, in honor of the New Year. Many funny commercials were also shown with popular players, like James Harden and Jeremy Lin (of course), wishing a Happy Chinese New Year those other wishful sayings in Chinese above, pretty interesting. The NBA Commissioner Adam Silver also had a message shown over and over with New Years wishes, very clear they are pushing for an even stronger market for the NBA in China than it already has. (Surprise!) A go to ice-breaker for me here is to just ask guys about the NBA, who they like and whatnot, they are HUGE fans here! It also helps when describing where I’m from if they are NBA fans, because then I just say I live where the 森林狼（Senlin Lang, Timberwolves) play, and Boom they got it locked. Then they sometimes ask why I live in such a cold place like here, and I say good question… 🙂 MN just gets ya, no place like it eh?
CCTV-5 even for some unknown reason had a Twolves – Rockets game, prior to big KG trade. It was real fun to watch over here with Kaizi’s family, who doesn’t watch basketball often but took it in with me, cheered on the hopeless wolves together 😉
Hit the Streets
Watching those games inspired us to make it real outside, and so we took it to the streets. When I’d played basketball before around Kaizi, he wouldn’t really try to join in at all, and didn’t really have any interest to learn the skills. Shooting to him was something completely foreign, didn’t have the feeling to it at all. So, one day we went over how to shoot together from the very basics, and slowly step by step, even in the rain the first day, he became pretty decent. (I think that if I’d taken the time to teach others how to shoot sometimes in high-school, that’d have helped me greatly tune my own shooting woes, as we learn most by teaching.) It was a good time, and we played PIG a couple times later, and I got lucky to win. He learned the skills pretty quick, I was impressed!
It was also fun playing with a few of his little cousins, and other locals in pick up games at Kaizi’s old middle school. Beautiful weather in a festive atmosphere, playing with fireworks cracking off from all sides was pretty strange!
Magic Heat Box
Cloudy and rainy mostly around these parts lately, but cozy inside only because of a heater box 烤火箱(Kaohuo Xiang, a wooden box with a heater inside) in front of the living room sofa. They sit on the couch with their feet on the box and a shared blanket on top, so all keep warm, its brilliant! There’s no indoor heating down in these southern parts, and the walls are very thin, so though it may not be all that cold outside, it easily gets real chilly inside, especially in the mornings. It’s warm with family love around that heater box though! Gotta love it.
Coffeehouse: What time is it?? Gametime, whoo!!
During the afternoons, we would get together with a bunch of Kaizi’s friends at a coffeehouse to hang out, chat (聊天, Liaotian), and play games. It was a great group to get to know and learn from, through playing a couple games, like “谁是卧底？” (Sheishi Wodi, Who is undercover/ a spy?). That one we didn’t play too often, but the goal of it is basically to explain a word you receive by being as vague as possible, to blend in with the others, as there is one person whose word is not the same, but very similar. Then vote on whose the one whose different, til finally succeeding. It’s a fun game, but the concept behind it to blend in with all those around you and not doing anything to stand out is not the greatest message, better being different! Of course just a game, and pretty fun too especially in Chinese and with other Chinese friends.
Another game we played much more of was 狼人杀 (Langren Sha, Werewolves kill?) That’s the literal translation, but it’s a lot like the game Mafia played back home around college at WSU and even at Shepherd’s Field with visiting mission groups, always a great time! It is a real intriguing game, though not going to attempt explaining it here. It was interesting though how Kaizi’s friends would always choose to go to this one coffeehouse each time because it had the specific special card set to play the game. It was cold and rainy most days unfortunately, so made it fun hanging around the coffeehouses and just enjoying each the friendly company.
Kaizi’s older cousin got engaged over this time so the whole family went out to celebrate. We all shared in a big delicious meal, apparently at the restaurant the fiancée’s father owns. Very fun, festive time around then! I’ve been trying my best to get familiar with the 周 (Zhou) Fam here, learn names and understand relationships, but there are so much extended family around now that that is unlikely. They can somewhat speak the Common Mandarin Chinese, 普通话 (Putong Hua)with me to understand clearly, but that’s only when directly speaking to me and they don’t like it. Speaking with each other, they of course go off in their sweet accent that I’m learning a bit of slowly, but its real tough. They enjoy teaching me some small bits and hearing me repeat it poorly, get a real kick out of it.
On the first Sunday after the New Year, Kaizi told me his Aunt knows of a church nearby we can go check out, the only one they know of in a smallish city (yea..) of more than 4 million.. I imagine and pray there are a good number of underground house churches, but that’s unknown.. We found our way to this upstairs church tucked in some back alleys, walked in and found seats. I don’t mind it and I am understanding where they are come from, but I can tell right away when I’m around people who rarely if ever have seen foreigners, as they tend to stare unashamedly, totally cultural but takes much getting used to. This church very likely had never before had a foreigner attend, I’m not sure, but it seemed that way. (I didn’t see a single other foreigner the whole time in the area around Yiyang 益阳 and Guiyang 贵阳 until I met up with Ukrainian friends in Kunming 昆明，almost 2 weeks!) Definitely understandable, as it is a long trip like I described to get out there.. many people would give looks of wonder and just stare blankly, until I would respond with a smile and a wave, to which they’d respond with an even bigger smile and wave, never fails. 🙂
Anyways, an interesting story came from this experience at this church. As we sat down, a lady came up to us and asked me if I understood what the pastor was saying (of course Kaizi did..) I told her I pretty well understood Putonghua 普通话 ，common Mandarin Chinese, and she just said OK, I’ll see what I can do, and left. I didn’t know what she meant by that, so just let it be. The pastor at the time was speaking what seemed to be a mix of the local dialect and Putonghua, so some of it I understood, and it was no problem, really passionate speaking and interesting to listen to! However, next thing I know the usher lady who had just spoken with us had made her way around back and up to the front to where the pastor was, approached her mid-sermon and whispered to her something about there being a silly foreigner in attendance who doesn’t understand the local dialect, so please speak just Putonghua for him. The pastor gave a surprised chuckle, and then explained the situation to the congregation, and asked me to stand and wave to be welcomed, which I did, but forgot about a low ceiling above me and bumped my head pretty hard, provoking much more chuckles as I sat down in the small pews pretty embarrassed from the whole situation. (don’t enjoy getting unnecessary attention called upon me).
So, the service continued as the pastor spoke in the common language, flustering some in the congregation who don’t really speak or understand much Putonghua, just know and speak the dialect. That made me feel pretty bad, as they came to hear a nice message on a typical Sunday, and then the pastor changed things up and spoke differently for some dude (me) who barely understood anyway. The pastor apologized at the end to those who don’t understand Putonghua.. However, it all just turned out to be a silly situation out of my control, and after the service, all were very grateful to meet the strange, giant foreigner, but I was much more thankful to interact with all of them. It is sad that it may be the only church around the area in a fairly large city, but it is filled with loving and passionate believers, Praise the Lord for that! Please continue to pray for churches all over in China, and all other parts of the world, for it to continue to grow and more people searching for Hope and something to believe in to have eyes opened and accept in their heart the Grace, Truth, and Everlasting Hope found only in Jesus. 🙂
An old lady was talking with Kaizi afterwards, and he said she wanted to take us to give us a gift. So, without thinking twice, we followed her out of the church, thanking and blessing all for the wonderful time, and walked with the little lady through small back alleys all the way to where I assumed she lives. She told us to wait as she went up, soon coming back down with a small something, being 4 CD’s of an apparent Christmas singing performance the church put on this year. She said one for each of the 2 of us, and 2 others to give and bless others. We thanked her much for her kindness, and parted ways. I have yet to see watch the performance CD, but should be neat to watch!
Hit the Tracks
Quite the mix of experiences made for a definite unforgettable first Spring Festival impression, one of which I am so grateful to Kaizi and all his family/friends who made it so. I hope you also understand a bit more about Chinese culture and what the whole Spring Festival celebration is all about. 🙂
From his home, we continued on by train to Guiyang with a friend there for a few days, and then to Kunming and Lijiang with other friends for a week, all before making the return trip way up to Changchun. Those were wonderful experiences as well, thankful to all those friends for making it possible, and hope to write about the time spent down there soon.
Great to be reunited with tight family of foreign students and other Chinese friends around here as back to studies. Trying best to make it all count and grow much more, as this time will fly by just like the last semester did; loving the present moments of this lifetime adventure, seize the day ya’ll! Carpe Diem 🙂
Also excited to watch the Madness of March in the NCAA Tournament unfold from over here! Know so little about who’s been good this year, which I think will strangely help me do much better. 🙂 We shall see!
All for now, 谢谢大家！