Spring Festival

Xin nian kuai le! Happy New Year, to all you laowai (foreigners) or non-Chinese speaking types.

Since I had the incredible opportunity to celebrate two new years’, giving me two separate chances to make some resolutions, I’m finally getting around to one: starting a blog.
This blog is going to be devoted to giving you a glimpse into my life here in Xi’an. So without further ado, I will tell you all about my experiences during Spring Festival.
For those of you who haven’t heard, I am in a relationship. He’s Chinese, 23/24 (depends whether you consult a Western or lunar calendar), a student about to graduate, and from the countryside. His Chinese name is Zhang Jian (my girlfriend Xi (Sara is her English name) just informed me his given name, Jian, means “healthy.” Chinese names all have specific meanings in addition to the order in which the name appears; family name is always first as familial ties are extremely significant, and given name follows).
Photos of Zhang Jian’s grandparents 
He invited me to go to his home, about three hours North of Xi’an, to celebrate Spring Festival. The best comparison of Spring Festival festivities is Christmas, but think Christmas completely blown out of proportion. SF does not revolve around gift-giving though, instead unmarried people, i.e. children, are given money called hong bao. Fireworks, firecrackers, and virtually anything that makes continuously loud noises for several minutes is sold, bought, and lit. Special foods are consumed such as baozi, steamed buns filled with pork or tofu and on New Year’s Eve, jiaozi (dumplings) are shaped, cooked, and consumed.  The fireworks are said to ward off any evil spirits who hope to ruin the festivities of the new year. Zhang Jian’s family isn’t religious, but is certainly shamanistic. They hold traditional Chinese customs with reverence. There is an offering to several different deities, specifically the soil God which seems more like a Bodhisattva than the God we are used to in the monotheistic religions. They offer juzi, small clementines and light incense in hopes that the deities will bring them good fortune, a good harvest, and good health. There is also a “make-shift shrine,” a table where pictures of Zhang Jian’s grandparents are placed and offerings of various dishes, baozi, and fruit are given to the deceased.
I was there for just under a week, and perhaps this is TMI, but it’s necessary to gain some perspective on what we consider a “need.” There is no indoor plumbing or heating, the bathroom is no more than a hole in the ground and there isn’t a fridge. The house has two long narrow rooms on either side of a courtyard. Behind the long narrow rooms is where the kitchen is located and another very small bedroom. This small bedroom serves as the fridge. I walked in one day and stumbled upon a large slab of meat, just chillaxing upon the table (of course, on a plate). So yes, if you are wondering, I didn’t have a shower for almost an entire week. I was able to wash my hair and feet besides washing my face and hands everyday (and brushing my teeth I might add!) in a wash basin. As my sister said, I reverted back to the Middle Ages, but I have a boyfriend who washed my hair and feet for me. Talk about being spoiled…haha.
The infamous washbasin 
A nice photo montage complete with meaningful explanations:
Visiting Xunyi county town, where Zhang Jian’s high school is located. These are fireworks for sale. There are a myriad of different kinds, everything ranging from sparklers, firecrackers, and the kind we often see on the 4th, when my family used to go to the fireworks show sponsored by the town. This past Spring Festival, China Daily reported numerous accidents occurring and the Chinese government is considering banning fireworks all together. Who knows though? This is China…

 

This is Qiang Qiang, Zhang Jian’s nephew. He has two older brothers, the youngest of three boys. Interesting…since I am the oldest of three girls. Sometimes he was sweet and other times not so much, but what can you do? He’s 4 years old. He’s still at that playful age where he thinks spitting and hitting is highly appropriate. He did really enjoy when I played airplane with him. He was the airplane; I would pick him up and “fly” him around. In Chinese culture, out of respect, I was called “ayi” by Qiang Qiang. In the same way, I referred to Zhang Jian’s parents as ayi and shu shu, auntie and uncle. Chinese names are often impossible to pronounce and honestly, I would have embarrassed myself had I tried to pronounce anyone’s names. I met so many family members; I could barely keep their relation to Zhang Jian straight so how was I supposed to learn their names? 
The kitchen. I sat here one evening and watched his mother cook. I was treated like a queen and was expected to sit around and do nothing related to cooking or cleaning. If I was a Chinese girl, this would not be the case. I would be expected to help serve the men in the family, instead I was eating with them.  
The cesuo (bathroom). It was a hole in the ground, and unfortunately didn’t smell like rainbows and butteflies. 

 

This is an erhou, a traditional Chinese instrument. During my stay, I met Zhang Jian’s best friend from high school, Yang Qi. His friend is my age, graduated college the same time as me and works at Nestle. He gave me his business card and to be quite honest I was jealous. I want one too. Anyways, Yang Qi’s father is an impressive arhou and flute player. He dazzled us with his ability to play traditional Chinese songs. We ate an impressive lunch of some Shaanxi specialities and some of my favorites: xi hong shi chao ji dan (tomato and egg). It’s very interesting to see the difference between Yang Qi’s and Zhang Jian’s family homes. Yang Qi lives in Xunyi county town, in an apartment with central heating, a fridge, and a significantly larger kitchen. 
We visited one of his aunt’s on our walk back from being dropped off by Zhang Jian’s brother after our excursion in Xunyi. I am pictured here with some of his family’s apple trees. Amongst them is some walnut, peach and apricot trees. I also had the chance to see the remains of his family’s old dwellings, cave homes. Yes, you read that correctly, his entire family used to live in cave homes until they all collapsed. His family is now scattered throughout the village instead of living in one giant enclave. There is virtually nothing left of the cave dwellings, just the ground and the shrine to the soil deity. 

 

This is Zhang Jian’s father preparing the bed for the cold ruthless night. With no central heating, each room is equipped with a warm bed, a bed that has a hearth underneath, fed by twigs and leaves. The bed gets extremely warm at night, and unfortunately the air is so dry that when you awake in the morning, your nose bleeds slightly. Dry air + warm bed = unhappy nose. It is quite impressive that this bed stays warm all day long. Relatives and neighbors that come over, specifically the women and young children tend to gather around the bed or sit in the bed under a blanket to keep warm. I was often ushered at other people’s homes as well as Zhang Jian’s to go sit on the bed and keep warm. They must have discovered how utterly cold I was. 

 

My gift from ayi. Zhang Jian’s mother handcrafted these. There a tad bit small but I didn’t want to disappoint her by refusing. Plus, they are beautiful and are serving me well as slippers. These are pheasant style shoes worn by farmers, Zhang Jian informed me. His words, not mine. 

 

The hanging of the couplets, or poems that ward off evil spirits and bring good luck in the new year. They are hung at the entryway to the home on New Year’s Eve Day. 

 

This is the hong bao I mentioned before, expect this is fake money and is offered as a sacrifice to the deceased. On New Year’s Day, we visited his family grave, but it was explained to me that the dead also enjoy Spring Festival and must be brought fruit and money to begin a year filled with good health and fortune. 

 

It’s usually only the men or young unmarried girls in the family that go to the grave. They burn joss paper, fake money, and bring an offering of fruit to their ancestors. They also set off fireworks to ward off those evil spirits. 
Making jiaozi on New Year’s Eve. This is the traditional dish that every Chinese family makes and eats for the new year. I was complimented on my jiaozi making; I didn’t think mine were that impressive but they were infinitely better than my boyfriend’s.  

 

Sparklers! On New Year’s Eve, well technically speaking New Year’s Day, I had the chance to show off my inability to use fireworks. It came as a shock that I had no experience with such things. Upon explaining they are illegal in the U.S., the mood changed. 
Zhang Jian learning to drive. His brother is teaching him. I am sitting in the middle seat, petrified. He is learning how to drive a manual. He insisted on me trying but I told him I’d rather not have his brother hate me for crashing his car. Chinese roads aren’t really roads, at least in the countryside. It’s more along the lines of a dirt path. I much prefer highway driving, thank you very much. Foreigners can get a  Chinese driving license, but why on Earth would I want to drive in China? Xi’an has a population of 8 million people; I am unsure how many own cars, but with the amount of traffic jams that ensue on a daily basis, I’d rather take my chances being squished in a bus or riding comfortably in a not-so-cheap taxi. 
This is Pei Pei, Zhang Jian’s sister. She’s really his cousin but his parents have raised her since she was a toddler. I don’t even know if she is aware that her real parents are one of Zhang Jian’s myriad of aunts and uncles. She’s 12 years old. She really liked to follow me around, hold my hand, and just smile really wide at me. I think she was happy to have another girl around. The morning of the day that marked 100 days of his grandfather passing, we were going to be visiting his father’s family home; (and it was here that I met Zhang Jian’s sister-in-law, an English teacher in the county) I was taking care of my daily routine which consisted of putting on a little makeup. Pei Pei just stood there mesmerized, watching me. I taught her a little English, actually it was more that she would hear Zhang Jian and I speaking and just repeat what we would say. The Chinese have a gift for being able to regurgitate language upon hearing it only once or twice. I can barely remember all the Chinese I have tried to cram into my pea-sized brain. 
We went on an afternoon stroll past some of the apple orchards towards this giant lake at the bottom of a large basin. His village is located in a mountainous area and Xunyi is located in a plateau or basin below. Excuse me, for my lack of geological knowledge.
The lake, not safe for skating but certainly pretty to look at and photograph. A blanket of snow covered most of this area. Luckily, it did not snow while I was there. It was quite sunny, and sitting outside during the day, soaking up the sun’s warmth and enjoying fresh air, well, as fresh as China air gets, was a nice break from Xi’an. Most of my days were spent cuddling with my Nook, playing cards, watching some cartoons with Pei Pei and Chang Chang, being ogled at (I was the first foreigner to visit this village), visiting Zhang Jian’s family, and spending quality with Jian Jian (his family nickname). 

Overall, it was an interesting experience. I felt grateful for the warmth and friendliness of the village and Zhang Jian’s family. Although people stared at me, it wasn’t as difficult to handle as expected. The constant questioning on whether Zhang Jian and I were getting married was tiresome, but as I was prepared for this, it turned out to be more humorous than anything else. In Chinese culture, when a man brings a girl to his home, it’s quite significant. It means they are dating and that one day they will marry. Emphasis on one day, one day soon is the hope. I was questioned endlessly by some of his cousins. I lied and told them we were friends…haha. Zhang Jian told his immediate family that we are dating, but we both decided, to keep the village gossip at bay, that telling all his family would be too much. So the marriage question ensued throughout my entire stay, but the other question so often asked, was where did I come from? As soon as I said America, many of the uncles starting talking about the poor weather in the States. This was during the blizzard-like snowstorms. It was laughable that these old men were able to watch the news on their TVs, but didn’t have indoor plumbing or let alone a fridge. Ahhh, priorities! 

3 thoughts on “Spring Festival

  1. themashedpotato says:

    Hey, this is Laura D! I'm liking the blog, especially the title, hehe. I'm really glad you had a good time with Zhang Jian and his family – it was really interesting to hear what life is really like in rural China. Keep on writing! 🙂

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