Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Episode Twelve: The Chinese New Year

The Year of the Horse

We have successfully rung in The Year of the Horse. Chinese New Year celebrations began on January 30th (the president had cancelled that day as a holiday; civil servants and other government workers  had to report to work as usual, but most people ignored this cancellation if they could). We were invited to Wenning’s new apartment to kick off the week-long festivities. Wenning is an English department colleague and she has a son, Qingqing, who is 5 years old. Wenning’s new apartment is outside of town, so we had to get a ride there, public transportation being a) dicey on the holiday and b) unreliable that far out of town.
Horse Decorations at the Wild Good Pagoda

Background on Chinese customs: The Chinese Zodiac, unlike the zodiac system Westerners are accustomed to, operates on a yearly rotation. There are twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac. Each animal represents a year. When you are born under a certain sign/animal (as with the zodiac system many in the West ascribe to) you embody certain characteristics. This system is immensely complicated by a numerology system that the Chinese also believe in. The date/hour you were born also determines your character/personality/fate. On the Chinese zodiac, the dragon is the most auspicious sign. I remember my Chinese linguistic professor, Luming Mao, tell me that 2000 – the new millineum -- was a Dragon year and therefore considered a double-good sign. People were trying to have babies that year in order to give their children the best opportunity and good luck. You can go online here and find out your Chinese zodiac and what it means (you can also see what sign your “love match” would be).
 If you are a horse (born in 2002, 1990, 1978, 1966, 1954, 1942, 1930) this is your year.

You may think that is a good thing. It isn’t. In fact, the evil spirits are bent on getting you this year, so watch out. All the little horsey Chinese have to wear red underwear, sox, and undershirts in order to ward off evil spirits. Babies have to wear “chi protectors” which are little bib-like articles of clothing that hang over their belly to protect their “chi” or spiritual/emotional/physical center. Evil spirits do not like red. Red is a lucky color. That is why red dominates new year’s decorations: lanterns, door signs, clothing, gift boxes, envelopes, chi protectors, hats. All red. And a bit of gold. The evils spirits are especially active the first few days of the new year, so people need to wear and adorn their spaces with lots of red and make a lot of noise. Evil spirits do not like noise. Thus the prevalence of fireworks. Not the pretty kind, either (although there are those). The bang, pop, explode your ear drums, bring on the tinnitus, kind.

Wenning making dumplings

Everyone was warning me that we wouldn’t get any sleep because of the ongoing explosions for days and days. Clearly, these people have never visited Capitol Avenue in Lincoln, Nebraska the week before and after the July 4th Holiday. The Chinese have nothing on my Lincoln neighbors. In fact, the Chinese celebrations seemed like a calm alternative to the non-stop illegally loud fireworks that my neighbors set off in Lincoln. For people living on the edge or in the trenches of poverty (I am speaking of my Lincoln neighbors) it always puzzles me where they find the money to buy endless rounds of M-16 sounding firecrackers, traveling to and from the state line of Missouri (where such things are legally sold) to empty their pockets of cash and load up their rusted out sedans with the stuff that prevents me from sleeping for nights on end.
Because this was Wenning’s family’s first year in their new apartment, they had to spend the first night of the new year in their apartment (typically they would spend this night at her husband’s parents’ home) and abide by some traditions: make some dumplings, have some people over, set off some fireworks, make a lot of noise, stay up all night to make that noise so that the spirits would leave them alone. Wenning’s apartment is brand new. I said in the West we tend to associate ghosts and spirits with older homes. A brand new house was likely not going to have any evil spirits lurking. Wenning said that the spirits could have been in graves dug up for the new apartment to be built, so it was even more important and urgent for new apartments to abide by the rituals and traditions of warding off spirits.

Z and I were happy to do our part (dumplings sounded great to me and Z was all about making some noise, especially if it involved lighting things on fire). I baked some chocolate chip cookies (the last of the stash from Dona’s visit in November . . . I feel I rationed well and I consider it quite big of me to give away the cookies as opposed to hoarding them).
Calligraphy man making door banners
Z and I went to one of the pop-up stands where a calligraphy man was painting door signs and bought Wenning a “good luck” door sign (many people were in the queue with long lists of characters they wanted painted on their door banners; we only wanted a single character, so people had pity on us and pushed us to the front of the line). We brought a bag of roasted watermelon seeds and sunflower seeds (traditional new year’s treats) and we brought red envelopes and stuffed them with yuan for the children.

Opening the red envelopes
Chinese children don’t get presents on new year’s, but they do get red envelopes with 100 yuan notes in them (100 yuan = $30). I had prepared red envelopes for Qianghua, QingQing, and DongHao (the three children I knew would be there). I also shoved a couple other red envelopes in my bag in the event there were other children there (there were; I am glad I was prepared).

We got to Wenning’s mid-afternoon and set to making dumplings. People were shocked (truly surprised) that I had baked cookies and that they tasted good. Chinese people don’t think Americans cook (or maybe they don’t think any Westerners cook; or perhaps they take one look at me and think I don’t cook, but I am trying to give them the benefit of the doubt) and if we cook, we must prepare atrocious food that would be inedible to them. One after another brave soul would tentatively take a nibble from one of my cookies and then explode into praise. “YOU made these? Yourself? They are so good!” I didn’t know whether to be complimented or insulted.

The dumpling-making team (saying "good luck in the new year!")
In making traditional dumplings, the dumpling dough is the first step. As a veteran bread maker, I know my way around a vat of dough, but I was surprised that dumpling dough was nothing but flour and water. In America that makes paste. I asked, “No salt? No oil?” The women laughed. I didn’t tell them they were making paste, the same stuff I made to create home-made pinatas. Despite my skepticism, the dough turned out. Here, they knead their flour/water mixture until it is a even ball, smooth as a baby’s chubby butt (very unlike the lumpy mess I use for papier mache, even if the ingredients are exactly the same). They asked me if I knew how to knead dough. And then were shocked when I did. Various pitches of “Ahhhh! Ahhhh! Ahhhh!” came from the cluster of women standing around supervising my work.

Next, the vegetables. Did I know how to wash vegetables? I thought I could. Yes, indeed I do know how to wash vegetables: cabbage, onions, greens, carrots, mushrooms. Then came the chopping. I had done well so far. I could knead. I could wash. Could I chop? I assured them I could. I took the cleaver. I began cutting the cilantro. “No, no, no. Not like that.” Huh? Smaller bits maybe? “No. You need to make lots of noise. CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! You need to scare the spirits away.” Ah. Got it. I’m a quick study. I could make noise when I chopped. The women nodded in satisfaction. Yes, she can chop.
Steaming and stir-frying came next. They gently pushed me out of the kitchen – their generosity and faith in my cooking abilities came to a screeching halt when it came to cooking the vegetables. Instead I was to stand at the table and begin working the dough into small balls and creating little circles the size of silver-dollar pancakes.

Dumpling production line

The vegetables, once cooked, were mixed with a bit of salt and some oil to hold them together and then dolloped into the dough circles, pinching the sides up into a tender little pocket of goodness. There are various shapes to dumplings and the first one I made was not acceptable. It was shaped like a crescent moon. They wanted something that looked more like a little pot of gold. OK. I can do that. We were a production line of dumpling machines, rotating chores between kneading the dough and making small balls of it, flattening the balls into pancakes, filling and pinching shut the pancakes to make the dumplings, ferrying the dumplings to the kitchen for steaming. I lost count after the first hundred little vegetable balloons went off to their steam bath.

Z's attempt at dumpling-filling
Meanwhile, Z was outside blowing up things with the other kids. I turned my mind away from what could happen when small children are playing with fire and explosives. No one got hurt – other than a small burn on Z’s thumb. Nothing short of a new year’s miracle, if you ask me.

Wenning’s husband arrived at 7 p.m. – he is a civil servant, a secretary in a government office, and therefore did not get the day off. He joined us just in time for the dumpling feast. The dumplings are eaten with vinegar and sesame oil. Some of the dumplings I made fell apart in the pot, but Wenning assured me that was OK. We drank the broth the dumplings were cooked in as soup
Gorged on dumplings, Wenning’s husband took us all outside to explode a firework the size of a 20 gallon bucket. Yes indeed. He set it on the sidewalk and then invited Z to light the 2 inch fuse. I pulled Z back and politely encouraged the adults to take over the honor. The fuse was lit. We backed up a couple steps and I held my ears. Off went the Disney-esque explosion. It was pretty, but when you are standing 15 feet from that caliber of pyrotechnics, there is a rain of ash, shrapnel and paper that flutters down even as you are looking up to see the show. You get stuff in your eyes and in your hair. You hope that none of the sparks that are coming down are strong enough to ignite your coat. Or at least that was what I was hoping. I was happy we only had to experience one of those before we waved goodbye and sauntered off into the night to catch our taxi home.
We were ferried home through deserted streets while fireworks exploded around us. We were laden with several door decorations and specific instructions: this one goes on top; these go on the sides. Hang this one inside the house. This one needs

Our properly festooned Good Luck Door
to be hung on the outside door, in the middle and upside down. There were several glittery decorations of happy little horses with big grins promising a good horsey new year. We got home late and saved the door/house decorating until the next day. I am sure we invited all sorts of evil spirits into our home by not having our protective red signs on our door that first night.
Z was thrilled with the red envelopes he had been given by the adults at the party: he raked in a total of 300 yuan to spend. A good thing, too, because he had just depleted the coffers from his commercial-making cash. He is now rolling in yuan, once again.
The next night (the first day of the New  Year, January 31), we made our way to the Big Goose Pagoda because Tiantian told us there would be lots of interesting things going on there. She was right. Big fireworks (and far enough away that I could enjoy them without worrying about a Richard Pryor-esque self-immolation), pop-up food stands selling everything from floppy, roasted tentacles (squid, they said, but I am not sure; they looked more like octopus to me) to candied hawthorn apples on a stick; bazaar booths selling jewelry, fedoras, and wooden sabers. Happy people milled about wishing others “Xin Nian Kuai Le!” (Happy New Year). Z promptly blew some of his red envelope money buying two wooden swords, two glass bead bracelets, and a smart, black fedora. I enjoyed watching the people and admiring the glittery spectacle as the dusk turned to dark.
Squid tentacle vendor

Candy stand and Z's cotton candy
We caught one of the last buses back home (buses stop running at 11 p.m.). We were two of four people on the bus, a wild contrast to the standing-room, thigh-to-thigh crowds that we typically experience on Chinese buses where we often have to push our way into hot, sweltering, stinky masses to get on and off. We climbed up to the top of the double decker bus, sitting in the front row, getting a fabulous view of the lit-up streets as we rumbled towards home. Z took the opportunity to begin asking me sex questions (not being able to say “sex” without blushing, he calls it “the fifteen pointer word” from a Scrabble game he once played with a friend). At one point, he said, “It is a good thing we are speaking English. I would be embarrassed if everyone could understand what I was asking.” I looked around. Two uninterested teenagers hovered over a phone three rows back. Too bad they can’t understand English, I thought. They would likely get the education of a lifetime.
My friend David likes to tell the story of his son being about Z’s age and them settling in to watch television: the women’s volleyball competition on the Olympics. His son chose that window of opportunity to start asking curious questions about sex. His father later quipped, “You can ask me sex questions any time you like . . . but only during the Olympic women’s volleyball competition.” In other words: every four years while we can both sit in a dark room and stare at a television screen while lithe, muscular women volley balls expertly back and forth, playing for the gold.

An empty double-decker bus in China, closing in on a horsey New Year’s midnight. Also a perfectly good time to ask anything you like about “the fifteen pointer” and get honest answers. Not a bad way to ring in a new year.

Happy New Year. Neigh.

Oh, and Happy Birthday to me (January 29). Hurrah. An Aquarian and a Rabbit.


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