Sunday, January 25, 2009

Firecrackers, Dying Chicken Sounds and Dramatic Opera : 春节, a photoblog

I was fortunate to celebrate the Spring Festival with one of the teachers at my Chinese language program, Sun Laoshi. As a foreign student, I am an explorer of culture. In textbooks, we read about customs and traditions. If the textbook is good, it may provide illustrations or pictures, but more often our Chinese textbooks are black and white and forces our imaginations to fill in the blanks. In Lijiang, I compared the images that I conjured with the actual Chunjie preparations and activities of the Sun family.

The day starts early - after a simple breakfast of tea, cheese and ant mushrooms, Auntie Sun is peeling and cutting vegetables (left). Sun and Ding Laoshi head out to the local supermarket to buy chunlian, red couplets hung on door frames (right). Everyone has something red on - Auntie has her sweater, Uncle has his shirt and socks, Sun Laoshi with her dress, Ding Laoshi with his underwear (he said).
While Sun and Ding Laoshi clean the house, Uncle Sun and I go to the backyard to prepare the chicken. "In the south, the chicken is traditionally prepared by each family on their own," explains Uncle as he sharpens the butcher knife. "The feet are especially important - we eat the feet to grab more fortune in the future. 新年抓财." He grabs the chicken's wings and feet and slits its throat, draining the blood into a bowl of water below its head. Suddenly, the chicken jolts erratically, surprising Uncle Sun to loosen his grip on its feet, which kick the blood bowl and splash its contents all over me and him. "Damn it," he says, "That was one of the best parts of the chicken!" Auntie Sun has me change into some of Uncle Sun's old military clothes to wash the blood drops off my pants. Uncle and I strip the chicken of its feathers, using hot water to make the "defeathering" easier. I nearly rip into its insides to take out particularly annoying little needle of a feather, but realize that I was slightly blinded by the blood crusted on my glasses. Uncle takes the chicken by its legs into the kitchen and tosses it around on top of the stove. The chicken's skin crackles and gets taut from the fire. Inside, Auntie is preparing the fish while Sun Laoshi is preparing a few side dishes. "Next year, I'm retiring from all of this - Sun Laoshi is going to do everything. She has to start learning now..." Sun Laoshi silently makes an expression at her mother while she lines a bowl with orange peels to make 八宝饭, or eight-treasure rice pudding. “Fish is also important - 年年有鱼,吉庆有余 - every year have fish, fortune will be abundant."
The dinner before Chunjie itself is a very important meal - to reflect and to celebrate the accomplishments of the year and to exchange wishes among family members for the new year. "Every family celebrates this meal by themselves - for the fifteen days following the new year, we will go to our relatives' houses to share meals and wishes with them," says Uncle Sun.
"And money," I add.
"Ah yes, hongbao. Fortunately, a lot of the younger ones in my family have already started to make money, so I don't have to give them red envelopes anymore."
"So Sun Laoshi has to start giving hongbao now?" I ask.
"Yes," says Sun Laoshi from the kitchen.
"On New Year's Day, we will all go to our ancestor's graves to saomu (扫墓, dust the graves) and wish for blessings from the ancestors." Uncle Sam's cell phone beeps. "Ah... the new year text messages are starting to come in, one by one..." A few minutes later, my cell phone also rings with incoming messages full of blessings and "Happy 牛 Year" lines which soon become hackneyed.
At last, dinner is prepared and set on the backyard table. Uncle Sun breaks out red wine and Auntie ladles soup to everyone. Everybody at the table warns me to eat slowly and pace myself. Every few minutes, everyone also raises their glasses to me for a toast and wish - blessings for good health and good grades, wishes for greater fortune and happiness are shared and downed with a clink and ganbei.
We get up from the table slowly - I am the last to get up after having to finish all the bits of food that Auntie put into my bowl. After clearing the table, Uncle Sun pours little cups of puer tea for everyone as Ding Laoshi shuffles cards. "Do you usually stay up until midnight like my textbook says?" I ask.
"We're all too old for that," Ding Laoshi says, "After a few hours of the New Year show on television, we'll all start to go to sleep."
At eight in the evening, we all make ourselves comfortable in the living room in front of the television. Nuts, fruit and drinks are piled on the center table to refresh ourselves over the course of the variety show. We watch, laughing and chuckling during comedy segments, taking bathroom breaks while performers sing. It seems that digesting the dinner meal is taking its toll on everybody's energy level. Auntie and Uncle Sun go off to bed two hours into the show. I try to make it to the end, but after the fifth singer trying to reach high notes ungracefully, I express thanks to my teacher and leave.
Outside on the streets, I grab a taxi back to my hotel room. At every few light poles, locals are hanging and tossing lit firecrackers, which pop and crack in a mess of white balls. Fireworks burst over my head from building roofs, the sparks and colors comparable to fourth of July fireworks. In the western world, we split celebrations by time zones, but in China everywhere is Beijing time. The view of China from outer space must be dazzling, to see the entire country blinking with white light. Scraps of red firework covers litter the streets and alleyways and the front of stores. I sure after fifteen days of fireworks, fish and chicken, the Nian monster will be scared enough and allow humans to live a peaceful year. For now, I just want a peaceful sleep without fireworks.

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