[[Note, I began writing this note now a few days ago, and have enjoyed writing it in the style that you will see, but I do not think that I can continue with this level of detail, nor do I wish to subject anyone, even (or perhaps I should say especially not) my family, to something of that length without your prior consent. So, I send you this and hope that you enjoy it. I will write up the rest of our adventures in a more concise fashion. — Jeremy]]
First, apologies for the delay in this email. At some level the delay was aided by the fact that Chinese New Year is similar to traditional Christmas — it lasts a long time. The end to gunpowder-based explosions legally occurring all over the place is not until the night of March 4th. That being said, Jessica and I returned from our New Year’s adventure on the 20th, and so I should have written this before as my memories have certainly dissipated in the past week.
Another source of delay was my desire to spruce up the missive with a multitude of multimedia bells and whistles. I worked on a video from Google Earth that would show the course of the trip and precise global location of the events that I described. I have decided that playing with Google Earth is far too much fun but takes too much time to actually create something that would be useful to send along to family and friends. I hope that the few included pictures make up for this omission.
Jessica and I flew down on the 17th from Beijing [the two characters mean “north capital”] to Nanjing [“south capital”]. The 17th was New Year’s Eve on the lunar calendar this year. The tradition here is to gather the “whole family” together at home, enjoy a massive feast, and watch the CCTV (Chinese Central TV) Spring Festival (i.e. Chinese New Year) Gala. Apparently hundreds of millions of people actually do this, despite the fact that everyone hates the gala, all 5 hours of it. In fact, these are literally the only words that I have heard about the show: boring and unremarkable in all ways. At the same point in time, there are so many people that watch the show that a website that was mentioned incorrectly – whitecloud.com instead of whitecloud.net, or something along those lines – was within seconds purchased by an enterprising student for $10 and now is being sold for $10000. The combination of ‘boring’ and ‘universally watched’ seems untenable despite its status as tradition. This is not, however, the way that we spent our New Year’s Eve.
Sarah (our friend who invited us to Nanjing to spend the holiday with her family) is from Nanjing, where her parents are reasonably well-off. This makes their decision to not use the heater in their home all the more odd. After going in and spending just a few minutes in their apartment, we left for a restaurant to eat the traditional meal as a stereotypical Jewish family might spend Christmas: at a Chinese restaurant.
We had a private room, which sounds luxurious and is to some extent but is much more common in China than in the States. Well over half of the restaurant was devoted to private rooms. We ate the dinner with Sarah’s mother’s mom and dad, and her sister’s family. [n.b.: Sarah’s parents are old enough that the one child policy was not yet in effect when they were growing up and so they have brothers and sisters – and do they (see below).] Sitting around the large circular table with its matching lazy Susan, the bountiful feast was enjoyable.
There was, as is to be expected, some pressure to consume alcohol. Thankfully, they were not heavy drinkers. The red wine that we drank was tolerable, as, after all, we were in China. Drinking here is radically different than in the States. Bars are a foreign concept; they exist here now, but are still predominantly frequented by foreigners, friends of foreigners, and those looking to become friends of foreigners. Drinking alcohol occurs solely during meal times (alas, I wish that I were able to say “drinking alcohol occurs solely at the evening meal,” but that is false). Additionally, drinking only occurs during toasts. One does not sip wine during one’s meal in order to whet one’s palette or take a swig of beer when eating a bite of deep fried scorpions despite the fact that they would mesh rather well. Fried scorpions taste just like any other crunchy, crispy deep fried item, with the added feature of having a stinger that can become stuck between one’s teeth. It should be noted the scorpions were not on the menu this trip; they are apparently a specialty of Zouping, the place in Shandong province where I have previously spent some time with my professor from Stanford researching.
The restaurant had a diverse menu with specialties across the spectrum and around the country: from Wenzhou seafood to Beijing roast duck. Chinese will insist that food from different regions vary dramatically. The longer that I stay here, the more I have come to notice the distinguishing characteristics of different local culinary traditions; however, the vast majority of dishes are still stir-fried. No matter what spices may flavor them, stir-fried meats and veggies remain just one category of food. Chinese are incredibly proud of their cuisine and deservedly so, that being said, the fact that when traveling abroad they tend to eat solely at local Chinese eateries is sad/disheartening/frustrating.
At any rate, the meal went reasonably well, with the exception of a moment when Sarah’s mother cut her lip trying to eat a desert of black rice in what looked like an aluminum foil cupcake wrapper. There was quite a bit of commotion regarding the bill. As the family patriarch, the father insisted that he pay the impossibly small total of US$150 for the twenty dishes and wine. Sarah’s parents would have offered to pay and this discussion would have gone back and forth numerous times until the patriarch was allowed to pay. However, in this case, the restaurant manager gave us our meal for free. Apparently Sarah’s father enjoys this restaurant and has taken groups there on many occasions. To thank such a good customer, the manager insisted that the meal was on the house. This is my understanding of how the bill was settled. It is possible that this was simply an aggressive and successful tactic in the negotiations over who would pay by Sarah’s father. It is also possible that rather than thanking a good customer, this gift was something of a giveaway to entice Sarah’s father to come back and bring groups there in the future.
After the meal, we drove to a neighborhood near Sarah’s home to light fireworks. It was not clear at all at the time, at least to me, that this is what was happening. We – Jessica, Sarah, and myself – stood around and waited in the dark. Some fireworks were already being lit by different groups of people that I can only assume were families. Then Sarah’s parents and the rest of the clan gets together and the men come bearing fireworks. The most common type of gunpowder-based amusement here is, alas, not the “firework” but rather the “firecracker.” Whereas the former lights up the sky with colors and sparks, sometimes the sparks themselves will then have mini-explosions (these second order fireworks are my personal favorites), a firecracker could provide the audio for a machine gun in a movie. They can be meters long, and the sound will continue up them for minutes. Sarah’s father and uncle lit a few of these. Also consumed were various boxes of fireworks that sent their shells into the sky and exploding. The booms were nearby; Jessica would flinch, and we would move away from them. It should be noted that the incredible displays of fireworks in the city were all private. As opposed to a city or large group gathering to watch “the fireworks,” one need simply turn towards the lit portion of the sky to find another display, and if that failed, then to turn towards the sound of explosions.
Sarah (left) is receiving gifts from Jessica (and the humble photographer). [And yes, I realize that I mention “pictures” above rather than the perhaps more appropriate “picture.” This is due to the fact that most of the usable photographs that I have of our time celebrating Chinese New Year occur after the events described above. Hopefully future posts will belie the truth behind my initial choice of the plural.]