Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Spring Festival

Looks like the fifteen days or so of mad partying around Beijing have just about come to a close. Spring Festival truly was a sight to behold: half the city was completely shut down, as the out-of-towners that keep Beijing alive surged home to spend the holiday with their family. The other half, however, was a vibrant, loud, and upbeat scene that kept us entertained for weeks.

The highlight of these last two weeks was spending New Years Eve and the following day at Nai Nai's (grandma's) house with the rest of the family. There was eating, drinking, wrapping dumplings, and watching the terribly cheesy CCTV-1 'New Year's Party' (which featured comedy acts, magic tricks, and dancing minorities... eh...)

Really though, the way the Chinese celebrate their New Year is great. You spend all of New Years Eve preparing dinner for that night, then you stuff yourself with as much hotpot, century eggs, sausage, eggplant, fruit, and shrimp as you can. You proceed to roll yourself over to the couch, and just hang out with the family, watch television and chew the fat with the old folks. That evening, I got to know Shushu's family even better, and I've taken a real shine to all of them, particularly Grandma and Shushu's younger brother.

As it nears midnight, the fireworks and firecrackers that have been going off since 9am start to increase in intensity. Shushu and I headed outside to watch the action, and it was absolutely unbelievable. Each city block had a fireworks show that would have rivaled a small American town on Independence Day. Our housing block was particularly fortunate; our well-off neighbor busted 20,000 kuai (yeah, that's almost $3,000 American) on fireworks alone. At any one time, they had three large cases of fireworks going off at a time, sending sparks raining down onto parked cars and the foreheads of awe-struck passersby. It was absolutely incredible. I took video, but so far my ability to upload it onto Facebook has been met with little success. We'll see how it goes.

Around 1:00am, Shushu and I headed back to Nai Nai's house and spent the night there. We made a lazy day of it when we woke up the next morning, mostly wrapping dumplings, boiling dumplings, and then eating said dumplings. Still stuffed from the night before, I did my best and managed to pack away fifteen of them. Seeing this, Shushu said (as any good Chinese father would) "Zhong Shu! You didn't eat very much. Have some more." When I protested politely, saying I was already stuffed, he jokingly scoffed: "Fifteen?! I need to have at least thirty before I'm full!" That man's a champ, he is.

The whole family came back for dinner again that night, where we tucked into a big vat of hot-pot. For those who haven't had it, 'hot-pot' is where you throw lamb meat and myriad vegetables into a pot of boiling broth, then take it out and eat when it's just cooked through. I got some great pictures from this dinner, including one with me and Nai Nai shoulder-in-shoulder toasting the table.

Outside of family events, Beijing has a lot to offer during this season. The weather's just started to warm up a bit, so people flood out en masse to enjoy the festivities of the Temple Fairs scattered around the city. I ended up going twice; once with my classmates and once alone. We got to sample Beijing snacks, which included enormous sticks of roasted mutton, sweetened soybean juice, imitation fried tripe, and all sorts of sweets. It was also an excellent people-watching opportunity; I only wish I could have counted the number of normally expressionless Chinese businessmen now sporting ridiculous hats and other Temple Fair kitsch. The pictures on Facebook will mostly speak for themselves, with the exception of the following story:

I've always wanted to see the Chinese traditional puppet acts, in which very thin, colorful cloth puppets are pressed against a thin white screen from behind the stage. The light from behind the stage (either natural or from a lantern), illuminates the colorful puppets as they traipse around. At one of the Temple Fairs I visited, I happened across one such performance. But, admittedly, it wasn't totally what I expected. Sure, it had the dancing Ming dynasty warrior and well-coiffed beauty, but halfway through the act, a puppetized Michael Jackson appears on stage, hip-thrusting from one end to the other. It was incredible. Add to this the fact that the background music is "Nobody", a bouncy pop song from some South Korean girl band, and you're in for a hilarious event. Moving on from the stage to walk around a bit, I got the feeling that people were really letting their hair down and un-self-consciously having a good time. Not something you see everyday in Beijing.

Pictures from these last couple weeks are already up. If you have a chance, check 'em out here.

As for my plans in the immediate future, I'm headed out with my class to the southern cities of Hangzhou and Nanjing on an extended field trip. We'll be gone until Monday, checking out major museums and factories to get a feel for this area of China a bit. Although I already have been to Nanjing and seen some of the sites we're planning to visit, I'm looking forward to getting back and seeing them once more; Nanjing is a really vibrant, culturally-rich city that warrants more than one visit. Hangzhou (where we're headed to first, by train) is totally new to me. It's even farther south than Nanjing, so the weather looks like it's going to be very nice. As in, highs in the 70's. Can't say no to that.

As always, I'm bringing my camera, and I'll try to get pictures up when I return. Best wishes to all back home and abroad!

Friday, February 12, 2010

New Semester, New Year, New Blog Posts...

I promised a blog post about two weeks ago, and it never came. But I've finally gotten truly settled down in my home-stay again, and we've had a break from orientation activities today, so I figured it was a good time to do some catch up work.

First, the new students for this semester have arrived, and I'm optimistic about almost all of them. For the most part, they seem to be a lively, upbeat and motivated group thats jumped right into the 'China' thing in which they've found themselves. I'm thinking they're going to help make this upcoming semester a pleasant one.

As for a record of my trip, I'm going to post my regular updates as I did before, and include some of my favorite stories as I have time to put them down. I've just gotten too busy to spend the time to put all those stories down on the blog in one blow. I hope you enjoy them.

Last, this weekend marks the Chinese New Year, so I expect to have many stories and pictures when I'm forced back into school on Tuesday. Tomorrow, the plan is to go to one of the many "temple fairs" that take place at the famous temple sites around Beijing. Included will be Peking Opera performances, mutton sticks, Beijing snacks, and great people-watching. When I get back home in the afternoon, my host family is taking me to Grandma's house, where we'll eat dumplings all day and night to welcome in the New Year. It's going to be a good weekend. And without further ado, here's the continuation of where I left off weeks ago:

Wudangshan, Part 1, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Chinese Funerals

Coming here was a bit of a split-second decision. As I was leaving Huangshan, the weather turned mighty cold and wet, and the weather forecast didn't look a whole lot better in western Hubei, where sits Wudangshan, but I felt drawn there, so I bought the tickets and left.

Most people go to this mountain for its tradition of martial arts. It has a wushu style comparable in fame to the Shaolin Temple in Henan, only instead of the bo staff as the weapon of choice as in Shaolin, they prefer swords. Cool, huh? So I guess that's why I went. But what I found was in many ways superior to the images in my head.

When I first arrived in the town beneath the mountain, the first thing I noticed was that this was a real backwater town, with merciless cabbies and lots of dust. But after renting a cheap room at a grimy, but quite passable two-story inn, I started hearing fireworks from the street. I went towards the sound, and began seeing the huge paper flower-wreaths local guests bring when they've been invited to a funeral. I stood and watched as each family hauled the brightly colored wreaths up an alleyway, towards the sound of karoake singing and loud conversation. One of the women passing by said, "Don't worry! Come on in!"

That's all the invitation I need.

Despite this, it's not the most comfortable thing going to a funeral to which you haven't been invtied. Compound that with the fact that you're obviously a foreigner, and you have trouble understanding the local accent, and you have a recipe for a kind of awkward experience. But by and large, people were extremely welcoming, and willing to answer any questions I had about the event.

The celebration took place in a large alleyway that led up to a rather large house at the end of the way. Along one bay of the alley, chefs were cooking enormous vats of soup, hauling five-foot diameter steamers filled with dumplings about, and yelling to clear people out of the way as they hustled another course up the alley to the house, where thirty or so tables (each seating ten) had been put up.

Along a second bay to the right, a professional-looking stage had been assembled, featuring singers belting out pop tunes, cheesy magic acts, and a strange, albeit fitting, performance in which professional singers don completely white outfits and wail about the death of "their" loved one. Who, by the way, was Old Mama Li.

In a lull in the action, I felt like it was time to go. I grabbed my stuff, and headed to the mouth of the alley, but stopped in awe as I saw, laid before me, the makings of a fireworks show like I had never seen. I believe I mentioned in my post from Suzhou about the self-contained firework-launchers-in-a-box they sell here. During the New Year, they had one. Here, they had sixty. All lined up in three rows, these things could bring down a small plane. This had to be one of the most dangerous, chaotic, but stunning fireworks shows I'd ever seen. Some of these fuse-operated boxes launched the traditional "flower" pattern, some shot salvos of five to eight that arched across the sky, and some just shot airborne flashbangs. During the show, I found myself lucky to be wearing a hat and glasses; I got pelted by falling shrapnel a few times.

This seemed like a good sign to stick around. Not long after the show, I was invited to join the revelers for dinner. I sat next to a few local businessmen I had met while watching the stage, and found ourselves neck-high in no less than twenty different dishes, all huge, all delicious. I'm afraid I fail to remember what those dishes were, since along with the food, was some decently potent baijiu, or local rice wine.

Now don't think that I came expecting to drink. But Chinese drinking culture down south is like this: with baijiu or a beer in your hand, you never drink alone. You toast someone, adding a good wish for fortune, or recognizing their accomplishments, and then you drink together. Well when you're the lone foreigner in a group of nine sturdy Chinese businessmen, you're in for a short night. I failed to keep count of the number of "Hey! To our foreign friend! Bottoms up!" that I got that evening. Nice guys.

I still do vividly remember shaking my hosts hand, and thanking him for such a wonderful evening. In return, he drunkenly (having been smashed since 7:00pm) blurted out, "Sure! Be sure to come back tomorrow!" I asked one of my business buddies what he meant. He replied, "On average, these parties go on for three to four days."

I believe them. That night, they continued to bombard the town with fireworks; once at around 11:00pm, and again sometime early in the morning. Even after getting back two days later from hiking the mountain, I still heard fireworks going off down the road.

I take one thing away for certain from this experience. Professional cryers aside, I want a funeral like that.