Lanterns and Laughing Ladies

Here we go…
Lanterns and laughing ladies…
Some might think I might be crazy

My sister and her husband planned to visit us during our eight-week winter break. Yes, we knew that January and February are cold in Beijing. We told ourselves: we will buy scarves, hats, gloves, and down jackets for our California guests; we will bundle them up like mummies and brave the cold. No problem. Yes, we all knew we have only one bedroom and they would sojourn with us for three weeks. We will give J & G our room and we will sleep in the living room on the futon which folds out into a firm but comfortable bed. No problem.

We were so excited for their arrival, planning our sightseeing and eating here and there, we overlooked one thing – Chinese New Year.

Did you hear that? A firework just exploded outside.

I mentioned before that Chinese New Year is like Christmas in the United States. During Christmas, people eat dinner together and travel to their hometowns for a week or two. But their absence is scarcely noticeable. The days prior to and after December 25, the day devoted to reveling around the Christmas tree, I pretty much carried on my normal routines. I shopped at Trader Joe’s, Safeway, and nearby factory outlets. I supped peppermint mochas and indulged on the Cranberry Bliss Bar at Starbucks. And I avoided the mall and its hordes of shoppers like the plague. On December 25, B and I usually made a winter stew, watched movies, or completed a house project (last year we repainted the living room.)

More fireworks resounding outside.

Whereas the United States locks down for one day, our Beijing neighborhood has been on lockdown since Saturday, the night of the Chinese New Year celebration. Many of the shops we frequent are small-operations, run by a family or a single person. The convenience store on the first floor of our apartment building from which we buy 5-gallon water jugs will be closed for 10 days. For now, we have to buy expensive water by the gallon. The donut shop is closed until February 19. The cheap Chinese restaurant where we buy 10 RMB rice plates is dark and quiet. What shops are open close early and have limited merchandise.

Cheap noodle bowls for 10RMB

This minor inconvenience for us is a much needed rest for many of the hardworking Chinese. Business owners who faithfully keep their stands conveniently stocked with vegetables and fruit, notebooks and pens, or hats and socks, work 7 days a week all year without a break. Chinese New Year is the only vacation they will take all year. They have ten days out of the whole year—ten days to travel uncomfortably by train to see their relatives, exchange gifts, indulge on moon cakes and baijiu, and reflect on the previous year’s happenings with marvel or contempt. Ten out of 365 days reserved for rest and feasting.

View from our window

Even though the amount of the people is reduced, the neighborhood is not quiet. As Saturday night lapsed into Sunday morning, sleep escaped us and the skies exploded with flames-- blue, green, red, yellow, and purple darts whistling straight through the air culminating in flower shaped bursts. Since that night, an awesome display literally 50 feet from our window, the sounds of distant and nearby fireworks continue to sporadically interrupt the quiet.

Another firework just exploded. Sounds like a freight train rumbling by the window.

Even though half of Beijing’s businesses are dark and empty, our apartment is alive with laughter, catching up on California news, movies, and eating. Granted, most of the raucous comes from me- the laughing, the teasing, the sounds of girls being girls, sisters being sisters. The mornings are often lazy—no hurry to put on the socks, sweaters, coats, and hats needed for frigid weather.

We have left comforts of the apartment to experience Beijing’s tourist offerings: Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace, the Great Wall, Wangfujing, and the Hutongs (about half of this area was closed). The sights are nice, but we derive the most thrill from our culinary adventures: chuanr (barbequed lamb kebabs), Korean barbeque, barbeque fish, Beijing roast duck, pudding milk teas, hot pot, wonton soups, dumplings, and Tsingdao beer (as smooth and easy to drink as a soda.) I am so happy J&G like to eat as much as we do.

Another firework.

Chinese word of the blog: 花火    huā huǒ (literally, flower fire)   
English translation: firework

Click here if you want to see what we have been up to so far
Click here for Badaling, Great Wall pictures

Tiananmen Square
Winter at the Summer Palace
Badaling, Great Wall
This is what we saw from our window

 What you can eat at Wangfujing


No Need to Cry

When it's good, it's not bad
When it's bad, I don't mind if you're queer,
Let's be happy while we're here.
-British Sea Power

A couple of months ago, I asked my fellow expat how the Spring Festival holiday was for her last year. The Spring Festival, also known as Chinese New Year, is the most important holiday for Chinese people. Chinese people return to their hometowns to feast with family, exchange gifts, and set off firecrackers. Spring Festival is a big deal here, maybe even a bigger deal than Christmas in the United States.

She replied, "It was the most depressing time for me ever in China." The weather is cold and miserable. Many people leave Beijing for their hometowns, home countries, or vacation. Since school is not in session, English teachers like us have no work. For expats, the Spring Festival can be a lonely, boring time fraught with homesickness and general weariness of being a foreigner in a foreign land.

I am in the in the midst of the Spring Festival, and I am not undergoing the dreaded Spring Festival blues. I don't like the cold, but I am not sad about it. My most depressing time actually was about a month after arriving. One day I was so tired of the crowds of people EVERYWHERE, so tired of navigating through the bicycles EVERYWHERE, and so tired of not comprehending Chinese people EVERYWHERE, I laid on my bed and sobbed. Fortunately, birdMAN was not home at the time. He would have been very worried and forced me explain my feelings (he is such a good husband). But I did not need to talk -- I just needed a few cry sessions to get over my frustration and countless blows to my ego.

Now, I am in a relatively comfortable rhythm. I understand more Chinese every day. I can read more Chinese every day. I can communicate more effectively every day. The more advancement I make, the more I relish being here. For example, the other day I understood a restaurant sign that I have passed by almost every day for the last three months: "手工水" (shǒugōng shuǐjiǎo). That restaurant serves handmade dumplings. This knowledge is of little consequence (almost every restaurant serves handmade dumplings), but this simple conquest is full of meaning. Maybe there is hope that I won't bumble around China relying on my electronic dictionary and menus with pictures.

Also, I suppose I haven't had the opportunity to suffer homesickness. We are just too busy. As soon as we wrapped up our first semester teaching English, we flew to Thailand and enjoyed 2 weeks of the best vacation we have ever experienced. Two days after we returned to Beijing and its nasty air pollution problem, my sister and her husband arrived in Beijing. They are with us the remainder of the Spring Festival holiday. No time to be sad.

I hope this blog doesn't worry our mothers too much. I know they hate the thought that we could potentially live out the rest of our lives here in China. We know they miss us, and we miss them. We missed our nephews' and niece's milestones: Zephram's first steps, Caden's first day of kindergarten and snow sledding, and Milan's incessant chatter. We missed birdMan's parents' 40-year anniversary. We missed eating my Dad's summer crop of watermelons. Of course, we are sad to miss all those things. But we came here with a goal: to learn Chinese. And we are happily doing just so.
Chinese word of the blog: 进步 jìnbù (progress step)
English translation: improve

This place sells handmade dumplings!