“Gongxi, Gongxi!” (goh-ng shee, goh-ng shee) or “Congratulations!”
These are the words spoken to friends and family members for the Chinese New Year, this year celebrated on February 7. But as many of you have followed in the news, the Year of the Rat got off to a pretty ratty start. The worst snowstorms to hit the south in 50 years left millions stranded across the country on trains and busses, country roads, in train stations and even cut off from the outside world in their own cities. An odd stretch of weather ( freezing temperatures, mounds of snow and sheets of ice) hit southern areas of China that rarely see a thermometer dip below 40 degrees. No one was expecting it and many suffered because of it. Especially saddening was that this was coming upon the Chinese New Year, a time when many families re-unite after a year working in other provinces to provide for those at home. Thousands of migrant workers gave up journeys home after spending days at the Guangzhou train station where (at one point) 800,000 people surrounded the station and the streets surrounding it, unable to travel due to delayed or canceled trains. Many returned to their factories where officials reopened the dormitories to give them a place to stay.
Newspaper articles and TV news reports here flooded the country, giving accounts of those struggling to get home, those staying put and others who were just lucky enough to board their trains for the trip home. One thing’s for sure: The Year of the Rat will certainly be remembered by all.
When it comes to Chengdu, the capital city in Sichuan Province, we escaped the disaster of many provinces. The only difficulty came in the temperatures. Usually, Chengdu averages a very mild 40-55 degrees, always overcast with little sunshine, but 10 days straight saw our thermometers averaging a frigid 26-33. Days were very dark and with no heating for most, families stayed warm by layering in clothes and warmly tucking themselves away in bed quilts. It’s not unusual for Chinese in the south not to have indoor heat and merely layer in clothes. But this year, inside apartments and homes dipped into the high 30s and low 40s. Not at all pleasant, especially for the elderly.
My apartment’s sitting room, however, remained a cozy 63 degrees with a small radiator heater and also a wall air-con/heater unit in full use. When I left the apartment for a long period of time and also at bedtime, all heaters went off to conserve energy. Mornings were mighty chilly at 50 degrees but much better than my Chinese neighbors’ homes. The up side is that the dog and I didn’t suffer all that much. The down side will be the electricity bill, which I’m sure will top the $78 US I paid for December.
My neighbors invited me over for February 6th, New Year’s Eve, which is the traditional time when families gather together and eat “lucky” foods. Fish and chicken are two very important symbols of gaining new wealth and having prosperity for the year. Among those two dishes were slivers of sausages, stir fried vegetables, pork, beef, two different soups and boiled fresh shrimp.
The meal was taken in turns as the family runs a convenience store, connected to the apartment by a back door which leads to the outside street. Someone was always outside at one point or other meaning that not everyone could truly sit down together and concentrate on warm family community, but this is the norm for many in business. Although many Chinese family-run shops closed up for 3 or 4 days during Chinese New Year, the Yang family was different. They need the income so their business always remains open, 7 days a week, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Not an easy life, or a very profitable one, but it’s better than being unemployed.
The great thing about having convenience store owners as neighbors is that their 14-year-old daughter, Jalin, and I had all the free firecrackers and sparklers we wanted since the parents sold them. While I stuck with the safety of sparklers, Jalin and her mom were lighting the more exciting variety of fireworks which whizzed, swirled, banged, spun and flew across the street in all directions. Personally, I thought it was a rather dangerous venture, lighting the things in hand and throwing them onto their side street, especially as there were cars parked alongside the road. But none of that seemed to bother either of them.
At one point, though, the individual in charge of watching the parked cars made it a point to walk over to the shop and tell them to use the empty sidewalk across the street instead. Jalin and her mom nodded agreement, even apologizing, but that lasted only a few firecrackers until he left. Then it was back to the same routine with mother and daughter gleefully having the time of their lives for this special night of the year, called Spring Festival by most Chinese.
For 3 days, Chinese visit relatives and enjoy being together in a yearly reunion time. The young people, meanwhile, look forward to the many hong baos (red envelopes) they’ll receive from the adults. Hong baos are filled with gift money for the kids to buy all those things they love. By “kids”, Chinese refer to anyone who is a baby all the way to university students who are studying, i.e., not earning their own money in a steady job.
The small children spend their hong bao money on toys and candies but I noticed many of the older young people save their money in the bank. Jalin, who hopes to one day study in America, saves all of her new year’s money. Last year, she received 1,500 yuan (almost $200) from her extended family. This year, I contributed to her money gift pile so I didn’t ask how much she had as it wasn’t exactly polite of me to do so.
Now that the official day has passed, it’s a much quieter night and morning. At night, the fireworks and firecrackers are no longer going off outside my door. In the early mornings, I am no longer awakened by the obnoxious crowing of my neighbors’ fowls. It seems many in our complex had been fattening up live roosters and chickens on their balconies in order for the grand dinner on New Year’s Eve. While I personally don’t like to think about defenseless animals being killed, I will say that in this case, those 5 a.m. awakenings were getting mighty old so it’s nice not to have them any more.
Until next time, as we say in China, “Zai Jian!” (Bye!)