Part of the Family
Tom Fearon embarks on a cross-cultural adventure celebrating China's biggest holiday
Feb. 16, 2013
Celebrating Spring Festival with a Chinese family is one of the few opportunities for foreigners to step out of the laowai limelight and truly immerse themselves in Chinese culture. It can be a harrowing experience the first time, made all the more nerve-racking if celebrated in a distant, rural village around your spouse's extended family. But after they accept you as one of their clan, you soon discover why Spring Festival is the craziest yet happiest week on the lunar calendar.
This year marked the second Spring Festival I have spent with my Beijing wife's family, although it was the first time for us to host it in our one-bedroom apartment. I was initially anxious about the thought of all four of us squeezing into the 40-something-square-metered apartment, but all trepidation disappeared immediately once the kitchen filled with the aroma of home cooking, the living room blared with the CCTV Spring Festival Gala (and its reruns) and the bathroom's towel racks were overtaken by hand-washed socks and underwear.
My first task began in the afternoon when I went to the subway station to greet my mother- and sister-in-law arriving from Shunyi district. Before I could hug them, I was scolded by Ma (mother) for not wearing enough layers in cold weather and being "too skinny" - a criticism that has evolved into a greeting over the years.
I wheeled Ma's trolley carrying a bag filled with what seemed like half the stock of the hole-in-the-wall store she ran; there were nuts, sunflower seeds, dried meats and beer, but sadly no fireworks.
When we arrived at home, lunch was served leaving no inch spare on the table. There were five different meats, two cold dishes and bowls of rice and mantou (steamed buns). All the dishes looked appealing on the surface, but some weren't immediately identifiable. I gave extra caution to anything blanketed in fragrant-flowered garlic or chives, learning from experience that such garnishes usually mask the smoky aftertaste of yangza (sheep gizzards).
I took small yet constant mouthfuls of each dish to look busy. Although most chicken, beef and - ah, whatever that other one was - contained sharp bones, I did my best to avoid appearing the wasteful Westerner by only putting limbs stripped of at least 90 percent meat and cartilage into the communal bone bowl. My aim was to outlast at least one other person and, soon enough, my jie (elder sister) tapped out and declared she was full.
Decorations were next, so we set about hanging red paper lanterns in the living room and adorning the door with chunlian, or Spring Festival couplets, to convey Chinese New Year wishes.
Entering the New Year with a bang
By 6 pm, it was time to make jiaozi (dumplings) - a skill I'll never master even if I celebrate Spring Festival for all 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. The delicate folds and pinches required to seal the perfect dumpling take years to perfect. If you're like me, it's best to just bury your hideous dumplings deep into the bowl of finished ones and hope no one notices.
In keeping with tradition, we singled out one dumpling to inserted a lucky coin inside. Because most coins in our apartment were either scattered in messy drawers or swallowed by the couch, we decided to thankfully substitute it with a peanut. Despite eating the most dumplings, the "lucky" one eluded me for another year and was suspiciously again claimed by my wife.
Naturally, we watched the CCTV Spring Festival Gala from start to finish. Its cross-talk skits and magician acts would no doubt seem boring if viewed on your own, but when you're surrounded by your family's laughter and genuine bewilderment it's impossible not to get swept up in the buzz of it all.
Perhaps my favorite moment came when Celine Dion performed and Ma shot me a smile, as if the Canadian songbird was my sister or some other relative.
Once the clock struck midnight, the neighborhood quickly morphed into a war zone as fireworks bounced off buildings and bright colors lit up the sky. After clearing the table, it was time to revel in the high-decibel delirium at street level for all of us except Ma, who upstaged CCTV Gala magician Lu Chen by miraculously nodding off to sleep.
With the firework smoke from the night before still clearing, we set out early the next morning to attend the fair at the Temple of Earth. The subway was uncharacteristically quiet until we took Line 2 and were met by the familiar sight of carriages packed with commuters standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
We continued our subway zombie march hand-in-hand into the temple, where people wielded pointed skewers of squid and mutton in the air. Lured by the sounds of traditional music, we made our way to a stage where performers delivered a waist-drum and lion dance spectacle.
Kids hoisted on their parents' shoulders enjoyed the best vantage point, while the rest of us jockeyed to snap photos free of a foreground spoiled by hands lofting cellphones.
Later that evening, we ventured to the heart of the city for dinner of Peking duck at the historic Quanjude restaurant in Qianmen. Unfortunately, hundreds of other families and couples shared our plan, but the hour-and-a-half wait for a table allowed us ample time to stroll around the ancient commercial street and nearby Tiananmen Square.
Back at home, card games that went late into the night occasionally erupted into playful accusations of cheating. Lines by characters in TV drama Zhen Huan Zhuan were recited on cue and Ma's delicacies, including zhaqiehe (deep-fried eggplant with pork stuffing) and lanlong (tangy pork-filled wraps), constantly kept our palates satisfied.
For the first time in four years in China, I didn't want Spring Festival to end. Even the firework frenzy on powu, the fifth day of the first lunar month, couldn't hide the depressing fact our apartment had returned to its normal, sleepy self with just the two of us.
See the original article here.