Spring [for earplugs and elastic waistbands] Festival

Spring Festival, also know as Chinese New Year, is the biggest holiday in Chinese culture. I can now safely say that nothing can prepare you for the living hyperbole that is Spring Festival in Beijing.

The festivities began around January 18, when I started hearing the odd firecracker in my neighborhood. Within a few days, I started hearing fireworks in the distance. January 25 was the big night for the festival so far. You can think of it as a sort of Thanksgiving-July 4th combination, then multiply that times about 20. On that night, everyone traditionally eats a ridiculously large amount of food, rests, gets drunk, eats more, and then at midnight, sets off a ridiculous amount of fireworks, firecrackers, and anything else loud/flammable.

Kieran and I were invited to the home of a wonderful family friend in Beijing for a real Spring Festival in a Chinese home. Grace, who is my “Beijing mom,” and her mother, made us a huge meal with an overwhelming number of courses. Of course, being Chinese, they hardly touched it, but kept urging us on “eat, eat, eat, EAT! You’re too thin!”

After dinner, we settled in to watch the yearly Spring Festival program on TV. It was a variety show, complete with comedy routines, skits about the Olympics, songs and magic performances. While we watched, Grace taught us how to make dumplings, Jiaozi. Jiaozi is to Spring Festival as Turkey is to Thanksgiving, so although we were already bursting with full bellies, we couldn’t turn them down. I know everyone will be shocked to hear this, but I actually stopped eating before all my dumplings were gone. I was stopped by the remembrance of a certain friend — who will remain nameless — who actually threw up once from eating way too much. Only that unpleasant memory could get between me and delicious, delicious jiaozi.

At midnight, every family sets off their entire arsenal of fireworks. Unlike Fourth of July, the city does not have a public display, and fireworks are set off willy-nilly in the streets and apartment courtyards — despite a law against setting them off within the city. Even on the fifteenth floor, fireworks were exploding flush with Grace’s windows and bits were pinging against the glass. Naturally, we brought our own small stash of firecrackers down to the street and joined in. Unlike the more daring, we lit our firecracker strand and promptly ran a safe distance to watch the mayhem. Fireworks were going off all around us, and we all were hit with little bits of falling debris. It was so loud you couldn’t hear any volume of shouting, and there was a great danger of being accidentally lit on fire by those setting off their arsenal. After about half an hour we retreated to the safety of Grace’s apartment and watched as fireworks continued exploding all over the city, literally unabated until at least 2 a.m.

I had been hearing complaints and warning from foreigners for a few weeks about the noise and nuisance of New Year’s, but when it came to the actual holiday, I felt completely different. Spending the holidays with Grace made me feel like it was my holiday too, and I loved the excitement and chaos of the impromptu fireworks shows around town. There were as many different kinds of fireworks as a professional display — reds, greens, purples, blues, dazzling whites, swirly ones that weave like dragons on the ascent, whistlers, star bursts, falling stars, weeping willows, bottle rockets, sparklers, poppers, Roman candles and even (rumored) smiley faces. It was an exhilarating and beautiful way to express the joy of a new beginning, and one I won’t soon forget.

Nothing can really convey the sheer size of the celebration, but video is on the way!

As I’m writing this about a week later, fireworks are still being set off at all hours of the day, and the courtyard of my apartment building is covered in red cardboard fireworks packaging — and I totally love it. It’s sort of like living in a constant, lawless symphony of percussion, color and light. Spring Festival will continue for the next week or so, and I’m excited to see what else will happen.

The Great Terminus

A few days ago, Kieran and I took a trip to the end of the Great Wall, a town called Shanhaiguan. Although the wall seems endless when you’re climbing thousands of steps up to a high peak, or gazing out at the long, snaking trail of it out to the horizon, it does indeed have an end — the ocean.

Shanhaiguan was a small military outpost back in the day when the wall was built, and China’s navy guarded the wall from there. Today, Shanhaiguan is a summer resort town complete with Disneyland-like “ancient” streets, shops and restaurants. The wall there is also a replica of the original, as the original Great Wall there was destroyed by the allied forces in the early 1900s.

Because we pretty much decided to go there on a whim, we had to get standing tickets on the train, which we thought was only a two-hour ride. In reality, it was about four hours, but we got seats anyway as other passengers got off at earlier stations.

Because it’s a summer resort, the town was completely empty, a la Spirited Away. Since the “ancient” part of town was rebuilt as a tourist attraction before the Olympics, all the buildings are pristine and lovely, but literally no shopkeepers were around because it’s not the season. Contributing to the exodus of Shanhaiguan was that it’s Spring Festival, so everyone has gone home and closed up shop.

Eventually we found a hotel, bargained hard, got a decent room right in the “historic” section near the wall, and got dinner.

The next morning we got up early and went to the Old Dragon’s Head — the end of the wall that extends into the ocean. Although the wall was nice, the real highlight was the beauty of the semi-frozen Bohai sea. The water had a glassy sheen to it from ice, and the beach was edged with a berm of snow. Seagulls perched gracefully on bobbing ice bergs and the waves seemed to barely disturb the surface of the water, which was covered in a sort of slush. We got there as the sun was still rising in the sky, and it was truly more beautiful than the sites made by men.

We also walked across the beach to an ancient temple to the god of the sea, which extended out over the water.

Although there were fierce guardians watching over the temple, we still managed to have some fun.

Don’t worry, there were steps up to the statue, clearly indicating that yes, you can ride it. Woo!

After that, we checked out of our hotel and had a local drive us up to the Jiu Men Kou section of the Great Wall. It was pretty interesting, since part is very newly rebuilt, and part is quite wild. “Wild Wall” (野城)is a section of Great Wall that is unrepaired, and usually not opened as a tourist site. It was a really good experience for Kieran, a first-time wall visitor, because he got the best of both worlds.

We were pretty pooped after climbing it, after all, we’d now been to two termini of the Great Wall in one day, so we hopped on a bus and went home. It was an fun and spontaneous trip, and a good way for Kieran to experience a little bit of country culture and see things outside of Beijing.

Lack of…

Last night we ended up eating at a Belgian restaurant with some friends from Caitlin’s program. It was expensive by Beijing standards but normal for ours. I had rabbit in mustard sauce with stewed red cabbage and potato croquettes. Two things surprised me. The first was how full I felt after finishing. Eating a large amount of asian food makes me full, but it doesn’t sit heavily. This meal made me feel fuller. The second surprising thing was noticing that there was no sign of chopsticks; I noticed when we finished eating that we had all used silverware.

Rabbit in mustard sauce, red cabbage, potato croquettes

From Morels

Apart from silverware and western cooking, Beijing suffers from lack of large dogs, quality cheese, crusty french bread to go with it, coffee, good beer, and chocolate chip cookies, among many other kinds of cookie. If you are planning to visit Caitlin in Beijing bringing one of these food items is a sure way to gain favor with her. Households, apart from hers, also don’t have ovens, as discussed in a previous post. I hoped to have an entire day of baking before leaving the East Coast but ended up too busy finishing my semester to do any at all. Instead I settled for a bag of homemade chocolate chip cookies from the Potbelly Sandwich Works in Dulles Int’l Airport, which gave me the opportunity to discover just how much cookies in China mean to Caitlin. She placed them directly into her special stash of special treats, where they were left undisturbed for several days.

Or so I thought. Lounging around on Thursday evening I casually remarked that we ought to try those cookies I brought. This elicited the most pout-lipped, shoulders hunched, head down, eyes up, sheepish “I already have” reply that I have seen in my entire life. My younger sister looked so guilty. “I thought you already knew” she said. “I haven’t been keeping it a secret. They’re really good.” Clearly, because they were really good, she was hoarding them according to a don’t ask-don’t tell philosophy. And, because I am older than she, and because I can get cookies like that all the time, I don’t begrudge her the right to hoard them. After all, among other less important things of scarcity, Beijing has lack of chocolate chip cookies.

We cooked these as an epilogue. There is a small handful left.

We baked these a day later. There is a small handful left.

Kieran’s First Impressions

I’m visiting Caitlin in Beijing. It took 23 hours, door to door, in 9 separate vehicles. There were three trains each in New Jersey and China, two airplanes, and one people mover at Dulles International Airport. Luckily for me I don’t mind traveling.

China is a place of contradiction. After 12 hours in Beijing, most of them spent sleeping, I feel at home here but out of place at the same time. It is both cheap and expensive, Crowded and spacious. I was offered my first glimpses of the country as we came in for landing at Beijing International Airport. The flight path took us over vast empty white territory of Siberia and Mongolia before we turned into our final descent, made from the west of the city. We passed over dry plains, followed by huge and pointy mountains, and finally the outskirts of the city where I caught a glimpse of the Great Wall. The buildings I saw were in clusters — densly packed but widely spaced. The airport is huge. We taxied up to the new Terminal 3 building and were one of only about 5 planes docked at what must be close to 50 gates. The inside is so large that photos do not give any sense of its scale. In a country so large and populous it felt strange to be inside a building that was so immensly over-adequate. The terminal felt extremely empty. This was my impression of the contradictions of China.

It required three trains to get to my sister’s house: exactly the same number of trains that I took to get from my house to the airport. Her neighborhood could be Long Island City in New York or Korea Town in Los Angeles. It is not as dense as I thought it might be, but there are lots of people and shops. There is a convenient metro station. I arrived at dinner time and so eating was one of the first things we did. A meal of fried naan and Xianjang vegetables plus two lamb skewers cost us 20 RMB for two people. That is $3. Even in Egypt food was not quite that cheap. I was extremely impressed. Beijing is considered expensive, and Caitlin regaled me with tales of eating 5 course meals with four people at restaurants in the countryside for 40 RMB. If all I do in Beijing is eat, I will be completely happy unless it makes me sick. On my suggestion we went to a bar after dinner for a quick drink and for my second lesson in contradictions. My beer cost RMB 35. Almost twice the price of our dinner for two. We spent close to 15 dollars for four drinks. China is both cheap and expensive, according to your habits and living standards.

Xinjiang Vegetables, Fried Naan, Lamb Skewers (Meat Sticks)

Xinjiang Vegetables, Fried Naan, Lamb Skewers (Meat Sticks)

Today I need to get house slippers, register at the police station, buy an extension cord for my computer and get a SIM chip for my cell phone. Obama will be inaugurated a little after midnight tonight and we are trying to find out the best place to watch. Right now it is breakfast time and I am hoping for some yummy yummy street food.

More photos.

There and Back Again

I left for San Francisco on December 20, and just got back to Beijing after what felt like a very short break. Although there was lots to write about while I was away, I wasn’t too motivated to do so, so I’ll just summarize some of my thoughts now that I’m back.

I flew in to San Francisco on an amazingly beautiful, sunny day. As we flew over the California coast I was stunned at the unspoiled beauty of my home — where were all the factories? The towering apartments? The ugly, squat warehouses? We flew in from the north of the city, passing over a magnificent Golden Gate Bridge, and as we passed over the city I was overcome with emotion. I could see all the places I had been missing — schools, parks, Twin Peaks, and finally, I saw the little yellow building that is my home.

As we landed, I was still in shock at how many trees there were near the airport. It’s not just that there are a lot of trees in San Francisco, but they are often taller than the buildings surrounding them. I found myself on many of the first few days home sitting the windows overlooking the city just appreciating the trees.

It’s hard to sum up all of my culture shock at being home. I arrived right before Christmas, when people are frothing over material gifts, so that was a bit weird. I have been going through a mild inclination for asceticism, and it was difficult to not get exasperated with people worrying about Christmas gifts. In the end, it really doesn’t matter how many gifts you give, I think. You could even give nothing at all, and it would be OK.

Even more unsettling was coming back to a place of such economic security. I had been reading so much about the economic meltdown, but in downtown San Francisco I couldn’t see any signs. It felt like there was a storm looming, but nobody saw the thunder clouds. Especially after seeing so much poverty in other parts of the world, I couldn’t help wanting to shake people who were going about their daily routines, worrying about their own isolated struggles, and yell “Don’t you know? Don’t you know something bad is coming?” The rest of the world is in serious trouble, but most of us are still burying our heads in the sand. It seems like only a matter of time before the world comes knocking on America’s door, and it may not be a pretty situation when we have to face the same problems everyone else on the planet faces. It took quite a while to quell my feelings of discomfort and mild paranoia around San Francisco’s seemingly blithe population.

On the whole, it was wonderful to be home. Both my brothers were around over the holidays, and Jeff was at our home for Christmas due to a long layover on his way to see his own family. We had a quiet and nice Christmas with surprisingly little turmoil or hilarity to relate, sad to say.

At any rate, I didn’t have much time to ponder my culture shock, as my break was pretty busy. I went to the dentist a few days after getting back and discovered that my wisdom teeth were in a bad way. I also had some cavities that needed filling, so I was looking at a break riddled with dentist appointments threatening to ruin all my plans.

I had my wisdom teeth removed on New Year’s Eve, because there were openings due the obvious undesirability of that day. I was awake for the operation, since the dentist said that’s “what most people do.” Since then I’ve heard from almost everyone that that is a lie. It was one of the most terrifying and disgusting experiences of my life, which concurrently says something about how awful it is to be conscious during a dental operation and how pampered my life is. I was mildly hysterical by the time the operation was over, so I went home, loaded up on antibiotics and vicodin, and watched animated movies with Kieran.

By the next day I was pretty much fine, and a few days later I drove down to Santa Barbara to spend time with Jeff’s family. Since Jeff’s dad is a dentist, I was able to kill two birds with one stone and have my cavities fixed up while I was there. Unfortunately this meant that Jeff had ample opportunity to laugh as I pathetically tried to drink liquids and smile symmetrically with a numb mouth. Other than that, we did all the usual Santa Barbara things and had a nice visit filled with wonderful food and pleasant relaxation.

Since I have never been to Disneyland, Jeff gave me a trip there as my Christmas present. I can honestly say without embellishment — but with a little embarrassment — that it was one of the happiest days of my life. The weather was sunny but not too hot, and since it was a Tuesday lines were short. Everything there was new and exciting, and Jeff was super awesome the whole day too. I’ve never ridden on roller coasters since I’m afraid of them, and so the Disneyland roller coasters were plenty scary and fun for me.

We rode Indiana Jones, which was my favorite because it wasn’t too scary. Then Jeff forced me to ride Splash Mountain, which was really scary. Fortunately, Jeff had to sit in the front of the ride and got completely soaked, which made up for it being scary because he had to pretend he wasn’t annoyed at being wet since the ride was his idea. We also rode Big Thunder Mountain railroad which Jeff said wasn’t scary (it was). We rode a Buzz Lightyear ride where you shoot targets from your car. Jeff got a score of about 300,000 while I got a score of about 3,000, which was hilarious. I watched “Honey, I Shrank the Audience,” which was my first 3-D film experience. We ate lunch and saw a performance/workshop where Disney actors taught kids how to become Jedi knights. It was super cute and you could tell the kids were really into it. We also went to the Tiki Room and the Jungle Cruise, which were awesome in their tackiness and a nice way to relax after the sensory overload of the other rides and attractions. At the end of the day we rode The Matterhorn since it was Jeff’s favorite ride, even though I was totally afraid of it. Pluses: the seats are arranged for snuggling. Minuses: I felt myself lift off the seat at every drop and sudden curve.

All in all, it was a highly successful trip. I’ve decided two things though. One, I won’t take my kids there when they’re young, because all the kids there were crying and the parents were screaming. Two, I’m never going back, because it was the perfect Disneyland experience and I don’t think I could top it.

At then end of the week, Jeff and I packed our things and headed to Davis. I stayed with friends and had a generally great time seeing people I’d been missing for a long time. It’s always great to see friends you haven’t seen in a long time, and to feel like your friendship is just how it always was. We went to the essential Davis bars that I had been hearing so much about throughout college, which seemed quaint after living in the hustle and bustle of Beijing, but I guess it’s the people that matter, not the scene. I also got to visit professors and stress about academic matters.

Before I knew it we were back in San Francisco, shopping for a few items before I hopped on a flight and found myself back in Beijing, feeling a little disoriented. I was feeling melancholy having to say goodbye to my family and home, and more than a little hesitant to come back to Beijing. Being in America was like living in a wonderful, real Disneyland, and now I had to come back to real life. But after stepping off the plane and riding the subway home, I felt like I was also coming home in a strange way. I still don’t feel too settled in, and I spent most of my time here so far in my apartment napping and reading, but I’m curious to see what will unfold in the coming months. It will likely determine where I’ll be living and what I’ll be doing in the next few years. It’s exciting to think of the possibilities, and daunting to think of the great unknown. I’ll try to keep you posted…