I promised to tell you about the new year’s celebrations here in Qiujinzhen 虬津镇, a small village in the Jiangxi province where my friend’s family is residing. Some members of the family came to meet me at Nanchang Changbei airport. We then drove to their place and had some dinner. I learned that Chinese people know how to brew wine. It has a distinct taste and in some cases, it may burn your nostrils. When dining with a Chinese family, expect everyone to yell “Ganbei!!!” at about 30-second intervals.

This is the family home I’m currently staying at. There is a pertinent hole in the floor in the bathroom. We also use slippers and overcoats inside the house. Yes, even when using the bathroom.

The day subsequent to my arrival commenced in an interesting way. We gathered around the breakfast table (as a side note, it’s considered good manners to make as much slurping and squelching noises as you eat as possible. I certainly wanted to behave considerately. :D) The air was full of firecracker sounds, and I was informed that we would go and pay a visit to one of the dad’s uncles “a little way off”. Six people, me included, packed themselves in one(!) car and off we went. 3.5 hours later, having been zigzagging on small mountain roads, we finally arrived in a small village. As the car stopped, I got an African flashback immediately: an enthusiastic human horde surrounding the car, apparently having been informed beforehand about “the pale person with heaven hair”. Here’s a list of interesting observations I made during the trip:

  1. 95% of Chinese people never close their front doors during daylight hours.
  2. Other (random) Chinese people randomly walk in and out of these open doors. (Hence #1.)
  3. Chinese people rear chickens on their balconies.
  4. Rural Chinese people expect everyone coming from a Western country to be fluent in Mandarin.
  5. Chinese people are able to make open fires inside their houses.
  6. Stinky tofu doesn’t taste nearly as bad as it sounds.
  7. Chinese people keep a wooden chair in the shower.

During the car trips, there and back, I didn’t see another Western face. Thus, you need to be mentally able to conform. When stepping out of the car, the questions began to be thrown at us. One positive thing needs to be noted here: unlike Africans, the Chinese are careful not to touch a foreign person without their consent. Nevertheless, you will certainly feel like celebrity. You also need to remember that you aren’t just representing your home country, but the West in general. Rural Chinese, especially the older generation, tend to have limited experience in dealing with foreigners. We were invited to three homes, which all had open front doors, so we just walked in, and were offered hot water with sugar (this is a welcome gesture and a blessing in rural China). I then told them everything they wanted to know and was able to tell: it was fun to see the elders’ eyes light up when they heard about our seasons, education system, and language abilities. Then we experienced something which few outsiders have been allowed to take part in: we were allowed to participate in the villagers’ ancestor honouring ritual. (The villagers were relatives to the family I’m staying with.) The houses have a very interesting architecture. There is a semi-indoor altar built at the other end of a long line of what seemed to be separate rooms. The ritual itself was simple, but very striking. We were supposed to face the altar, and put our palms together. The head of the village turned and walked to a spot a few meters behind us. He ignited a tremendous firecracker “cascade” which rattled and crackled for minutes around and behind us while we bowed towards the altar, not just once, but in a kind of dance and lit an incense for each late family member, pictured at the altar. The ceremony was one of joy, not one of mourning like it often is in the Western world, and I was left very moved.

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The indoor fire.

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Preparing the aprés-ritual meal for 20 family members.

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Some of the crackers there. Here you can see the interesting architecture.

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The altar. Incense is placed at the front. The other items are not touched.

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Hungry family members. The egg-looking things are dumplings filled with nuts, seeds, meat, vegetables, noodles, and something I didn’t recognize.

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The whole family gathering to say goodbye as we are leaving.

The Chinese New Year is not celebrated like any Western religion-influenced festival. The Chinese calendar is based on astrological movements, not religion, and therefore the New Year party lasts for approximately 14 days. Each day has its own specific rituals and meals, such as dragon and lantern dances. They are too numerous to be narrated here, but Google has some very informative sites. Rest assured that any Christmas celebration we have at home is nothing compared to the New Year festivities here.

Mili

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