Published: February 25th 2007February 25th 2007
These are not the sparklers that I remember from my youth...
My nostrils tingle with the acrid smell of smoke. I have to squint my eyes against the blinding display of dazzling lights and colors. My ears ring with the monstrous explosions that echo against the buildings around me. I repeat my mantra to myself: this is not a warzone; this is the Chinese New Year!
The official start of the New Year, according to the Chinese Lunar Calender, was Saturday, February 18. Traditionally, on New Year's Eve, families will gather around the television to watch a special program on CCTV, similar to the Dick Clark Rockin' New Year's Eve program that we enjoy in the United States. Although fireworks were invented in China, for the past 10 years, setting off any type of explosion was banned in Beijing-- until this year. The ban was lifted, although residents were supposed to light fireworks in specially designated areas, for only half an hour, and only on New Year's Eve. What a joke! The bells and whistles began sounding a couple of days before the New Year, and continue even now as I write on Sunday, February 25.
SATURDAY [February 17]
I knew we were in for a long night on
Keep in mind that these are huge fireworks, Rhythm and Booms worthy [if you're from Wisconsin] that are exploding between apartment buildings, with debris hitting the windows.
the 18th when I left my apartment building to go to work that morning. I walked into the lobby and stumbled over a long fire hose that stretched from the emergency pipeline near the elevators and wound its way through the doors that were propped open and came to rest at the foot of the clock tower opposite our building. The security guards were scurrying back and forth, running up and down the stairs and going up and down the elevator, gathering every fire extinguisher they could find, which they neatly lined up next to the fire hose outside. As I walked past the mounting pile of fire-fighting equipment, I caught sight of a sign that marked that spot (right next to my building) as the designated firework launching site for the complex. My apprehension increased as I noticed the enormous stockpile of fireworks that other residents were carrying out to the launchsite.
Around 11:30 PM, some of the other teachers and I ventured outside to witness the chaos for ourselves. We had been huddled in an apartment since about 10, toasting the New Year and wincing with each new blast that rattled the windows. The time had come
You can light fireworks here!
Please be careful and don't blow up your face.
to brave the shenanigans outside. We stood together on a bridge in the Fulicheng apartment complex, surrounded by other curious residents. The tension was definitely mounting; children were running around excitedly, men were carrying what looked like fuse boxes and heaps of fireworks packages to the now-drained pond area and everyone around us was murmering. Suddenly, the sky lit up with the brightness of a million thousand-watt lightbulbs. The barrage of noise from a combination of fireworks and firecrackers was deafening. Every direction I turned, fireworks were filling the night sky. The cloud of smoke and dust from the explosions was incredible. My coworkers and I attempted to scream into each other's ears, but could hear nothing, only feel the pain of a voice at an unbearable decibel. It. Was. AWESOME. By the time I went home, it was nearly 2 AM and the cannonades went on long into the night. Luckily for me, [or perhaps unluckily as the case would be], I was so nearly deaf from the fireworks show, that the ringing in my ears allowed me to sleep through further noise demonstrations undisturbed.
SUNDAY [February 18]
On New Year's Day, some teacher friends and I
partook in one of the biggest traditions of the New Year in Beijing: we went to what is known as a temple fair. These events take place in area parks or temples and consist of various performances by minority groups, opera troupes, circus people or musicians. There are also a wide variety of food stands to sample snacks from around China as well as various carnival type games in which one can win prizes. The crush of humanity was astounding; I really shouldn't continue to be so surprised as I have spent 10 months of my life in China, yet I always do feel surprised when I see so many people in one place at one time. China is a developing country, and those behaviors that we in the States might view as normal or polite are rare here. A prime example is the lack of a line mentality. If I were to patiently stand my ground and wait to be served, I would be standing in that spot all day. Old woman, teenagers, young couples with children-- they all push and shove to get to the front of the line. This is not rude here; it's just the way
things are done. Of course, not everyone acts like this, and many city dwellers are beginning to change their behaviors, starting with the younger generation. Another big problem, as I've mentioned before, is spitting. The sidewalks are littered with leftover spittle, and while the government is trying to banish this unsightly habit, it's difficult to enforce the 50 RMB fine for public loogie hawking. The way someone conducts him/herself in a crowd is a big indicator of where they are from. I've seen many foreigners look bewildered when they are pushed aside or cut in front of in line. People from Hong Kong are typically dressed more stylishly, and may look with disdain upon the poor manners of their eastern neighbors. Although Hong Kong was incorporated back into the Chinese mainland more than 10 years ago, a vast difference in culture remains, as well as government, language and education. At any rate, we all enjoyed the temple fair [see pictures] and topped off the night by ordering pizza from Papa John's [my own addition to New Year's Day in China].
MONDAY [February 19]
Monday was my day of rest. The New Year was my first real vacation in
A mysterious man in poncho
Actually, a teacher friend, Matt. We were all concerned he would set his poncho on fire whilst he was lighting the fireworks.
the 4 months I've lived here. Although we do get 2 days off each week, they are usually spent doing household chores or grocery shopping-- things that we don't have time to do during the week. Now I know what it feels like to be an 'adult'! My friend, Megan, and I went to a local market [Ya Shou] to do some window shopping and get manicures. I had never had a professional manicure or pedicure when I lived in the USA, but they are so incredibly cheap here that I indulge about once a month. A manicure/pedicure costs 60 RMB, which is approximately $7.50. I do keep in mind that I do not earn American dollars, but it is still quite affordable.
TUESDAY [February 20]
I spent Tuesday preparing for my trip to Shanghai. I had been desperate to get out of Beijing and see some new scenery; Spring Festival presented me with the perfect opportunity. My colleague, Thai, had just finished his contract with the school and moved down to Shanghai, so I booked a ticket to spend 4 days of my holiday sightseeing in Shanghai.
WEDNESDAY [February 21]
Today was Departure to Shanghai
Day. It started off innocently enough. I arose at the buttcrack of dawn [literally; my alarm had been set for 5 AM] and was out the door and in a taxi by quarter to 6. Being as unaccostumed as I am to waking up so early, I did not realize that the fog that hung heavily in the air was an ominous signal of how the day would unfold. The taxi drivers were all sleeping in their cars; I had to rap loudly on the window with my knuckles to wake up the driver. We set off for the airport, and all seemed well. Oh, how naive I was. As we continued down the highway to the airport, the driver continually reduced his speed until we were moving along at a crawl. The fog was so dense that visibility was reduced to about 5 feet past the hood of the car. Every car on the road was utilizing the flashers; even though it was still dark outside, it was safer to drive without headlights, as the thick fog simply acted to reflect the light of the headlights back into the drivers' eyes. Up until that point, all I had been
concerned about was missing my flight, due to the slow speed at which we were traveling. It was only then that I realized my flight was likely to be delayed.
I reached the airport at about 6:20 AM; by 6:36 AM, I had checked in, passed through security and was sitting in the waiting area near the departure gate. My flight wasn't scheduled to leave until 8:25 AM, so I figured the fog would dissipate by then. Oh, how very wrong I was. At approximately 7:55 AM, an announcement came over the loudspeaker saying that due to the incliment weather, all flights were delayed until further notice. No time was given for a later departure; we were just to stay in the area and would be informed when new information became available. I had been engrossed in my most recent book, "Freakonomics" [highly recommend this!] and was astonished at what I could see outside of the window when I did look up. Actually, it would be more accurate to say I was astonished at what I couldn't see. The fog had grown so thick by then that I couldn't even see the gigantic 747 that was [supposedly] parked right
outside of the window. I couldn't believe it. Never, in my entire life, have I seen fog like that before.
I figured that I'd make the best of my wait, and pulled out my Chinese materials to do some studying. One hour of waiting turned into two, and I became hungry, so I bought some breakfast. By hour 3, I was becoming antsy and took to walking around the waiting area. I was amazed at how relaxed my fellow passengers were. Here are some people who likely saved money all year to be able to afford to go home for the one week of the New Year, and the flight has been indefinitely delayed. Instead of complaining to the service staff or throwing a self-righteous tantrum, as we might witness in the USA, families were playing cards together, children were racing around makign new friends, and mothers were chatting over cups of tea. The patience and flexibility of these people really amazed and touched me.
Near the end of hour 4 of waiting, [for those of you keeping tabs, I had been at the airport since 6:30 AM, and so it was now roughly 10:30 AM], I was beginning to lose patience. I was tired of studying Chinese and didn't want to spend my precious vacation time sitting in the airport. However, the hours continued to pass with no word as to when we would leave. Five hours passed, then six, and then seven. The feelings I experienced during this unendurable wait were many. Since arriving in China, I have learned to be more patient, more flexible and more understanding of situations that unexpectedly arise. However, my experience at the airport pushed me over the edge. By this time, I had been sitting at the airport for more than 8 hours. If I was in the States, I would have asked when the next flight was, if I could change my ticket for the next day, what my other options were, etc. In China, it was so much more difficult. For one thing, the years that I've studied Chinese didn't prepare me for a situation in which I was exhausted, stressed, homesick, worried, angry, and frustrated. It can be hard to formulate polite, correct sentences in one's own native language when all of those feelings are thrown into the mix, let alone a foreign tongue. Since I
was traveling domestically, it was hard to find someone else who spoke English who could help me decide what to do. I was completely on my own and had no idea what to do. I spoke to a ticket agent in broken Chinese, my nerves frayed, and he told me that he wouldn't even estimate a time for departure. He suggested that I change my ticket for the next day, although it was likely that conditions wouldn't even approve for a next day departure, and recommended that I take a train. Now, herein lie bigger problems: because I was traveling during the biggest holiday in China, any type of transportation tickets were hard to come by. I didn't know where to buy a train ticket, and as far as I understood, the airline wouldn't offer me a discount or any type of reimbursement, which meant I would have to pay for a last-minute, one way train ticket on top of the air ticket I'd already purchased. [That would be unacceptable in the USA, but of course, I'm in China]. It was at that point that I had my first major meltdown since coming to China. I felt like the world's biggest idiot and utterly helpless. I didn't know where to go to remedy my situation. I didn't know if I should continue to wait it out or try to find a new ticket. I didn't have money for a train ticket. I was absolutely alone; all my teacher friends had already left on their various trips. The worst feeling of all was that the Chinese that I was so proud of seemed to virtually disappear, and I found myself gesturing and speaking in monosyllables like a child. I just lost it, and found myself sobbing in the middle of the Beijing airport.
Red lantern tunnel
Red is a lucky color in China, and was out in full force on New Year's Day.
It's at the point at which you hit rock bottom, that you realize you must suck it up and make some decisions, because no one is going to help you but yourself. I forced myself to walk back to the waiting area, just in time to hear the announcement that all flights were canceled for the day and that we should all go back to the ticket counters and change our tickets for the next day. I had been waiting at the airport for over 9 hours.
Once in line at the ticket counter, I realized
that I would literally have to push and shove my way to a new ticket. People were acting absolutely insane; understandable if this is the one chance a year they have to see family and loved ones. I was on the phone, attempting to find a train ticket to Shanghai that would leave that night [but a train from Beijing to Shanghai is 12 hours; add that to the 9 hours I'd already been waiting, and you find a very unhappy person], when a man in uniform came sprinting up to the massive line and shouted something I didn't understand. Immediately, the crowd around me began shouting with joy, hugging one another and crying. I was desperately tugging at sleeves, beseeching someone, anybody to tell me what had just happened, when I heard the 2 most beautiful words I'd ever heard: "Plane go". WHAT?! Before I had time to react, I was swept along with the crowd in a mass exodus back through security and back to the gate. It seems that there were so many complaints against the airline, that they decided to fly. The fog had cleared up considerably, but I still felt uneasy about the conditions for
Lots of people
I used to think that I happened to go to all the really popular places in Beijng. Then I realized that there are 1.3 billion people in China. There isn't a place that's NOT crowded, no matter how much it sucks.
takeoff. However, I had been waiting for so long, that I welcomed any movement at all, if only down the runway to stop.
We paid 10 RMB to see this man swallow a live snake and spit it out again. Still not sure what that has to do with the New Year.
I had been due to reach Shanghai at 10:25 that morning; I finally made it at 6:30 that evening.
After arriving in Shanghai, Thai took me sightseeing along the Bund, one of the most famous sections of the city. The view across the Pudong River was absolutely breathtaking [see photos]. We topped off the evening by going for comfort food-- New York Style pizza!
THURSDAY [February 22]
On Thursday, we checked out a beautiful park in the middle of Shanghai. Similar to Central Park in New York, this park was an oasis from the hustle and bustle of the big city. There was a pond, trees, flowers and lush greenery unlike any I have seen in Beijing. We rented a pedicab and pedaled our way around the park, stopping to check out various pecularities, such as the most gigantic piano I have ever seen [see photo!].
Thursday evening we went to a vegetarian restaurant that specialized in preparing tofu that looked and tasted like meat. Since I have not eaten meat in
over 10 years, everything tasted exactly like meat to me, or the way I remembered it tasting, but even Thai said that most of the dishes were very close to the real flavor and texture. The presentation is amazing-- for example, a 'fish' will be served with fins, tail and even an 'eye'!
Cute baby riding a dinosaur
Again, not seeing the correlation between dinosaurs and the Spring Festival.
....Dinosaurs are ancient history and so is China? ....
FRIDAY [February 23]
Friday brought more sightseeing along the Bund, though this time from the other side of the river. It's always interesting to note how different places look by day and by night.
We spent a majority of the day walking around People's Square, which also has a Central Park-type feel to it. I was surprised by how much cleaner Shanghai was then Beijing. The sky looked clearer, the air seemed fresher, and the plants and trees were greener. The one drawback is that Shanghai does not receive the government funded heat like Beijing does [you may recall that I often wear a t-shirt in my apartment], so the apartments are quite chilly at night, but that is easily remedied by use of a space heater.
SATURDAY [February 24]
On Saturday, we checked out a temple/market area. This place was absolutely
teeming with humanity, but was worth the pushing and shoving. The architecture was much more traditionally Chinese than many of the European-style buildings downtown. Red lanterns and New Year's decorations were everywhere, and the food was abundant and delicious.
Advertisement for one of the Carnival games
What's wrong with this picture?
Hint: If you aren't a sports fan, you probably won't get it.
Saturday night we went to Nanjing Road. This is a famous shopping street in Shanghai that is closed to traffic. At night, all the signs are lit by neon and the street looks absolutely fabulous. [see photos]. Unfortunatly, by that time it was raining, so we didn't have much opportunity to check out more of the street.
SUNDAY [February 25]
I returned home to Beijing. I've spent today catching up on email, grocery shopping and generally getting back into my routine. I go back to work tomorrow; this week-long holiday has been a lifesaver. Five new teachers arrived this weekend and we will meet them tomorrow. This week will be their week of orientation and training; they begin teaching duties next Monday. It feels odd that we aren't the 'newbies' anymore; it's hard to believe I've been in China for over 4 months already. I just know this year will fly by.
I welcome any suggestions or
comments you may have...or requests for future posts!
The Bund at night
Happy New Year.
There are more photos below