It’s been a busy Spring over here in the Far East, what with Chinese New Years Festival, new teacher orientation groups, vacations, and constant rain. I’ve also rebuilt this website, as well as my new pro-site. Check it out. Anywho, here’s the rundown on how my Spring has gone:
Chinese New Years & Lantern Festival
This year I was invited by my girlfriend Pippi’s family to join them for Spring Festival – also known as the Chinese New Year. This year, it started on Groundhog’s Day, and lasted for 14 days, ending with the Lantern Festival. I spent one week in her parents’ house, seeing how a real Chinese family lives and celebrates their biggest holiday.
On the left, you can see the big dinner – fish, duck, sausage, eggs, veggies, intestines, etc. Pippi’s dad was the chef for the week (everyday is a big meal for the holiday), and he’s awesome. The other 3 pictures are from Yangshuo during Lantern Festival after I got home. That dragon lights up at night, as do 1000 other lanterns hung up throughout the park. They were taking it down when I took that top-right shot.
On the big night (Feb. 2nd – the New Year’s Eve for China) we had the traditional big family meal which was really amazing. You eat until you’re totally stuffed, and then they make you eat more. And after dinner, they make you continue eating snacks like nuts and candy while watching the special TV programs. During dinner, Pippi’s mom brought out a huge jug of her homemade red wine – she grows her own grapes, and does the whole process of making it herself – and it was really good as well.
After dinner and snacks at around midnight, the world exploded. Every family in China began shooting off fireworks. And I’m not talking about little whizzes and bangs. I’m talking about the big KABOOM rockets. It was non-stop fireworks in every direction for hours. The neighbors across the street, to the side, above, and even the nearby temple were setting off everything from parachuters to UFOs to bazooka blasts that rained ash all over my head. We had our own arsenal (which I bought the day before) and we got to set off our own big rockets – bazooka style. They let me light them all off, with Pippi’s 4-year-old nephew Wang Wang cheering me on the whole time. They gave me this funky medicinal cigar to light them off with. It was one of the coolest evenings of my life. I have never seen so many fireworks, nor so close before – not even at the Washington Monument in D.C. on the 4th of July. And this was just an average town, and one neighborhood. Imagine being in Beijing.
On the left is Pippi’s parent’s home – it’s like a town house, with its own front and back yard. That little guy with the camera is Wang Wang (Wang Jun Jie), Pippi’s 4-year-old nephew, who has ‘little emperor syndrome’ – that means he’s over-parented and spoiled. But he’s cool, most of the time. He’s obsessed with me whenever I come over. I teach him how to draw, and build little miniature farms in the backyard and stuff like that. On the left is their living room, and in front of the couch is a big wooden box that provides toasty heat for the feet. They use this because most Chinese people don’t use much central heating in their homes. The walls lack insulation, and the heat just dissipates and gets expensive. So they roast their sweaty little toes instead, which works out alright, actually. Pippi’s mom designed the layout and such, and that’s the GuanYin Buddha nestled in the dining room alcove. Her family is semi-atheist, semi-Buddhist. They are like Christmas christians – the ones who go to Mass once a year. But they don’t even go that often. On the bottom you can see their yard – and yes, that is a temple on the hill behind their house! You can hear the Taoist chanting and blaring pop music (Yeah, I know – pop music in a temple is pretty odd) all the time. On the bottom right is the grape vines that the mom uses to make her red wine.
While I was there for the week, I got to see pretty much all of Pippi’s hometown of Huai Hua, which is a hop, skip, and a jump away from Mao’s hometown. It’s also nearby the national park where they filmed Avatar. I got to see her old schools (that’s Pip’s old high school shown below), play with bb guns in the park, and walk all around the streets of the most average Chinese city I’ve ever seen. It’s the Chinese equivalent of ‘Main Street America’.
It was fairly clean in most places, but polluted in some as well – especially deep in one of the older neighborhoods by the local neighborhood market. But it was great. I got to see all the settings of Pippi’s historical tales that I’ve heard so many times.
Also pictured above is the local walking streets, the big downtown markets, and the mountaintop park where Pippi used to hike as a kid. We walked around for hours, waiting while her mom window shopped for a new winter coat. She still has yet to find a good one, and Spring is now upon us. The mountain park was very interesting, with bamboo forests, tombs, lakes filled with rental swan boats, and even a ‘horror house’ – Halloween style. At the very top there’s tons of BBQ pits, where we sat down for a snack of Twix equivalents, oranges, dragon’s eyes, and nuts. That little boy is not Wang Wang, but he is wielding a bamboo staff. That cauldron is full of something delicious, I suspect. Probably soup, made with guts and bones.
Pictured below is some of Pippi’s old photos. I asked her mom if they had any pictures of Pippi as a child. Within a couple of seconds, her mom came back with 6 albums full of the good stuff. Here’s just a sample.
Those funny pictures of Pippi are of her performing – she used to be a local star performer/dancer in her younger days, and always was at the center of the stage. In the rest of these photos she’s with her parents, and her older brother as well. The one where’s she’s wearing a pink jacket is a high school photo, and the one with the fan is middle school.
Pictured below is February 2nd at the temple across the street from Pip’s place. They were holding a ceremony to honor the Taoist Gods for the New Year. It was really cool – the guy in the red leads it, and at one point starts doing a funny dance with one of his legs in a circle, holding out some golden treats for the immortals. Everyone else chants, hums, and rings gongs and bells, or bangs drums.
They also burned a pyre of God money, and gave them a feast of fruit, pig head, and other delicacies. Yes, pig head is a delicacy, as it is sweet, succulent, tender, and generally delicious. Eating the head of the beast in China is an honor, of which I enjoy partaking of sometimes. Tongue is great, as are cheek jowls. The top of the neck is good too, just below the brain. The brain is just so-so, too livery and grainy for my taste. Like Solvent Green pudding mixed with powdery sludge of cement. Yum.
After Spring Festival, we went back to Yangshuo, and did our Orientation(s) for Buckland, the teaching agency that I work for. Basically, we put all of our new foreign teacher recruits through a week-long crash course in teaching and culture. Pippi recruits, deals with schools, school/teacher placement, and teaches them about Chinese students, Chinese education systems, and about ESL theories. I teach the nuts and bolts of teaching – classroom management, student disciplining, lesson planning, activities, and what NOT to do (like don’t flush the paper down the toilet). We had 3 or 4 batches of teachers (coming to around a total of 40-50 teachers from places like America, Ireland, New Zealand, England, Australia, Poland, France, etc), which technically just ended yesterday – woot woot!
After the main groups, we took a mini vacation to Changsha – the capital of Hunan and Pippi’s college town. Changsha is great, with tons of things to do and plenty of amazing food – the food in Guangxi compared to Hunan is absolute crap. They have a great flavor in Hunan, which is very spicy. I love it. I can eat more spice than Pippi. Anyways, while we were there, I found that Papa John’s – Changsha is now closed, permanently. Sadness! Depression! I rent my shirt and tore at my hair, and then proceeded down the sidewalk to Pizza Hut, with my head hanging low. While we were there, we went to the beautiful island park in the midst of the central Xiang Jiang River. The island is a cultivated paradise of green lawns, flowering peach blossoms, roses, and 1920’s American architecture.
At the tip of the 4 km island is a Mount Rushmore style bust of good ol’ Mao during his handsome youth. There were some really funky statues as well, like that little boy bending over to help hold up the bench. What’s up with that? I love the signs they put up to keep everyone off of the grass – it says “Tiny grass is smiling at you and asking you to keep on the road.”
The park was very lovely, and we walked all the way down and back again amidst spring-time orchards, bamboo gardens, lakes, fountains, and pagodas. Very cool. Highly recommended if you’re ever in Changsha.
We went to another park while we were there, on the other side of the city. It had tons of pagodas, bridges over its several lakes (clean ones!), and it even had a theme park! The theme park was more like an American town fair, with rides like the slingshot, gravitron types, Ferris wheels, the swinging boat that goes upside down, and a horror house, amidst many others. The rides were awesome, with no lines to wait in, and each ticket just costs $2, or 15 RMB. The horror house was actually quite cool. They stick you around a long table in a scary room, turn off the lights, and proceed to scare the snickers out of you.
The photos down below aren’t from Changsha per se, but are interesting nonetheless. That girl with Pippi is one of her old high school friends that we bumped into in Huai Hua. That box is the board game “Settlers of Catan”, in Chinese! I of course bought it, and it turns out that it includes the expansion, the original, and Seafarers as well, I believe. A bargain at 65 RMB – 10 bucks! Then those romantic photos are of Pippi and I’s 1.5 year anniversary (March 1st), so I had to bust out my big romantic guns. Candles, rose petals, bath & body works scented candles from the homeland, drinks, desserts, massage oil, Ella Fitzgerald, and a movie filled with man-eating aliens.
And now, we’re back home, and relaxing. Whenever there’s a sunny day (it’s monsoon season, so that’s rare. It’s also butt-numbingly cold right now) we escape our home offices and go to the park and take our beastly Himo dog (who is so popular that friends call us up and ask if they can take our dog for a walk, lol). We’ll start rock climbing again really soon, as well as restarting our jogging sessions – lately it’s been too wet to run (imagine streets that are more like muddy creeks, filled with obstacle courses of fruit baskets, rocks, flowers, and motorbike taxis – hard to navigate without falling, not to mention staying clean).
That’s all the news from Lake Woebegone. See you next time!
~ P.A. Thompson, 白龙