Thursday, January 26, 2012

Why?-- Chun Jie Edition

"Why?" is a question that comes up often here in China.  Why are all security guards in China either 12 year-old boys or 70 year-old retirees?  Why are condoms always sold front and center, right next to chewing gum and Snickers bars at the check-out line?  Why is it that one mooncake will be wrapped in fifteen different layers of packaging, when it's just the same nasty mooncake that's sold on the street?  Why do we have to pay for pharmacy goods separately from our grocery items?

Many of these 'why' questions are left unanswered, or with the ubiquitous shrug and, "This is China."  Neither is very satisfying, but it's what we've got.  Actually, "it's what we've got" is also a pretty common answer.

Anyway, in my few years of living here, I have found a few very satisfying answers to my 'why' questions related to Spring Festival (Chun Jie 春节) or Chinese New Year, as it's often referred to back home.  Here are my findings:

Why the fireworks?  Every year, China erupts into mass chaos at midnight to ring in the New Year.  Fireworks are sold at street corners for two weeks prior to the big event, and the volume of fireworks has led to a few hazards in the past.  That seems commonplace enough, but what most people don't know is that the fireworks, firecrackers, noisemakers that sound like bombs, and every other irritatingly loud noisemaker will go off before every meal time over the course of the following week.

I've learned that the reason for this is that fireworks, firecrackers, and noisemakers aren't just something Chinese people use to celebrate.  The light and noise from these things are meant to scare away evil spirits that, I suppose, are only active at the one major holiday of the year.  These 'evil spirits' are also more present at meal times, which is why the works are always set off just before meals also.

Why the red paper around the doors?  Ah yes, the red paper around the doors.  For those of you who don't know about red paper around the doors, they are sort of like China's version of Christmas lights that stay up year-round.  Walk up any apartment building stairwell, and you'll see fading, tearing strips of red paper stuck to the door frames, usually emblazoned in some sort of Chinese greeting in gold foil. 

Turns out that this tradition also stems from the same vein of guarding from the evil spirits.  Red is the color symbolizing good luck in Chinese culture (hence, why red is freaking EVERYWHERE in this country), and they are keeping bad luck out and good luck in.  I find this absolutely fascinating because it totally mirrors the story of the last plague on Egypt, when the Israelites were able to keep the Angel of Death from entering into their homes by painting the red blood of a lamb sacrifice over the tops and sides of their door posts.

Why the TV specials?  Ask any Chinese student what they do at New Year's, and you'll probably receive the same answer:  watch TV.  CCTV puts on a number of New Year specials featuring magic shows, some song-and-dance numbers, a lovely hostess in a flashy outfits, and cross-talk... which is sort of like China's version of stand-up comedy.  These specials will often go late into the evening, and I have to admit that I've never seen anyone get so excited to watch TV until 3 AM.

From what I understand, there isn't much to do on New Year's.  Everything is closed, the dumplings have been wrapped, boiled, and eaten, and the fireworks have been set off.  At that point, there's not much else to do but gather 'round the old telly and be entertained.  I heard that this year's specials left much to be desired, but then again-- I haven't been one for hours of Chinese kitsch and comedy I don't understand.

For how long I've lived here, I've learned comparatively few answers to all my 'why' questions.  The truth is that even many Chinese people don't know the answers to these questions, but that is part of the beauty of living here.  To simply exist in a seemingly insane system of traditions and ways of doing things, and appreciate the aspects you enjoy, and learn to deal with the aspects you don't.  In any case, here is to wishing everyone a joyful new year!  新年快乐 xin nian kuai le !

The Year of the Dragon

Happy New Year, everyone!

I suppose for folks living in China, it is obligatory that I post something about Chinese New Year's on our blog.  We're now almost at the official end of Spring Festival Week, which went by too quickly, as holidays often do.  It's still been an amazingly relaxing time, free from classes and full of slept-in mornings.

Considering that Spring Festival is the biggest holiday of the year (imagine Christmas, Thanksgiving, Boxing Day, and New Year's Eve all rolled into one), the majority of the city shuts down.  Major malls, public transit, and chain supermarkets stay open for business while the rest of the Beijing turns into a Chinese version of the set of a zombie apocalypse film... or just a reasonably populated city in a Western country.  For us laowai, it's a dream come true-- free reign of the streets without having to worry about colliding with someone every five minutes, and quiet for extended periods of time.  For our Chinese friends, it's strange.  Where are all the people?  And why is it so eerily quiet?

In our case, our celebration was eerily quiet-- even for laowai.  We made plans to hang out at our friend's 22nd floor apartment to watch the insane free-reign fireworks that go off to usher in the new year.  The photos don't do the event justice, but just imagine if every family in China made it their mission to hold their own personal Disneyland fireworks show at midnight-- and pulled it off.  That's basically what happened.

Here are a few photos:

Coming up... a laowai's perception of Chinese New Year traditions.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Lost in Translation

The Chinese education system is a puzzling thing.  I've blogged about my student, Xindy, before.  Xindy is a whiz at memorizing words and chanting slogans, but she still doesn’t know why it’s probably not a great idea to rub your eye after that same finger was digging for gold in your left nostril just before.  Call me old-fashioned, but I am of the school that believes that manners should retain a place in everyday society.

Being cross-cultural, though, often makes teaching and learning manners tricky.  Not only do you have to translate cultures, but you also have to translate languages.  Here's a sticky situation I found myself in with Xindy.

Xindy leans back and rips a loud, long fart.
Grace:  (laughing)  Xindy, did you just eat lunch?
Xindy:  (learning back on the sofa with her arms tucked behind her head)  No.  Why?
Grace:  Well, after you do that, you should say, “Excuse me.”
Xindy:  (brows furrowed, still lounging on my sofa)  I should say what?
Grace:  You should say, “Excuse me.”
Xindy:  (sitting up)  What?  What does that mean?
Grace:  It is kind of like saying, “I’m sorry.”
Xindy:  But why I need to say this word?
Grace:  Because what you did is a little impolite.
Xindy:  What’s meaning this word?  Poligh?
Grace:  Im-po-lite.  It means "不客气的" (bu keqi).

And here's where I went wrong.  Technically, what I said was "not" (bu) and "polite" (keqi), but together, the phrase "bu keqi" is another way of saying "You're welcome"-- a phrase most Chinese students learn.  Now, I'm worried that Xindy will get them all confused, and the next time she farts, she'll try to be polite and respond by saying, "You're welcome," which in my home, would warrant laughter and joy.  Among mixed company, though, perhaps not so much.*

Our lesson in manners didn't end there, though.

Fifteen minutes later, Xindy is working on a dictation.
Xindy:  What you said before I should say when I… 放屁 (fart / fangpi)?
Grace:  Oh… “Excuse me.”
Xindy:  (smiling as a rancid smell fills the room)  Okay.  Excuse me.

*For the record, if you want to convey that something is impolite without saying "You're welcome," the correct term is "不礼貌" (bu limao).