Posted by: viaprograms | March 12, 2010

Welcoming the Year of the Tiger in a New China

I knew experiencing the Chinese New Year – in China- would be exciting, but to be included in a family celebration in a rural farming village as it morphs into the form of New China was something I would never have dared hope. I first met Xiao Dan, a student majoring in Chinese as a second language, during the VIA training at Nanjing Normal University. She was my language partner. Despite a more than 40 year age difference we became good friends and stayed in close touch after I left Nanjing for my post in Northwestern Yunnan Province. When she wrote me that her parents wanted to invite me to spend the New Year at their home in a small village about three hours from Shanghai I followed my China policy of “just say yes” and accepted immediately, before they could change their mind!

Preparation for the New Year begins with a thorough house cleaning. Fortunately that task had been completed before I arrived, and my only chore was to enjoy the kindness of Xiao Dan’s family, neighbors and relatives. Her family are wonderfully warm, gracious and generous people and did all in their power to make me warm, comfortable, happy, and most of all well fed! The adventure started on New Year’s Eve, the day when the family traditionally honors the ancestors. Xiao Dan’s Mom woke us up early. After a great breakfast we hopped on the motorbike and sped to the local dumpling dough shop where an elderly blind man was mixing jiaozi dough and rolling it out on a fascinating old Rube Goldberg looking machine powered by a belt and a small motor. Xiao Dan has sweet memories of being allowed to help turn the large wheel by hand as a child. It seemed like every family in the village must have been in the shop waiting for the small squares of dough to make the traditional jiaozi, as shop was jammed. While we waited our turn we went to visit nearby relatives – more food. Back home with the dough, and preparations began in earnest. While Xiao Dan and her Dad hung new decorations around doorways and on the altar in the room where we were to honor the ancestors her Mom was busy in the kitchen preparing food for the special lunch, including those marvelous dumplings! Then we set a table with 10 bowls of rice and a rich array of foods for the ancestors. When all male members of the family were present (in our case Father was the only male in the family) candles and incense were lit, and each member of the family honored the ancestors. Father lit a large pile of paper money to announce to the ancestors that they can come back for money and food. After honoring the ancestors (they always come first) we ate lunch and drank baijiu. What a feast!

In the afternoon we continued to honor the ancestors by visiting the burial sites of Xiao Dan’s father and mother’s families to finish giving money to the ancestors. Lots of people, lots of incense, lots of pyrotechnics! The cacophony began in the morning and continued throughout the day. Dinner was a grand affair with truly phenomenal dumplings and more baijiu. Then to bed to rest up for what was yet to come. The weather had turned very cold, so we all snuggled under the covers in the parent’s bed to watch the Chinese New Year’s Eve extravaganza on TV. Quite a show! Then at about 11:30 everyone got up, bundled up (I wore three layers on the bottom and five on the top) and off to a small shrine down the road to honor the ancestors one more time. It was very dark with lots of people, more candles, more incense. Then at midnight, Wow! Brilliant bombs bursting in air lit up the moonless sky in every direction over miles and miles of flat farm fields. Umbrellas of color rained down everywhere. Three hundred and sixty degrees of sky pulsing with gold, silver, rubies and emeralds! Deafening bombs shook our teeth and rattled our bones. Acrid Smoke filled our nostrils. The Year of the Tiger had begun!

Postscript: This was the last, or at best the next-to-last year Xiao Dan’s family will celebrate New Year’s in their farmhouse. The government is buying all of the houses and will create one large, modern, efficient farm to feed its ever growing urban population. All of the families will be re-located to new multi-family apartment buildings being constructed nearby. The farm families have mixed feelings about this. Nearly all of the owners are middle aged or elderly now, and some have already taken nonfarm jobs. Their children are grown. Most young people have left to go to university or find nonfarm jobs. The farmers seem to welcome the convenience of clean, modern apartments with heat, hot water and inside plumbing. Besides, farming is hard work. But many will miss working the land and being able to eat freshly grown produce, the fruits of their own labor. Nothing remains constant in today’s world. As China changes so do the lives of its citizens – for better or for worse

-Mary Ellen Dowling, VIA China volunteer 2009-2010

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