THE run-up to the Lunar New Year has me thinking back to two favorite times we marked this most hallowed of Chinese festivals.
It’s as important to the Chinese as Christmas is to us who celebrate it, whether we be Christian or not. And the Lunar New Year festival holds as much mystique and reason for merriment to anyone who is lucky enough to be in their country, whether we be Chinese or not.
In one of our early years in Beijing, we decided to go with a tour organized by a cultural center that catered specifically to foreigners with very limited knowledge of the language and history of the country. Truth be told, there are many things that don’t work and many things that are downright wrong about the way the Chinese do things, but many elements of their centuries-old culture are still eye-opening to learn about.
The guided tour for this particular season revolved around bussing off the foreigners to a remote suburb of Beijing to witness an old village’s traditional celebrations.
Of course, we knew everything had been staged for us. And we felt more like the main attraction than the main attraction, with the stares of the elderly and the shy giggles of the children as we alighted from the bus. Still, we soaked in the festive atmosphere and whooped along with the locals and had tons of photographs to remember the visit by.
On the main dirt road, as soon as the last passenger got off the vehicle, fireworks started going off. They were many and they were loud. Because, in Chinese culture, and which we Filipinos have adapted, the more ear-popping the din created by the crackers, the more likely we are to drive away each and every last demon from the previous year. The more red paper strewn all over the ground, the more luck was promised to come into people’s lives. Out with the old, in with the new. After all, who wouldn’t want for all those new year wishes to come true?
And so the firecrackers came strong and steady for what felt like ten minutes, and as the last of the explosions died down, the cymbals started up and the dancers on stilts arrived. It was an impressive show, not in a Chinese acrobat sort of way, but arresting nonetheless as old men in full Peking opera regalia paraded up and down the lane, towering over us on their wooden stilts that looked anything but sturdy.
Finally the opening show ended and we were shuttled off to the villagers’ homes where we were assigned to go in small groups, and I saw our cultural center guide hand over a package of new fireworks to the village elder, the equivalent of our barangay captain. Ah yes, this “authentic” celebration was to be repeated everyday over the 10-day New Year festival with a different group of foreign visitors. And so the purported “welcome gift” of the villagers to the visitors was actually planted already by the same organizers ahead of time.
The highlight of the visit, though, was the time spent with the villagers in their homes. Most families lived in multi-generational set-ups so we were hosted for lunch by a grandmother, her son and his wife, and their young child. The grandmother made space on her charcoal heated bed so some visitors could sit down. A few rickety chairs were pulled up from all over the one-room house and in the outer kitchen, big trays of dumplings were being boiled and finally served to us waiting in the room.
Everyone partook of the piping hot dumplings and tea as the guide explained how the tradition for northern mainlanders was to come together as a family, make jiaozi which are folded to look like gold ingots to symbolize good fortune in the coming year. And how, while northern fare might seem austere to outsiders, especially when compared to Cantonese lauriats with tables heaving with food, for the simpler folk in villages such as this, the symbolism of coming together as a family on the one big festival of the year was more important than the lavish feasts that their compatriots enjoyed.
In poorer rural villages such as this, most middle-aged children left for bigger cities in search of employment opportunities, leaving their only children in the care of their elders. This family was no exception, and it was only during the spring festival that they would brave the crushing crowds to come back home to be with family in what is referred to as the world’s biggest migration.
To witness an actual family who had been reunited for the simplest of meals in an equally simple home, sparsely decorated but proudly showing off school certificates and artwork of children from different generations (first the son, then the granddaughter), felt humbling and touching. No matter whether the interaction was staged, it gave an intimate look into this one family’s reality. No matter what poor perceptions foreigners have of this country, the people who make it are not the strongmen or the policymakers but the real people whose lives are in no way easy but who hold on to the promise of good luck and better fortune via the symbols of their celebrations.
The second special encounter for me came, ironically enough, outside of China after we had already repatriated. In an effort to continue to celebrate the festival in our own way as a family, I went to a favorite Chinese carinderia in Makati to buy some frozen dumplings to have ready for boiling that evening at our Lunar New Year meal.
In our years in China, we had been lucky to have the kids learn to make homemade dumplings from our helper and driver. We didn’t have them at home during Chinese New Year because our staff had the entire 10-day holiday off, our helper being one such migrant worker who crossed the country back with her husband to see their daughter and parents. Our driver celebrated the traditional way Beijingers do by seeing extended family in the city and making the rounds of temple fairs to watch the firecrackers and stilt dancers and have young children partake of old-time games.
Now without the staff and being back in Manila, we settled for the next best thing for non-Chinese – the frozen dumplings to prepare at home at just the right time and lay out on a table with our dishes from China. And so I placed my order and as I was about to leave with my bag, a Chinese national came up to the counter and asked for his order. In his broken English he stated his business and the server brought out his bag. His face fell as he saw that the dumplings packed for him had already been boiled. He tried to explain that he wanted them frozen but the staff insisted that he did not make this clear and he still had to pay for his order. He grew visibly exasperated not just at the mistake but at his inability to make himself understood.
Then it suddenly clicked for me. It was Chinese New Year’s Eve of that particular year. Just as I, who wasn’t even Chinese, wanted my share of jiaozi to boil at midnight for our family celebration, he wanted his own share to be able to mark this big holiday in a country not his own. He only had two boxes, which signaled to me that he was not with his family here in the Philippines. He wouldn’t have his homemade dumplings, nor his firecrackers, stilt dancers, temple fair attractions and an abundance of red lanterns and couplets on doors wishing good luck.
I engaged him in conversation and his accent told me he was a northerner. My mind raced back to that little village and the family, the story of how the middle generation left for work in better places. I don’t know if this man’s situation in Manila was in fact better than what he left behind, if he was from a village not very different from the one we visited. But what was clear was that he was here for work as a foreigner with no one to celebrate with, looking flustered at the language barrier and possibly also missing his family. We had been him. We had been lucky to have the cultural center tours to help us enjoy our experience a little better. But we knew the feeling of isolation and frustration and homesickness.
I offered to switch orders with him, he could take our four boxes of frozen dumplings and I would have his two boxes. Not being Chinese, it didn’t really matter to me if my family and I reheated leftovers that evening. Relief washed over his face as he thanked me and offered several times to pay the difference. I just wished him a Happy Chinese New Year and he walked away with one last wave goodbye.
We who don’t really have the right to all the symbolisms of the spring festival could do away with less, we just did not want the day to pass without our own way to mark it. It’s the wrong nationality and the wrong country, and we still miss the Chinese locals we met in our stay who made us family. But we remember all the unnamed strangers too, and think of them as we gather around our own table. We are brought together by food and family and friendships and wishes for fortune. We are not so different from each other after all.