Food, Food, More Food, Firecrackers, Dragon Dances: Spring Festival in Lipu
—by Jinny Batterson
The first time we spent Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) in China came at the end of a long mid-winter break during our year of teaching in far northwest China. We’d lounged away most of our holiday at the beach resort town of Sanya on Hainan Island, the “Hawaii of China” (see post from February 2, 2015), but a Chinese friend who lived in the neighboring area of Guangxi had invited us to spend New Year’s and a few days surrounding it with him and his family. Getting to Liang’s town took a short plane ride to Guilin, then a slightly longer bus ride on a comfortable long-distance bus. One of our fellow bus passengers lent us her cell phone to alert Liang to our arrival in his town, Lipu.
We pulled in on the evening of Valentine’s Day, several days before that year’s actual New Year. Liang and his brother met us at the bus station, and loaded us and our luggage into his brother’s pickup. The brother, despite a bit of alcohol-induced weaving, managed to drive us without major accident to Liang’s new townhouse, where we hastily unpacked. We then hailed a “tricycle taxi,” a motorized partly open conveyance, distant cousin to a riding lawnmower, for a brief ride to a dumpling feast. Classmates of our mutual former student had gathered at “Mark’s” aunt’s house to celebrate his 21st birthday. The occasion was a chance for the high school chums to spend some time together—most were now enrolled in universities far from Lipu. We ate delicious homemade boiled dumplings, drank tea or beer, swapped stories of student days and of everyone’s adventures since they’d last been together. Finally we were too stuffed and tired from feasting and travels to stay awake. Liang phoned for another taxi, we shoehorned the three of us into its single seat, and sputtered our way back to his house, where all of us fell into a satisfied sleep.
The following days were crammed with New Year preparations. We bought red envelopes for money gifts for the children. We bought lucky couplets, large-character Chinese calligraphy on long red paper streamers, to paste beside and above the doorways of homes. The day we put up couplets at Liang’s was windy. Our exertions with couplets, ladders, saw horses, glue and brooms were worthy of the best slapstick comedy. Luckily, no one fell off a ladder and got hurt. We bought local delicacies. Liang’s wife cooked pork with taro, a regional dish—rich and a bit greasy. We bought or made pyramid-shaped envelopes of sticky rice with fillings, fried tofu, fresh water chestnuts, several varieties of winter greens, eight treasures rice pudding. On New Year’s Eve, the extended family gathered in early evening at Liang’s mother’s house. We ate and ate and ate. A neighbor took pictures of the dozen or so of us—Liang, his wife, his sister and brothers and their spouses, each with a single nearly-grown child.
After the feast, Liang, his wife, and we two foreigners retired to Liang’s house, while Liang’s son stayed on with his grandma, closer to Lipu’s “downtown.” Liang told us it would be good to take a nap before it got too close to midnight. We awoke about 11, just as the first of the fireworks went off. We turned on the Chinese television New Year’s Eve gala, broadcast from Beijing. By midnight, the local fireworks were so deafening that we could no longer hear the sound track of the televised gala, nor could we hear each other. Though it was a clear night, the sky was obscured by a thick haze. Periodically, the steady din of strings of firecrackers bursting nearby was punctuated by a louder burst of overhead fireworks from downtown. We got a little sleep between 1 a.m. and 6, when the fireworks started up again.
Toward midmorning, dragon and lion dancers maneuvered along the streets outside, bobbing and weaving amid the heaps of red paper detritus from the previous night’s spent firecrackers. Still more firecrackers went off around them. Liang and his wife presented us with matching piggy banks in honor of the advent of the “Year of the Golden Pig.” Too soon it was time to start the succession of taxi, bus, and plane rides that would return us to our teaching posts. Our ears would eventually recover, but subsequent fireworks displays on American Independence Day would always seem muted by comparison.