Saturday night and our presence was required at the school cafeteria for the annual Spring Festival (or Chinese New Year) dinner at 5:18 precisely. Why this time? Many, many traditions occur because the sounds of some words are similar to other words, which have a positive meaning. So for example, the word for fish–yu–sounds the same as the word for ‘more’ so you eat fish at festival times because it brings you abundance. I don’t know all the words or sounds for 5:18, which might actually be the words for 17:18 as China operates on a 24 hour clock, but suffice to say that the time is auspicious and has a meaning close to “this is darned lucky and we are all going to have wealth come in our direction!” Hard to argue with that, so off we go for 5:18.
The standard cafeteria tables with attached benches had all been removed for this party and replaced with round tables, the better to be served dapan or communal style, something we are all familiar with. Once it began, the food kept on coming and we were hard-pressed to keep up, much less make much of a dent in it. Some of the taste treats included dumplings, hairy crab, shrimp, fish, many kinds of vegetables, tofu, pork, nuts, bean soup and custard. About the only things missing were eggs and quantities of beef. Fruit, as always, is dessert. Each dish has some significance for Chinese New Year, so it is important to at least try everything, which we did. The really fun part, however, had to do with the drinking!
We’ve been here since August and only learned a few days ago that clinking glasses during a toast requires one to “Gambay!” or bottoms up, and toasting is a big part of Chinese culture. If you don’t clink, you can simply have a modest sip and make it home in a reasonable state. This we are told after several clinks. Needless to say, we had a little bit of a glow on by the end of the evening. Which was nothing compared to a good number of the school staff who were, shall we say, blitzed? Not that I can count myself out, as it seemingly took Mr Zhao no time whatsoever to convince me to go with him to the front to sing (Ed. note: Belt Out) Auld Lang Syne, the words to which I temporarily forgot. Oops! I only remembered the next day that his plan was also that I would sing a verse, then he would sing a verse. I sang the same verse several times, Geoff tells me. I can’t tell you how strange it was singing that song on Jan. 19th!
I also won a prize. My name was drawn early in the evening and I had to answer a skill testing question. Mr Zhao said, “As you know, we had the Sports Festival and the Arts Festival and this spring, maybe we will have a Reading Festival. Can you name 3 festivals that the school has?” Be darned if I couldn’t! My gift was a juicer. Brought it back to the table where Daisy looked at me knowingly and said, “You can use it if you have any left-over apples!”
If the party started at 5:18 precisely, it ended almost exactly 3 hours later. Suddenly, it was over, people got up, put on their coats and left. We had to say good-bye to Principal Xu and pose for a few pictures, then David, Mr. Zhao and Geoff and I all headed off in the direction of home, Chun Xiao Yuan.
(Ed. note: In response to our toast to Principal Xu, he responded that we were #2 Canadians behind Dr. Norman Bethune, which is a very high compliment. He is very revered by all Chinese. (Really – Chairman Mao Zedong of the People’s Republic of China published his essay entitled In Memory of Norman Bethune)
More fun facts about Chinese New Year or Spring Festival:
- Spring Festival is really in winter and it is cold.
- The Dragon dance that we are familiar with comes from the legend of Nian or Year who was a fierce monster who appeared at the end of every year and ate a large number of village children. One year, an old fellow shot off some fireworks and realized that Nian was frightened by both the loud sounds and the colour red. Since then, fireworks and red are used generously.
- one of the traditions of Spring Festival is that elders give children under 18 red paper pockets with some money in them. The red colour will protect the children and the money is a wish for their safety in the new year.
- The Chinese eat a big meal at this time not only because hunger breeds discontent but also because sharing a meal with relations means you will keep their friendship through the next year and bring good luck to them. It there is much food, no one will be hungry and even the gods will have some, and be appeased.
- The tradition of staying up until 12:00 is part of Chinese tradition. It is called sousui and has two meaning–stay up and prolong life.
- everyone in China wants to wear new clothes at New Year’s to be rid of evil spirits, drive away bad luck and bring in good luck. The festival is very much about sweeping away the bad and bringing in the new. Therefore, there is much to-do about cleaning the house, decorating with red banners and sayings, shopping, welcoming guests and gifting. Many people get their haircut at this time but don’t buy shoes because shoe sounds like xie, which means bad luck!
We won’t be in China for New Year’s but are told that the fireworks rarely stop, day or night. Already we see the shops full of displays of food suitable for gifts–tins of crackers and cookies; gift-wrapped baskets of fruit, eggs, or baking; boxed and bottled wine and liquor. New clothes are on display along with the signs for sale and discount. Our students tell me that the most important part of Chinese New Year is family and reunion. Sounds very much like home, doesn’t it? Happy Chinese New Year, Feb. 9th, 2013, the year of the snake!