If Christmas felt like a normal day, the lead up to Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) had that special holiday feeling. As people hurried along the streets with enough provisions to survive the apocalypse, I could sense this was one Chinese festival not to be missed.
Spring Festival not only signifies the start of the Chinese lunar calendar, but more importantly, it also indicated my first holiday and first chance to leave Benxi since arriving in China. Many locals had warned of the hassle of travelling over this festive period, but with no other holiday on the horizon, I was willing to take the risk.
Travelling during what many people call the world’s biggest annual migration does have it’s drawbacks. Buying train tickets is one of these. With half of China wanting a precious train ticket, I made sure to buy mine as early as possible. When I arrived at the train station to find queues at each of the thirty ticket windows, a good fifty people deep, I had a feeling it was going to be a stressful affair. If I’d known of the chaotic scenes, the shouting, the fighting, the arguing and the police imposed queuing system that also greeted me, I would have probably brought a fold out chair and a bag of popcorn along to enjoy the free entertainment.
After queuing patiently for close to ninety minutes, it was finally my chance to buy tickets. I’d like to think my Chinese is improving, but upon a closer inspection of my tickets, I realised I had bought them for the wrong date. This meant queuing in a separate line for another hour to get a refund, followed by another ninety minutes to buy the tickets for the correct date. I really hoped spending four hours for the chance to leave the city was going to be worth it!
With many familiar faces from as far a field as San Francisco and Sydney returning to Benxi for the new year celebrations, it could only mean one thing; copious amounts of alcohol drinking. I have to admit to not being the best person at handling their alcohol, but the average Chinese man is as volatile and destructive as a tornado. The more they drink, the angrier they get, the more chance there is of them leaving nothing but a path of destruction and woe!
After enjoying a roasted insect and grill chicken’s feet meal to celebrate my last day of teaching, I had the pleasure of getting a tad too close to these tornadoes than the normal health warnings would recommend. Retiring to a bar with my fellow teachers, we soon found ourselves joined by a group of middle-aged businessmen. Their young female acquaintances (from the little I’ve heard, it’s not frowned upon to drop out of school at sixteen or eighteen and become a lady of the night) soon left after realising they were no longer the centre of attention.
Within minutes a round of new beers appeared on our table, something I thought was nothing more than a kind gesture from our new uninvited friends. Little did I know that by accepting these drinks, we were now under Chinese tradition, obliged to continue drinking until they grew tired of our company.
Drinking is a big part of Chinese culture. So much so, that for many a Chinese gentleman, a man’s sincerity is based solely on the amount of alcohol they can consume. For those drinking the amber nectar, the beer is poured into glasses right to the rim, and after the customary ‘cheers’, is downed in one. This is repeated constantly until all members of the drinking party are completely incapacitated. Easy as it sounds, there are certain rules that need to be followed. It is considered the height of bad manners to take a sip of your drink without toasting the entire drinking party every time. It’s also not recommended to toast your glass higher than your elders.
Of course I learnt these cultural differences too late, somehow managing to offend each and every businessman on our table. As I apologised profusely for my innocent error, another new friend saw this as the perfect opportunity to force himself on one of my fellow female teachers. After managing to escape his persistent clutches, this seemed the perfect time to make our excuses and leave. Little did we know that trying to walk away from a table full of unfinished beers is the mother of all insults.
The offended leader of these dishevelled tornadoes blocked our exit to leave, throwing one of the female teachers back to their seat, before indicating we would leave only when he was ready. It’s not often an act of violence forces me to act manly, and with no other male in our group, I really had no choice to take this responsibility on to my ski-sloped shoulders.
Puffing out my flabby little torso, I approached the leading businessman who was now scrunching up his face as though he was sucking on a rather sour lemon. I asked nicely once. I asked nicely twice. With still no movement, I pushed gently on the lead man to show my intent and try and lead a path to safety. The last thing I was expecting was a Paulo Di Canio/ Paul Alcock theatrical fall. With intent proven and several businessmen looking slightly sheepish and apologetic we were allowed to leave. I’m hoping it will be a long time before I’m forced to act all masculine again!
If drinking has the odd rule to obey, Spring Festival is full of them. After being invited to spend Spring Festival with the family of one of my students, I was lucky enough to experience first hand the most important date in the Chinese calendar. Like Christmas, Spring Festival revolves around eating and drinking large quantities. Superstitious foods on the menu included dumplings, oranges, nuts, pig trotters, fish (all eaten for future prosperity) and pig skin in jelly (apparently this has amazing skin smoothing properties).
Food and drink aren’t the only vices to be indulged upon in large amounts. The number of fireworks and firecrackers used is nothing short of terrifying. Each household has an arsenal of these gunpowder treats (many of which are banned in the Western world due to safety issues) to make Guy Fawkes look nothing but a pathetic amateur. An hour before the New Year strikes, the whole city ventures from their homes to set alight their impressive collections.
Looking out across the city from the safety of a high-rise apartment block, the skyline is a constant mosaic of colourful patterns. Venturing out on to the streets is like entering a war zone. With deafening blasts every second, inhabitants use any space available to set off their fireworks and firecrackers. For those too lazy to leave their apartments, living rooms become makeshift launch pads. Those fireworks lucky enough to have the elevation, reach the sky unscathed. Those that don’t, explode in to the windows of the surrounding apartments, an act that seems remarkably normal. Add in the fact that many people drop lit firecrackers on to the streets below them and I’m surprised that not more people are killed or injured during these celebrations. Saying this though, it came as no surprise to hear a few days later of nineteen people killed from stray fireworks in one village alone.