With my time in China quickly running out, there has still been plenty of opportunities to enjoy festivities in Benxi. In recent days, Mid-Autumn Festival (also known as the Moon Festival) was celebrated, a festival commemorating the autumn harvest, when the moon is at its fullest. There are many traditions related to this festival, the most important of which seems to be the ability to eat as many moon cakes as humanely possible. These cakes, the Mid-Autumn Festival equivalent of mince pies at Christmas are small pastry cakes filled with a variety of sweet and savoury fillings.
Moon cakes are a delightful little creation guaranteed to expand your waistline at incredible haste. During an English class I noticed one girl playing around with a couple of these moon cakes under her desk. As she continued to play around with them, I was left with no alternative than to confiscate them from her possession until the end of the class. Unwilling to hand them over, I pried open her arms and grabbed them from her, an action that resulted in immediate tears. It was only afterwards through her wailing and shouts that I realised I had just confiscated my very own Mid-Autumn Festival present. My student was just trying to keep them hidden from me so they were a surprise. Whilst the parents found this highly amusing, I was left with nothing but feelings of guilt as the girl sniffled away until class finished.
For Mid-Autumn Festival my wife and I were invited to the house of one of my students. Reaching his house, his father answered the door and seemed surprised that we were not with his son, who had been sent out to meet us. "Maybe he ran away," I jokingly replied, which brought a concerned look to his father‘s face. Looking slightly agitated, he informed us that in the same area the previous year two children were kidnapped and taken to the nearby city of Shenyang, where they were to be sold for their organs. Luckily they were able to escape and raise the alarm, before the first scalpel was inserted and they awoke in baths of ice. A few minutes later, the son returned, eating ice-cream and looking rather smug, a look soon wiped from his face by the angry father.
After boiling live crabs, ripping the heads off squirming shrimps to fry, and drinking a little too much rice wine, my student and his father excitedly proposed a trip to Benxi Lake, supposedly the smallest lake in the world. Located on the northern limits of Benxi, near the city’s mosque and Catholic church, Benxi Lake is in a part of the city I have never had the enjoyment of venturing to before. Changing public buses half way to Benxi Lake, a crowd listened to a lady further down the pavement. Upon closer inspection, I could see she was selling a selection of traditional lotions for the skin, which had been fermenting in various jars filled with dead lizards and turtles.
This part of Benxi was visibly poorer than other parts of the city nearer to the river and the city centre. My student’s father turned to me as we disembarked the bus and uttered, "this part of Benxi is very dirty because they make semen here." From looking at the dusty roads, I presumed he had meant to say cement. Rarely seeing foreign visitors, locals surrounded us on all sides, staring intensely. Before we knew it, a crowd of twenty-plus inhabitants were re-enacting our every move.
Benxi Lake, upon which the city is named is actually nothing more than a puddle inside a cave, no bigger than a double bed. The small cave is located inside a temple, older than the city of Benxi itself. Outside the temple a vendor sold barbecued chicks on kebab sticks, a delicacy even I found slightly stomach-churning.
As children crunched away on the chick kebabs, people adjacent to them threw coins into a miniature tower-like monument. This monument represents the six realms of Buddhist existence, and acts as a Buddhist version of a wishing well. With different gaps to throw your coins through, the higher up you can throw your coin, the more luck you receive. Watching on as several youths aimed for the highest gaps to throw their coins through, a middle-aged man approached me and placed a coin in the palm of my hand before beckoning me to earn some good luck.
With the twenty-plus crowd still watching on, I decided to aim for the highest gaps and earn as much good luck as possible. Unfortunately I misjudged my own strength, launching the coin clean over the ‘giant wishing well’ and hitting an elderly lady in the head on the opposite side. Before I could apologise and retrieve my coin, a small boy picked it up and ran away. The crowd behind me were bent over in hysteric fits of laughter. I decided this was a sure sign I wasn‘t deserving of any luck at all and caught the next bus back home.
As I travelled home on the bus, many newly weds were having their wedding photos taken next to Taizi River. With many brides now wearing the white dresses incorporated from Western culture, it was nice to see some brides donning the traditional red Chinese wedding gowns. In years gone by, brides would wear a red veil that left them temporarily blind. Unable to view their new husband, the bride would be taken to her bedroom and kept under the watchful eye of her new mother-in-law while her new husband partied away. The first time she would clap eyes on her husband would be later in the evening when he would consummate the marriage, removing the veil beforehand. I wonder how many disappointed brides, upon seeing their husband for the first time, asked for the veil to be put back in place! As one friend said, "previously in China you learnt to fall in love with your new husband."
Benxi recently marked their yearly anniversary of the attack by Japan on this area of China in 1937. The hatred felt by many Chinese towards the Japanese for this attack is still very evident today. At 9:18pm sirens wailed all over the city and things came to an eerie standstill. Such sounds can’t help but invoke images of air strikes and war. To add to the occasion, a North Korean fighter plane crashed nearby in the run up to the remembrance. The pilot was reportedly trying to escape to Russia, but ran out of fuel.
Teacher’s Day was also celebrated, but like Christmas Day, Thanksgiving and many other holidays, it was just another normal day of teaching, even though most Chinese teachers enjoyed extra time off work. Even for Chinese public holidays, it’s a big fight to get time off work. With a boss obsessed with money, schedules will be change, twisted and altered to make the national holiday the same as the one day a week off work you normally receive. Constantly fighting such manipulation will certainly be something I won’t miss when my current contract expires.