After 15 full days of festivities, the Spring Festival (春节) is finally coming to a end. The businesses on my street are slowly reopening and the shopping district near my house is swarming with “after festival” shoppers looking for a good deal. However, to my dissatisfaction, the fireworks will continue to go off all hours of the day and night for at least another week. Looks like I will have to postpone a good deep sleep for a while. I have yet to spot the return of my favorite malatang (basically vegetable soup) guy on my street but with witnessing all the dramatic changes taking place on my grungy Guangba street, I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t coming back. As Leslie Chang writes in “Factory Girls”, “The holiday is a hinge on which the whole year turns–it is the time to quit a job, take a rest, get engaged, start again”.
Spring Festival 2010, my first Chinese New Year, has been a perspective changing experience. I was invited to spend the Festival in a small city in Henan, Jiyuan, with my favorite Chinese roommate from Hae’rbin and her family. I arrived in Jiyuan on the night of February 10th and left early on the 16th. After about 5 full days of eating way too much, watching a lot of tv, and huddling next to the stove (the only source of warmth) in her grandparents old-style house, 老房子，I had really gotten comfortable in Jiyuan. Xuefei’s family welcomed me, the best they could, and by the end of the trip were welcoming me to come back whenever I wished. To say I got close to her family is stretching it, but I at the very least got comfortable. By the third day, her family had finally loosened up to me. The cousins were acting more rambunctious and chatting with me more and the grandparents on her mother’s side began to try and communicate with me.
The language was a huge barrier. The town of Jiyuan, which oddly enough has an equal population to Nashville, has their own dialect. I have encountered dialect obstacles in the past, especially when I first arrived in Wuhan and met my landlord (who only speaks Wuhan dialect), but this experience was a bit more frustrating. Most of the elders’ Mandarin was dramatically out of practice, which is understandable since aside from my roommate (Xuefei, who attends University in a faraway city) they rarely if ever leave the city or encounter outsiders who do not speak their dialect. The younger generation and Xuefei would speak Mandarin if they were talking directly to me, but if they were all talking amongst themselves I could rarely understand. Speaking to Xuefei’s parents’ generation was sometimes possible, with Xuefei translating a bit, but speaking to the grandparents on her mother’s side was nearly impossible. However, surprisingly enough, her dad’s parents spoke incredibly clearly. I sadly only got to interact with them for about 30 minutes, but I was shocked at how open they were with me and how effectively we could communicate. I was incredibly surprised how much my Mandarin had improved after speaking 5 days of pure Mandarin, I even managed to pick up a few Jiyuan phrases.
Spring Festival, Part II coming soon!