Hoppy New Year

A new year has dawned on China with 2011 marking the year of the rabbit on the traditional lunar calendar. I have few new year resolutions, however one of them was to begin my own blog to share my experiences of living in China, a country that has been home for the past year and a half.

Chinese New Year coincides with the country’s annual Spring Festival. It’s a time of nationwide euphoria, but more importantly it’s a time for family reunion.

The world’s largest human migration takes place during the period. Hoards of people crowd train stations for hours on end lining up and buy tickets to their hometown. Train travel in China is hectic at the best of times, but Spring Festival heightens chaos to a new dimension. People will endure hours on end standing near foul smelling squat toilets or lying on layers of newspapers covering sticky carriage floors all in the name of returning to their ancestral home.

Beijing has undergone a rapid transformation, too. The Chinese capital is now a ghost town of just a few million. Riding the subway is a pleasure. Seats are often available for the morning commute and the beggars wandering up and down carriages have even taken a holiday.

I asked my girlfriend Xiaojing what percentage of people leave Beijing during Spring Festival. After a brief pause, she estimated about 40%. As a lao Beijingren who can trace her family roots in Beijing back 600 years, she should know. Even as recent as 10 years ago, Beijing was a far less densely metropolis of its modern day 17 million-strong population. Imagine, roughly the population of Australia crammed into Sydney. Amazing.

But with the sweet, there is also a sour element to New Year in Beijing, it’s all out fireworks warfare. This might sound like fun, and indeed it was for me during my first New Year last year. The Chinese are fiercely proud of inventing fireworks, and go all out for the short period of year where they are abundant and authorities turn a blind eye, but not deaf ear, to them.

In my community, fuses are lit early in the morning. From 8am to midnight, it’s like living in a microwave cooking loud, gunpowder-filled popcorn. Traditionally, the fireworks aim to ward off evil spirits in the new year. But honestly, I think it’s an opportunity to make up for all those firework-free days by unleashing as much hell as possible with a bang, or 5000.

PEKING PYROMANIA: Beijing welcomes the New Year with a bang.

Some crack and pop on the ground like machine gunfire. Other whistle high into the air, before exploding in an array of colour that feels wasted midmorning in a smog-blanketed skyline. All told, it’s beautiful and it invokes the little boy in you who gets a real buzz. But it scare the hell out of the city’s thousands of dogs, and be a pain for the army of sweepers each morning who clean up shredded smoldering paper remains.

On the way to work tonight I thought I had cunningly dodged the shower of sparkles that rebound off apartment buildings when an almighty boom rang out two or three metres from me at a makeshift, unmanned artillery rocket. Eat your heart out, Taliban. The thunderous sound echoed throughout the complex, setting dozens of car alarms wailing in all directions. If ever there was a night to steal a car, it’s during Spring Festival when the human ear is oblivious to even the most annoying car alarms with several annoying beeping sequences.

The year of the rabbit 兔 is the fourth of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. It’s Xiaojing’s year of birth, 1987, which is meant to reflect her keen, wise, fragile and merciful character if you subscribe to superstition. Interestingly, it’s also one of the two animal years not shared by Vietnam, who this year ushered in the cat. Their other difference is celebrating the buffalo, instead of the ox.

Wishing you all a happy, prosperous and peaceful year of the rabbit.


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