Every Chinese New Year (Lunar New Year) has multiple layers of traditional activities. From special foods to fireworks, staying up late and playing mahjong, but the biggest tradition is family, and let us not forget trying to get to wherever your family is located. As China grows richer its citizens have moved from rural hometowns to the big cities of Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen. The logistics of visiting the family over the holidays becomes a huge problem.
During a summer in law school I traveled to China and learned much about Chinese culture and traditions. A few years later, I moved to China in November 1997 to study Mandarin, leaving Jeff behind with the dog, cat and the job. I celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years in Beijing with a classmate and his wife, but otherwise I felt alone. I lived in a student dorm filled with kids generally 10 years younger than me while I cramed Chinese into my brain. Beijing was very cold and filled with coal dust, and my head hurt as much as my heart. Basically I was lonely without my husband.
One day, mid January, I got a visit at the dorm from a stranger. He introduced himself as the brother in law of the high school girl exchange student that had lived a month with Jeff and I in Oregon the summer before. He explained to me that tradition dictated that I was a member of his family – because we hosted their daughter – therefore, I was invited to come spend Chinese New Year with them in Chengdu (the capitol of Sichuan Province). From my Chinese classes I’d learned the importance of the holiday and realized this was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I called my husband (this was in the era before Skype) and said we needed to find the money to pay for the tickets, and then I started to look for flights.
There was only 2 weeks before the holiday so I searched, I called, and I had friends call for tickets. All of the flights were booked. I went to travel agents and looked at the option of taking a train. I even tried to book business class tickets, the situation was grim. Walking past other travel agents, ones that served the local community rather than “wealthy” foreigners, I saw what the Chinese people have to do in order to get tickets. Lines (somewhat) out the door. People sleeping in the lobby of buildings several nights so not to lose place in line. I had given up all hope, knowing that if a Chinese national couldn’t get a ticket, there was no way I was going to. Three days before the holiday. I was freaked out, there was no way to get to Chengdu and I was about to offend this gracious family. Then, Brother in Law showed up again – plane tickets in hand.
After the drama of getting the tickets, and then getting to the Beijing Airport, I spy the plane on the tarmac and from there it all went even further downhill. The plane itself was a retired Soviet era Aeroflot jet, and for those of you old enough to recall, Aeroflot planes in the late 80’s did not have the best of safety records-and this was one that had been retired. Looking back I suspect that the plane was pulled out of the retirement hanger and that this was an “off the books” chartered flight. When I got on the plane, I took my seat and was horrified that everyone was smoking; it was shaping up to be a very long flight. Half way through take off, I realized why the seat in front of me was empty on the otherwise packed flight. It wasn’t because they couldn’t get enough people to fly (I am sure the jump-seats were sold to passengers and the flight attendants just stood) but because the chair was uncontrollably able to recline fully-as in all the way on my lap. It also folded (flopped) forward and made a great in-flight table. And then, there was the Karaoke and shots.
Half way through the flight the attendants stood up, grabbed microphones and started to sing Chinese pop songs, and, oh yes, drink like sailors. So there I was in disbelief when others jumped up, started standing in line to have a turn at Karaoke and a shot of Mao-tai (Chinese Rice Wine). The singing and drinking continued for at least an hour and then prizes were handed out, to the whole plane. I kick myself for not saving the in flight gift, as it was a hand towel, or more likely a bar towel. When we were preparing for landing, it was a mad dash, drunken flight trying to coral drunken passengers to get them to return to their seats. And the instant the wheels touched ground, everyone jumped up and started to pull bags out of the overhead bins, before we had even started to slow-okay a slight exaggeration-not everyone; I had an aisle seat and the guy next to me was forced to stay seated until finally he crawled over my legs as we rolled up to the terminal.
The rest of the week was filled with all types of misadventures and crazy fun, including high speed car races between Brother in Law (a Chengdu undercover police office I came to find out) and his cop buddies. Travel to Le Shan and a wicked case of La Du Zi. But, I went back to Beijing as a Sichuan Ren- as a Chinese family member having survived the best and worst of those traditions that make Chinese New Year an amazing experience. One I will never forget. Oh, and travel on Chinese New Year again? Never, I would much rather stay home.
This post is part of Photo Friday over at Delicious Baby. For more great blog posts check it out here.