Near Yellow Mountain

Friday, February 8, 2013

Snake Eyes

One of my favorite aspects about life in China was the holidays – especially Chinese New Year (aka “Chun Jie”, “CNY” or “Lunar New Year”). As an American it was hard for me to appreciate the importance of holiday – like combining Christmas, Easter, the 4th of July, and Thanksgiving while adding the TV spectacle of the Super Bowl into a one week holiday.

We are about to begin the “Year of the Snake”.  Not my favorite of the 12 zodiac animals, give me the dragon or the tiger any day, but you have to take the good with the bad.
 As I write this, literally hundreds of millions of people are making their way home for the holiday. If I hadn’t experienced the travel chaos just before the holiday, I would never have believed what goes on as the lunar New Year dawns in the Middle Kingdom. Travel on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in the US is nothing compared to what people do to get home in China.

Our first Lunar New Year experience was in 2006. We skipped town and went skiing in Japan. Clearly, I did not understand what I was missing. We had only been in China for five months and, after having a driver that held our car for ransom, had recently hired Philip. The family ski trip was a tradition, leaving the country during a major holiday seemed like a good idea and I wanted Philip to be able to have the holiday time with his family.

We loved skiing in Nagano but were anxious to get home to pick up the puppy we had adopted a few weeks earlier but had left in the care of the shelter until we returned from our ski trip. We went directly from the airport to meet our newest family member. Shanghai seemed back to normal. We thought Chun Jie was over but, as usual, things in China are rarely as straight forward as in they are in America.

Philip was still struggling to learn English but tried to explain that Chun Jie was really a 15 day event and we still had a chance to celebrate. He insisted that I buy 1,000 red firecrackers. When I asked why, I learned about what Philip called “good lucky”. “Sir” he said, “we must light in front of house and then ‘good lucky’ will come”.  Philip is always so enthusiastic, I usually just said “ok” to whatever he proposed. On the last day of the Lunar New Year Celebration, the family assembled in front of the house to light the firecrackers. Philip solemnly told us that after lighting the firecrackers, we could not clean up the red paper until the next day or else “no good lucky”.  We rolled out the firecrackers and as I was lighting one end of the long line, I looked up and noticed the front door was open and our 18 week old puppy was approaching. Too late – the noise had started, red paper filled the air and our little bundle of fur yelped and sprinted for the door. I guessed that “good lucky” was only for humans.

Chun Jie, 2007 was a classic. We knew what to expect and enjoyed every minute. I bought an official box of fireworks which cost more than most locals made in week. Normally, Philip would have made the purchase for us but in this case, he told me what to say in Chinese and let me know that I should buy the fireworks for my house. I accepted the “rite of passage”. Philip watched me from the car and when I proudly returned with the goods, I received a minor tongue lashing for not negotiating a better price.
We set our box of fireworks off early and I was impressed. At least for a few minutes, until the real fireworks started and continued across the city for most of the next 24 hours. We walked around the area amazed at the light show and noise. When we got home, we found our now full grown puppy cowering in a corner. Scarred by the experience of the year before, Yuki (Japanese name for our Chinese puppy - which is another blog post) never got used to fireworks.

In 2008, a week before CNY, snowstorms hit many areas of the country that rarely have more than a few flakes. Shanghai had the most snow recorded in decades. I was supposed to attend a meeting in a city about 90 minutes west – the last bit of business before the country shut down for the holiday. The government had closed the highways to the west but the secondary roads were still open. The weather had locals in a slight panic as people prepared to board trains, planes and buses to get to their homes which in some cases were more than a thousand miles away. Having grown up near Buffalo, NY- I considered the Shanghai “Blizzard” to be a light spring snowfall and let Philip know we were still going on our day trip. It turned out to be a long day.

Ignorance, as they say, is bliss. I had no way of knowing what was going on in the sleepy towns we were forced to pass through due to the highway closure. The mass migration home for Chun Jie had begun – hundreds of people were making their way to small bus and train stations in each town along our route. Of course, the people walking in the road were not empty handed – gift giving is an important part of the holiday. Juggling their luggage and packages, the heavily burdened travelers did not have time to watch out for cars clogging the roads they were walking on. The cold, ice and snow did not help the situation. The drive took four hours rather than 90 minutes. We arrived at the office in time for a late lunch followed by a two hour meeting. As we prepared to make our way back to Shanghai, snow began to fall again.

Trying to retrace our route to get home proved difficult: more snow, more people and darkness to hide the infrequent signs marking the road. We finally realized we were lost when we entered a small town we didn’t see on the inbound trip. Fortunately the ever resourceful Philip had thought to provision the van with the favorite American junk food in the land – Kentucky Fried Chicken and plenty of drinks. Philip stopped and asked for directions; soon we were headed down a dark, narrow road. A road where I was to see one of the most amazing sights during my eleven years in Asia. Out in the middle of nowhere we came upon a man walking down the middle of the road – large suitcases in each hand and a satellite dish strapped on his back.

To me, this man embodied the “can do” spirit of China. As we slowed to safely pass him, the man did not look left or right he just held his ground in the center of the road. We were so amazed at the sight, somehow we didn’t think to stop and give him a ride. I could only speculate that he was walking to catch a bus to start his trip home. A man working in the industrialized eastern part of the country, providing for a family that he saw once or twice a year. I think of the “dish” man every year as Chun Jie nears.
After seven hours on the road, we finally arrived at my house. Eleven hours in the van round trip instead of three. I was tired but glad that the weather had enabled me to see the determination of people making their way home.  Providers that make incredible sacrifices for their families. Puts my “first world” problems in perspective.

Added a day later: From my perspective too many people in my home country hear the rhetoric about "communist" China and judge the entire country by what a tiny minority of "rich, old, Chinese guys" do. China isn't so much communist as one party - there is a difference although as a practical matter it doesn't matter much to people like "dish" man.
Forget that cruise next summer, book a ticket to Chengdu by way of Shanghai and see for yourself.