Well, thank goodness for holiday weekends. This one is giving me time to finish up this post, which was begun several days ago. Tomorrow is the 2/28 holiday, so we’re given today off as well, and since Chinese New Year was late this year the government vacation days just ended this past Monday. Woot for three day workweeks!
As I locked my apartment this morning, I realized I’d forgotten to flip the chunlian I had hanging on my door. It was a simple one, a decorative red and gold paper diamond into which was cut a single Chinese character, “chun” (meaning spring). I’d plastered it up there a few weeks prior, upside down per tradition, and now I was six days late turning it around. Chunlian can be either single characters of luck and fortune or poetic couplets on longer strips of paper with themes of springtime and renewal. Those with auspicious meanings are generally hung upside down because the Chinese word 倒 (dào, upside down) sounds like 到 (dào, arrive). Turning the chunlian right side up in the New Year symbolizes the arrival of fortune and spring. In my defense, I’d just come home from four days biking the day before and welcoming spring wasn’t really on my mind so much as collapsing with my pillow, but I definitely flipped that character right side up before I left my house again.
I find people back home don’t really grasp the magnitude and importance of Chinese New Year, both in public and private life. Many Westerners think CNY, like January 1st, is a single day of revelry. Most definitely not. The traditions and celebrations extend even past the weeklong government holiday, during which many businesses, shops, and restaurants close, and people travel about the country to visit family and friends. Each day of the Lunar New Year has a purpose that should be fulfilled, up until the fifteenth day when the holiday culminates with the Lantern Festival.
There are also dos and don’ts depending on how auspicious the given zodiac year is. I was born in the dragon year, and I remember how stoked locals were while celebrating back in 2012. Many people planned to marry, have a baby, buy a house or whatnot because of the fortune associated with the dragon. This is the year of the Goat (or Sheep or Ram, should you prefer), and it’s not regarded quite so highly among those who would stake their fortune on a zodiac animal. The confusion among English speakers over what to call this zodiac year was quite amusing, because there’s really no such worry among Chinese speakers over which animal should come out ahead. In Chinese, sheep is 绵羊 (miányáng), goat is 山羊 (shānyáng), and ram is 公羊(gōng yáng). And the animal for the New Year? Just 羊. Locals see no reason to distinguish between them, and so I see sheep and goat and ram decorations around the city.
The few days before Spring Festival were busy ones, what with finishing up pre-holiday work and getting my CNY spirit on. We had our company 尾牙 (wěi yá), or year-end banquet. As per tradition, there was a lot of food, drink, weird performances and boring speeches. Thank goodness my boss is so laid back – he laughed the following Monday when he told us we’d managed to sneak out during the company president’s speech. Whoops. I also went to the 年貨大街 (niánhuò dàjiē, new year’s market) twice with some friends, both to do some holiday shopping and to revel in the festive atmosphere there. This is where people go to buy all their new year essentials: snacks, red envelopes, chunlian, lucky candy, gifts, and more. I celebrated New Year’s Eve with a friend, eating dinner with his family and driving around to look at fireworks, and then hopped a train south on New Year’s Day to begin a four day cycling trip. More to come on that:)
Anyway, the sixth day is back to work for most people, and today was my first day teaching after a week of public holiday. It was good to get back to it and see my little hooligans again, though the mountains of work after a week off and now facing a new semester were less welcome. While driving to work I had to dodge firecrackers sparking along the street as businesses reopened after a six-day break during the new year holiday. When stores and restaurants open for the first time in the new year, it’s important to do away with any lurking ghosts, evil spirits, bad mojo or what have you, so they light firecrackers to scare them off and offer plenty of incense and gifts to ensure the gods’ benevolence.
Work continues to keep me plenty busy. My schedule’s changed a bit this semester, and I now have two kindergarten classes – my favorite 6-year olds in the morning, and a brand new class of youngsters in the afternoon. I also teach upper level English several nights a week. I’m still volunteering at the orphanage, too. I wish I could share some pictures of the kids – we have 8 infants now – but it would be a bit dangerous, I think. One of the little babies, about five months, has the longest black hair that sticks straight up in a natural mohawk. It looks awesome and hilarious at the same time. I’m also keeping on studying Mandarin – though I have no time to enroll in classes, I forge ahead in my reading, writing, and grammar texts; bother my local friends; and meet for language exchange every week. And, of course, I get plenty of speaking practice on a daily basis.
And the most exciting news of recent weeks – I’m going back to Beijing! A whole week in May to revisit my old home, see friends and favorite places. My biking buddy is going with me, and we’ll take our bikes with as luggage. We’ve just booked tickets on a great deal, but now comes the sticky bit – VISAS. I’ve never had to apply for a visa to China before, as my company applied for the working visa on which I entered the country, which was then converted to Z residency status. I was never one of the horde of expats running over the border for a visa renewal every couple months, a good thing indeed, though it means I gained precious little experience dealing with China immigration. And now, living in Taipei means the situation is much more complicated than it would be were I living in the states because Taiwan, of course, has no Chinese embassy. So where, you ask, am I supposed to procure this visa? Well, looks like a trip to Hong Kong is in the cards – guess I’ll turn into one of those border-crossing expat types after all, albeit as a third-country applicant. There’s a rush service that gets the deed done in a day, and I have zero qualms about chilling in Kowloon for a weekend. So I’ve booked a flight for late April, called up a friend to come over the border form Shenzhen for a meet up, and have started to contact China friends to let them know I’m coming. Preparation and prayers, people.