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Thoughts on Chinese New Year

February 16, 2018

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Please find below a lovely essay on Chinese New Year by Jeff Bissell, the head of the Chinese American International School in San Francisco, the country’s oldest Mandarin immersion program.

If you have thoughts on Chinese New Year, your school or Mandarin Immersion in general, please send them along. I am eager to run guest pieces that help parents understand immersion and the wonderful culture their families are embracing.

Happy Year of the Dog, everyone!


New Year in Liaoning

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I’ve frequently said that I came to CAIS for the program, and I’ve stayed because of the community. What makes any community special is the relationships, and strong relationships are, I believe, based on understanding each other’s stories. In that spirit, and on this week’s special occasion, I want to share my own personal story about the lunar new year. In fact, it is a privilege to share it with you, and I’d love you to share your story with me. Here goes….

Just a few days ago, February 9, was the 30-year anniversary of my first move to China. Not long before that, I had quit my job as a public high school history teacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I had spent the previous summer in China, and when I returned to Wisconsin in the fall, I couldn’t think about anything except for China. I needed to return. So, operating through snail mail, I secured a job teaching English at a second tier engineering university in Shenyang, an industrial city of (at the time) four to five million people and the capital of Liaoning Province in northeast China. I quit my job and off I went. Liaoning was my home for the next two years.

The reason I left on February 9, was that I had received an invitation (again by snail mail) to spend the lunar new year’s eve with the family of a student I had met that previous summer. The lunar new year fell on February 17 that year, so I figured if I left the US on February 9, I’d be over jet lag in time to enjoy new year’s eve on the 16th. Not many foreigners had the opportunity to spend the lunar new year with a Chinese family in China in those days; I was over-the-moon excited.

I’m from Wisconsin, so I was used to cold winter weather. Shenyang, however was really, really cold, and even though people burned coal bricks to heat their homes, it was always cold indoors as well. As in, see-your-breath cold. When the icy wind blew outside, the curtains on the ill-fitted inside windows swayed with the draft. I wore knitted, fingerless gloves inside, and I started drinking hot tea, not because I liked it, but because the tin enamel tea cups people used conducted heat that kept my hands warm.

The family that invited me to join them for the lunar new year’s eve lived in a small brick one-story house. The house consisted of one small living/dining room with a concrete floor in which the family spent most of their time. There was also a much smaller bedroom that was entirely taken up with a large bed, piled with wool comforters and pillows stuffed with millet, on which several people slept. A narrow entryway leading from the front door to the other two rooms had a two burner stove attached to a propane tank and a small sink. The toilet was outside in the alleyway that led to the house. The family had pasted new year’s couplets on either side of their door. Nowadays, people buy colorful, preprinted new year couplets, but 30 years ago in Shenyang families paid a few cents to calligraphers in open-air markets who used brush pens to write the auspicious sayings on red paper. Inside the house, a few bare light bulbs hung from the low ceiling, casting dim light across the modest dwelling.

This was home to five people during the week; mom was a Peking Opera singer and dad was a store clerk. The middle daughter who had invited me was an English teacher at a local high school. The older brother was a percussionist in the same Peking Opera troupe as his mother (he had long hair and wanted to be a rock drummer), and the younger brother was in high school. On the weekends the youngest daughter would also return home; she was a soccer goalie who had won a spot at a local sports academy, and during the week she slept in the school dormitory at night. The oldest sister was married to a soldier and lived in military housing in another part of the city. They had a two-year-old daughter who everyone called Bingbing, which means “little soldier.” On that new year’s eve, mom, dad, all five siblings, the brother-in-law, Bingbing, a couple of uncles and me–twelve people in all–squeezed inside the little concrete room to cook and drink and eat and welcome in the new year. I later learned that the family was a chai qian hu, a relocated household whose former home had been demolished in order to make way for newer construction. They were living temporarily in that little dwelling until they could be allocated a newer and, they said, slightly more spacious apartment.

Because it was the north of China, we made dumplings or jiaozi. The family pulled out a round folding table and we huddled around it, scooping pork and chive filling with chopsticks from a tin enamel basin and wrapping it with dumpling skins that first uncle and eldest sister rolled out by hand on another round, flour-covered folding table–lightning fast. I remember mom wrapping a piece of red hard candy in one of the dumplings and explaining “who ever eats the dumpling with the candy will have good luck all year!” I now pride myself on the speed with which I can wrap respectable-looking dumplings. That night, however, was my first time; the dumplings were ugly, and in the time it took me to wrap one, the others around the table could finish three or four. Mom, perhaps sensing my insecurity, insisted loudly that my dumplings were indeed “feichang haokan” (“extraordinarily good-looking”). I remember Bingbing being fixated on my nose, which she kept pointing to and exclaiming “da bizi!” (“big nose!”). Each time she would say this, everyone would erupt with laughter, followed by someone saying, “Oh no, your nose is very beautiful.” I knew that no one really thought my dumplings or my big foreign nose were beautiful. We are all useful for something, and that night I was happy to have my dumplings and my nose serve as a sources of amusement to my friendly hosts. One of the uncles had consumed a large amount of baijiu, a kind of grain alcohol made with sorghum that men drank a lot of in Northeast China. As a result, he spoke very slowly, which the eldest brother (the aspiring drummer) pointed out to me. My friend the English teacher tried to teach me how to say “hen man” (“his speech is very slow”). I couldn’t get the tones right, no matter how hard I tried, and this resulted in more amusement–everytime I tried to say “hen man,” the place erupted with laughter. Big nosed, ugly dumpling rolling, pronunciation botching foreigner. All good.

At midnight we all went outside and set off fireworks in the little alley. Last night I pulled out an old letter I had written home the day after the celebration. It read, “imagine 4-5 million people simultaneously setting off shoddily made fireworks in narrow alleyways–it was pandemonium!” I still remember the smoke-filled sky lighting up, and the noise.

That night, among the hundreds of dumplings we wrapped and boiled, I was the one to bite into the one with the red hard candy. Needless to say it was a lucky year for me. I spent 15 of the next 22 years in China, before coming to CAIS. Moving to China 30 years ago fundamentally changed my life trajectory, and it all started with the lunar new year.

I love sharing these memories. In many ways I feel as though my work at CAIS may in some small way lead to others having the opportunity to have the kinds of amazing experiences that I was so lucky to have.

Happy new year!


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