Spring Festival in China is a wonderful thing.
Weeks of colourful celebrations, elaborate dining, random red envelopes full of money, stories of mythical beasts.... basically you get to stuff your face and blow stuff up for 2 weeks straight without consequence. Like I said, it's a wonderful thing.
Last year I spent the festival with the family of a kindergarten doctor, Gao Su Chien. We stayed in the city and ate at her family's home, went to blow up some explosives and then on to Karaoke. Good times, good times.
This year, Paul and I went to Liang Shan Guang, a small village an hour outside of Benxi and also a little bit of tiger territory, to spend the holiday with our friend Sun Li Li (Sandy)'s family. We had a wonderful time, and it was so nice to get out of the city for a few days. Clean air, different people, no cars, no running water, etc.. Just beautiful.
Of course, no wonderful time of mine is ever without incident...
We started our little trip with Sandy buying the tickets. The tickets were so cheap! Only 10RMB per person for a trip that would normally cost about 50. Ah, the Chinese way of travel. Apparently we were leaving Shenyang at 3:00am, so as to save the 40yuan (£4) on the fast train ticket that left at 10am. Joy. So Sandy slept at our house ( which actually sucked a lot, because her alarm was set for 2:15am but while she was sleeping the dog took off with her alarm clock and hid it in our house, so after we got back home the bloody thing kept going off at 2:15am for 4 days until we finally found it.)
We got up and left for the train station. Once we got there we found out that it's a milk run train, and would take 5.5 hours for a 1.5 hour trip in a taxi. ( It would have only taken 2 hours on a bus but Sandy didn't feel it was safe for us to ride on a bus. The foreigner thing. ) So after 2 hours of the train full of people all staring at us, spitting on the floor and asking Sandy questions about us as if we weren't even there ( Where are they from, do you work for them, what are their jobs, how much money do they make in a month? ) we were thanking God/Buddha and any other diety that would accept our appreciation that we at least had seats. A lot of people were just standing right over us for hours.Staring and chewing.
Sandy's village was clearly quite poor, but beautiful. The best part- Sandy's parents were so excited to have us over, and it was such an honor to them that they told everyone in the village that we were coming. They also told them all to be very polite, not to ask questions about us ( that they would just give them all a rundown later ) and not to stare! It was wonderful! For the first time in my life here in China people were not staring at us wherever we went, people didn't drop what they were holding as we came around the corner and for 3 whole days I didn't have to hear "Ni men shi na gua ren ma? Ni men doa da la ma? Ni shi u le shi ma? Zai yi ga yue yo doa chien ma?" (where are you from, how old are you, are you teachers, how much money do you make in a month) It was wonderful.
Sandy's parents are wonderful people. Her little sister was at home too, from her high school in Ben Xi. They were so kind to us and treated us like gold.
Sandy's parents house is a traditional courtyard style Chinese farm house. A kitchen in the back, a cold room for storing food, a bedroom/dining room/living room and a second bedroom with a TV. The bathroom is outside ( the reason that Paul put up such a huge fight to stay at a hotel. Despite that there wasn't a hotel to be found for at least an hour on a train from the village ) The toilet is an outhouse, but rather than a deep hole it's a run off style that runs off into their pig pen. (shudder)There's no door, either, and it was freezing cold while we were there. All trips to the bathroom were blindingly quick. As well, there wasn't any toilet paper. In a small tray near the roof of the toilet are her sister's old notes and test papers. They apparently are better for the garden than regular toilet paper, and cheaper. Have you ever had to wipe your backside with someone else's test paper? It just feels wrong while you're doing it. She does have good grades, though...
I even got a picture of Paul using the toilet there. He made me erase it though, but it was great! We were standing guard for each other ( as there was no door and we had been trying desperately to hold it all in for 2 days we were both bound to be in there for awhile ) As he's going in, he hands me the camera that was in his pocket saying "Hold this, I don't want it to fall in."
What would you have done??!!! How could he not have expected that I would jump in and take a picture??!!! (The picture was actually really funny because he had to hold himself up using the walls of the outhouse. Oh my God it was funny!) He was so mad, though. He said the next time I had to use the bathroom I was on my own for door patrol and he's going to run up and throw a chicken in there with me.
Anyway, the house is heated in a very interesting way. The kitchen is behind the bedroom/dining room/living room, which is just a small room with a waist high wooden platform taking up nearly the entire room with a thin walkway from the door to the platform. The platform is hollow underneath and has plastic covering on top. The mother is always cooking something, and all of the smoke and steam from the stove is directed into the next room and trapped under the giant platform thing, so the platform is alway really hot. We spent 3 days in that one room, on that one platform (kong). When it was time to eat they would put a table on the platform ( if you're standing beside it it's about mid-shin high ) so you sit cross legged on the platform to eat. Then they take the table away and bring out the cards. Then we ate again, went out for a walk with the cows, came back, ate again, played more cards, watched tv, ate again and then brought out the blankets and all slept lined up together on the platform.
When in Rome, right?
Then came the night of the Spring Festival. Traditionally, on this night people will eat dumplings, light off fireworks and firecrackers to scare away the nian beast, watch the traditional Spring Festival Variety Show on TV all night and eat a huge, massive dinner at midnight.
We were expecting this. We were prepared for this. We were looking forward to this. This is not what happened.
Fireworks were going up all over the village, and it was so loud that you felt like you were in the middle of a beautiful, multicoloured assault on bagdhad. The fireworks were lighting up the shapes of the mountains all around us, and you could even see the fireworks that other villages were lighting off. This went on for a good 2 hours.
It would seem that all of the new fireworks go to the cities, and all of the old fireworks go to the country. Wanting to repay the kindness of our hosts, we bought the largest, most expensive fireworks available - a good Y300 worth. However, it would seem that all of the new fireworks go to the cities, and all of the old fireworks go to the country. As these were so expensive, I gather that they had sat there for some time and were indeed, well past their sell-by date. They were still incredible, but not quite as safe as the new ones.
We lit their cornhouse on fire.
The biggest and best that we had bought was a set of 12 rockets in a large box - you are meant to light the fuse and run as far away as fast as you can as rockets explode out of the box and into the sky - this is what should have happened, had 3 rockets not misfired and blown out the side toward the corn house - exploding in a shower of red and blue lights and leaving the wooden building aflame.
Paul is such a pyro with fireworks, but one of the big rockets misfired so that 9 rockets went straight up properly but the last one shot sideways right out the side of the box and straight at Paul! It missed him by like, an inch or so and lit the corn house on fire! (We all had it put out pretty quickly, but once it hit the corn house it showered and little rockets went off in all directions. Paul got the brunt of it, his glove was on fire. I just had some singed hair and a hole in the side of my pants. It's all good.
Then came the midnight dinner.
It actually didn't go over with us all that well. After spending a night sleeping on a burning hot wooden bed with no padding the next morning we were exhausted. Then we went out for a huge walk. Then we were nearly blown up by fireworks. Then we came back to make dumplings, which were really good. ( but the vegetarian ones had pieces of ginger in them, and if you get a whole chunk of ginger in your mouth it's just disgusting. While we were making the vegetarian dumplings her mom didn't tell me that you had to seperate and mix the ginger, so I just threw it into the mix in whole pieces. No body noticed this, so we carried on making the dumplings. It was horrible. I was the only one eating the vegetarian dumplings so no body else noticed, but every time I put one in my mouth it was a complete mystery whether or not it would be a good one or a horrific ginger one. Every bite was so full of suspense, but if I didn't eat them it would really insult Sandy's mom. I ended up trying to swallow each one of them whole. Then I choked on a big one and dumpling innards came flying out my nose onto the table. I'm so graceful.
The worst part is that we made so many of the stupid things that we were eating them for breakfast, lunch and dinner for 2 days. Oh god, oh god oh god.
I guess I can't really complain. Paul didn't have vegetarianism as an excuse, so they kept trying to make him eat the most disgusting things imaginable. First it was chicken feet, which Sandy's father kindly demonstrated how to eat for us. You have to actually suck the meat off of the toes. Oh god, oh god oh god. (at KFC here you can get a bucket of feet. yum.) Then there were silk worms and pig brain.
Then there were pig feet at the midnight dinner. Right in the middle of the table was a bucket of boiled pigs legs with the feet. I nearly threw up just now typing this. Blech!
Paul tried to get out of eating it by saying that he didn't know how to eat it. They all grabbed it like a chicken leg and gnawed the meat off. Paul still wasn't eating it. Sandy's father asked Paul why he wasn't eating it, and Paul said that he just doesn't like to eat meat with bones. So Sandy's father stood up, grabbed a pigs leg and foot and proceeded to tear all of the bones out with his bare hands. He turned it upside down, grabbed two toes in each hand and pulled the entire leg apart. I can still hear it ripping and squelching. At this point I nearly threw up into my giant pile of dumplings I was still trying to work though. Paul had turned completely green as the father was ripping that foot apart and putting the "meat" onto Paul's plate with his bear hands.
I think that's what topped it for me. I was so tired from the day and the bad sleep and the fact that it was now well after midnight, I had an incredible migraine from hearing nothing but screechy Chinese opera for the last 6 hours, my migraine was steadily growing worse from the constant fireworks and noisemakers around us, I was so full from those bloody dumplings and now completely nauseated by the sight before me that my head was swimming and my eyes started watering and I couldn't make them stop. I had turned completely white. Everyone thought I was crying because I was so homesick or something but I just needed to get some decent sleep. Her parents were horrified but I tried to act like nothing was wrong by forcing my self to swallow even more mystery dumplings but the squelching continued from the pig's feet being pulled apart so I ran outside and threw up. By the time I came back in dinner was over and they were busy making up the beds for the night. I was so happy! I had never in my life been so happy to see a bed! (albeit a hard, burning one ) Unfortunately, the Variety Show was still on until 3am which was full of a lot more Chinese opera. Sigh.
The next day I was really feeling awful. So was Paul. We had had a wonderful time and loved it here, but just needed to go home, shower, go to a proper bathroom and relax. I guess Chinese county life is not for us. We had a talk about possible excuses and "rock paper scissored" to figure out who had to "take one for the team". I lost.
So I took Sandy aside and made up an excuse that I had my period and it was really painful and I just needed to go and relax at home where I can take a shower and some western meds- Sandy told her mom who told her neighbor who told the entire village and they were all talking about my period and suggesting what I should do, which included showering in their sink, eating ginger (blech!) and lying down in strange positions. We finally escaped back to Sandy's home but her mother set me up on the bed/stove thing to watch Chinese opera all day while everyone worked around me. It was horrifying! I didn't dare get up because if I did her mother and her mother's friends would bustle up to me like a pack of chickens trying to force me back down, re arrange my blankets and feed me some other god awful kind of tea and more mystery dumplings. No matter what I told them, they were convinced that the pasty white color of my skin meant that something was seriously wrong with me. And the whole time, the Chinese opera on the TV didn't stop. Oh god, oh god, oh god.
We finally convinced them that we were eternally grateful for their wonderful hospitality and care, but really do need to go home today. They flatly said that we couldn't go home today because, sorry, there is no train today. Well, that sucked but sounded reasonable so we bit the bullet and resisted the urge to attempt walking home. Then, around 2:00 we heard the train come through the village, stop at the station and take off again.
We were village hostages.