Sunday, February 14, 2010

Spring Festival is Here!

Here's me with Wei Fei Fei's two grandmas. (see article)

My team-mate Caroline and me.

Our dear friend and her husband.

In this picture, you can see the traditional first dish and the fruit platter.

Today is the first day of the Spring Festival. Traditionally, extended families get together and cook a big meal or go out to a nice restaurant. Having just gotten home from a month long vacation, I was planning to stay in today and tend to my stomach which has been on the fritz. However, at about 10:30, our waiban (foreign affairs worker) called and invited me to join her and her family for lunch. I was very honored to be invited and knew I couldn’t pass up the invitation. So, my team-mate Caroline and I headed to the restaurant at about 11:50. We were the first ones there and our waiban, named Wei Fei Fei, showed us the room where the rest of the family would soon be arriving. There were 20 people altogether so they had reserved 2 private rooms.

I sat right beside one of Wei Fei Fei’s grandmas. She was very sweet and although her speech was quite difficult to understand both because she was speaking the local dialect and because she didn’t have any teeth, I think that we still had some communication happening. Fei’s other grandma was on the other side of this grandma. I tried to talk to her a little, but this grandma was hard of hearing, so I resorted to smiling at her.

As the family entered the room, one of the Uncles forced Fei’s 9 year old cousins to greet the foreigners. He was shy and of course refused, burying his head in his Uncle’s coat. I said that it was “mei shi” no big deal, and I added that Caroline and I were pretty “kongbu” horrible and awful. I was joking, and I heard some of the aunts chuckle a little. I’m never sure if my joking in Chinese is appropriate or understood. I think half of the time my joking is comprehensible and understandable, but the other half of the time, people just think I have no idea what I’m saying. In fact, I probably am just trying to be funny.

Each of us had two cups in front of us: one with flower tea and one with juice or peanut milk. The dishes slowly started to arrive. The first dish that arrived, Fei told us, is the traditional first dish served at the Spring Festival. It was a three layer dish: the top was some fried egg pieces, below that were egg balls formed into strips, and at the bottom was fried sweet potato chunks. Normally, I would have been a lot more into this dish, but my stomach was still feeling a little selective. The next dish they brought was a beautiful fruit mix that sat on top of crispy rice strips and had a pink sauce drizzled over it. Other dishes included broccoli, chicken, lamb, cabbage, oysters, and of course dumplings (another traditional New Year’s food.)

Before we started eating, we all stood up and raised our cups to each other as we wished each other a Happy New Year. There are several ways you can do this in Chinese: one way is to say literally “Happy New Year.” Another more complex wish is “I wish you can be healthy and have no problems this year” (it sounds a little lame in English but it’s really smooth in Chinese.) Sometimes I make my own greetings when I get bored with the other two. I’ve figured out how to say, “I hope this is your best year yet.” It seems to be appropriate, so I’ll continue to use it. After wishing everyone a Happy New Year and drinking some orange juice, we sat down and began eating. I ate very slowly and hoped no one would notice. Then, I also noticed that one of the cousins on the other side of the grandma’s was helping put food into their bowls. I decided that since I was the other person sitting closest to the grandmas, I could also help with this task. I tried it first with some sweet potato. Grandma one seemed pleased, as did Grandma two. The rest of the meal, it was fun to guess when and what kind of food I could give the grandma’s to eat. Sometimes they were a little polite and said they didn’t want the food, but they ate everything I gave them.

After the meal, our friend passed around oranges and special apples that had Chinese characters burned onto the peel. Everyone ate a few small oranges. Then, one of Fei’s cousins put the “dessert platter” (dried fruit, nuts, chocolate, and brightly wrapped crackers) right in front of us two foreigners and encouraged us to eat. As everyone was moving around, the guy cousins were discussing who was going to join in the mahjang playing that afternoon. One of them asked us if we played, we don’t, but I’d like to learn if I have a chance. Another point of interest, the boy cousins all had very red faces at this point (a lot of Chinese people get red when they drink alcohol.) Caroline and I also found it a little interesting that the 9 year old cousins’ face had also turned red…hmm, surely not.

I could probably write 5 more paragraphs about the entire experience, but to save words, let me say that I was very moved to be included in this day reserved for family and close friends. Wei Fei Fei also seemed happy to share the day with us. In the future, when I am living in my home culture, I want to make an effort to invite foreign friends to join our family for those big holiday meals. That is where the real cultural experiences happen; helping Grandma get food and wishing strangers and friends a Happy New Year.

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