new year’s stories and tea leaves

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China Tea Leaves is bringing in the year of the horse in Hangzhou, home of the beautiful West Lake. In leaving Shenzhen at this time of year, we join the millions of people who return home to be with the their families at this most special time in the Chinese calendar.

We want to encourage travel to this beautiful land; we want to bring the beauty and the mystery, even the strangeness, to the West, to bring our appreciation and love for the culture we’ve found a home in for the past year and a half. We of course want to sell our books. But today, we want to revel in the catholicity of humanity, its universal commonalities. And also in the stories that make China unique even in the midst of this universality…

She has spent the last ten evenings, after work, on the internet. This in itself is not so uncommon, but she has been going to just one site, clicking and refreshing frantically to find a ticket to return to her home province of Hubei, return to the spicy dishes, the winter snow, and most importantly her mom and dad. The trip will be 18 hours by train, plus three hours by bus. But first she must battle the millions attempting to win the same lottery. She must first get a ticket, and she can only start 20 days prior to when she will want to leave. She has 7 days off for the new year, and her company doesn’t provide vacation. Her family is counting on her to be back to bring in the new year.

It’s the eve of the new year, and after a family dinner of pasted meats, he gathers around the television set to watch the Spring Festival Gala on CCTV, an annual state sponsored extravaganza with singers, dancers, acrobats, comedians and magicians. The family counts down the new year together, while sending chat messages to friends and family that cannot be there. This year, there’s a new twist on the tradition of passing out hongbao, red envelopes filled with Lucky Money. Tencent, Shenzhen based maker of WeiXin or WeChat, now allows users of its popular social media app to send each other electronic hongbao. Simply link your bank account, enter a total amount, and send to a group of friends. Then thanks to the magic of a random number generator, those who tap on their red envelopes will get a chance amount. Each family member keeps half an eye on the television set while Sophie Marceau, the French actress croons La Vie en Rose, and tap enthusiastically on their iPhones and Samsung phablets, chatting and giving hongbao, relishing in friends near and far. Relishing in a time to relax, eat, and celebrate the family.

Some cannot make it home. She is in San Francisco, far away from her parents. As is often the case in China, she is an only child, and the loneliness of her mother and father is great. She works at a Sichuan restaurant, but she is from DongBei, the northwest of China. She cannot get the dumplings she would eat in her home city of Qingdao. So after work, she gathers with her co-workers, older women from Hong Kongese families that emigrated long ago to the United States, and younger men and women who have come to try and study in the US and start a new life that for whatever reason escapes them in China. They share hotpot, and stories, and laughs. But each of them misses fireworks, the flavours, and family of home.

She and her husband have not been to their home village for twelve months. They have not seen their only son in that same time. They have come to Guangdong province to work in the factories and send home money to their parents, who are watching over their child. When they get home, after standing for 10 hours on the train, they will fuss over him, they will dress him in a special, fur lined vest, and cry over him. He will begin to remember them again.

We stand on a balcony, two laowai, foreigners, looking out over the Hangzhou’s West Lake. It is New Year’s Day. Surrounded by Chinese families, eating snacks, drinking tea. One table is facetiming their daughter who is at school in the States. The grandfather begins singing, oblivious to the other tables. There is laughter and joy all around. We are happy to share in this great festival that so celebrates the family. We feel, despite being so far away from many that we love, at home.

To learn more about some of the Spring Festival traditions, see niangao in the south, dumplings in the north, and good fortune all over.

west lake fireworks

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