Chinese New Year

I recently had a phenomenal experience that I wish to share with you. After a few attempts at trying to capture it within a reasonable word limit, I now find myself three weeks beyond the deadline with no end in sight. I’ve concluded that it simply isn’t possible to do it without writing a book. So instead of trying to tell you everything about the two most wonderful weeks of my life, I’m just going to tell you about three specific parts. Just three. And in these three stories I hope you will have a glimpse into either a very different world with familiar eyes or see a familiar world through different eyes.

I applied to an experimental university holiday program that paired up foreign students with Chinese students who would take the foreigners home with them to celebrate Chinese New Year. Every year in China hundreds of millions of people travel across the country to spend time with their families. Unlike New Year’s in the West, it’s not simply an evening party but an entire week. A week of visiting loved ones, celebrating new additions to the family, and eating home cooked meals so delicious that they would make the Michelin Guide introduce a new Chinese flag five star rating. This year I had the privilege and pleasure of accompanying, a then stranger but now friend, 鲁畅, to his family home in 泗湖山, Hunan, China.

一 School

The apex of my journey was to be in 泗湖山 but after meeting up in Changsha, the capital of Hunan where I arrived by train, we headed to 沅江市. 鲁畅 attended high school there and many of his classmates are from the city or nearby. High schools are a subject of much fascination for me. Especially in China because of the legendary Gaokao examination that is taken at the end of high school; the results of which are literally life changing. High schools are pockets of pure culture as learners usually live nearby so as an outsider there exists a window into their as yet unadulterated world. This is made all the more interesting because 鲁畅 is about to complete his masters at Tsinghua University after having graduated from Beijing Institute of Technology. Tsinghua, along with Peking University, are the top two universities in China and are highly revered. Admission into Tsinghua and Peking University from high school is impossibly hard. Each province has a limited number of spots and the sheer numbers of students competing is staggering; I’ve heard around 9 million learners for 3000 places. I’m merely learning Mandarin through the language program so although I am a student at Tsinghua, I’m hardly deserving of the veneration that I often encounter when I reply to inquisitive passers-by. So to find out that 鲁畅’s high school had two of his classmates admitted to Tsinghua, and another one to Peking in one year is exceptionally impressive; just one learner to either in a single year would be great because in five years there might no learners to meet the sky high standard.

We visited the school on a Sunday when class was in session for final years, as the Gaokao is only months away and every possible moment is dedicated to preparation. The purpose of the event was for 鲁畅 and a handful of his fellow high school classmates to talk about their experiences beyond high school. I gave a presentation on South Africa that was an overview of the history, cuisine, wildlife, sports and, to the great enthusiasm of the crowd, some slang words as well as introducing a bit about my background. I mentioned the Taung Child in my presentation as a reference to South Africa being the home of mankind. What I didn’t expect is for one of the learners to challenge that during the Q&A with his knowledge of Lucy another ancestor of man found in Ethiopia. For those not familiar with the debate, you can be forgiven. In a nutshell, the fossils found in East Africa are older but the ones found in South Africa, which aren’t always able to be dated, are better candidates as mankind’s most recent ancestor. As I understand it, the birthplace of man is not quite settled, and as most of Africa remains unexplored perhaps more questions will be uncovered before answers are found. You should remember this in case you’re ever invited to speak in front of a crowd of Chinese high schoolers! I have to admit that in the moment I was so stunned I embarrassingly dodged the question.

Visiting the school and interacting with some of the high schoolers was highly enjoyable. The school was spotlessly clean and the absence of sports fields, a contrast to South African schools, helped to emphasise were the focus is. Among the school ground ornaments there was a wall with map of the earth, with China in the centre, and human sized periodic table tower. Behind the map, learners write their wishes, hopes, and dreams for their futures. Unlike the clean surroundings, the wishful graffiti is no doubt a permitted form of expression and a reminder of the young and precious dreams hoping for actualisation. The periodic table tower sees regular use during the scheduled workout sessions when learners circle around it during their route, simultaneously exercising their bodies and mind. As a former high school physics and chemistry teacher, I couldn’t resist my own little loop of the tower imagining a world where every school had one. Also worth noting, my ex pupil tour guides could still easily recite the first 20 or so elements by heart.

The learners are forbidden from having cellphones at school so many asked for and wrote down my WeChat ID and phone number. When they later accessed their cellphones most were likely too shy to add me but a few did. They wanted to practice their english and ask questions about the world outside of China. With one particular learner we discussed some of the challenges of post apartheid South Africa, Mandela’s legacy, and whether the death penalty is necessary or even effective. If these are the kind of curious and engaging students China is producing, the future is exceptionally bright.

二 Wedding

The next day in 沅江 鲁畅’s friend was due to be married. Weddings, like high schools, are also key expressions of culture because although it is simply about a couple having an event to declare their love for each other and the joining of two families, culture informs decisions. In South Africa, like many western countries, such events are dictated heavily by shared culture and religion. A wedding for a Catholic Christian for example would have to take place at a Catholic Church with Catholic priest with various mandatory religious ceremonies occurring in order and lasting half day at least including the wedding and receptions as separate events. African weddings, as they’re colloquially called, can vary considerably between cultures and will last the entire day but can often last the entire weekend with one day being reserved for the western approach and the second day following traditional norms. The western style involves wearing conventional attire for a ceremony inside a church whereas traditional style will have marquees on a street or large field, dancing in culture specific attire, eating and enjoying the entire day with family.

The Chinese wedding I attended didn’t take place at church and there was no priest. It was at a hotel and the bride and groom were present at the door greeting guests as they arrived and taking selfies with whoever asked. I am more accustomed to the bride being hidden until the moment she needs to walk down the aisle, and grooms being forbidden from seeing them lest they change their minds. The couple, more nervous than happy, reminded me that although at first glance this was different it was every bit as serious. Upon arrival I was also offered a cigarette as welcome gift and some 槟榔. The latter has to be experienced rather than explained. It is a chew that reminded me at times of a extremely strong menthol flavour and it makes your body tingle slightly. It is grown in Hainan province but in this special form it is only popular in Hunan and elsewhere where people from Hunan people are found. I was introduced to it slowly by 鲁畅 who modified my first dose to be less potent as he warned that it was an unhealthy substance but also extremely popular and dear to the people of Hunan. Before the end of my entire stay I was enjoying 槟榔 like a local.

All the guests were dressed very casually as if invites were sent out that morning and the food, which was delicious, was already on the table. It looked as if the wedding was taking place at the reception with an aisle assembled where I would’ve expected the dance floor to be. If I were loyal to the western idea of what a wedding should be, I might’ve been horrified and further surprised when the entire event; ceremony, speeches, and food were concluded in about two hours. But instead of a priest reading scripture, there was game show like host speaking about the couple’s love story from when they met at a Starbucks through the entire journey that led to the wedding day. He was loud, fun and engaging, and as I was one of a few foreigners in the entire city of 700k people he didn’t miss a beat greeting me especially. 鲁畅 teased that the wedding was officially an international event.

The groom waited for his bride with flowers in the middle of the the aisle. The bride, arm-in-arm with her father, slowly walked down to meet him. She was already teary eyed, her father held it in but before the host could say “星巴克爱情 (Starbucks love)” once again her father had taken on the burden of her tears leaving her smiling in anticipation. Did I mention that were laser lights, spotlights, and a smoke machine? The couple stared into each other’s eyes, the host spoke, music played and before long they kissed and we were clapping and cheering. Unfortunately my Mandarin is not at a level where I could understand what was being said let alone decipher the Hunan dialect or “沅江话”, but I can tell you this with absolute certainty: I felt the love.

An aspect of China I still have trouble describing to family and friends back home is how sometimes actions and expressions are purer here. I delight in visiting coffee shops here that serve all varieties of coffee in both hot and cold versions. Cold Macchiato? Coming right up. Iced Mocha? Easy. A friend of my recently ordered a fruit salad at a restaurant and in addition to exquisitely cut bite sized dragon fruit cubes was a dollop of mayonnaise; bizarre, yet delicious. At first glance it seems amusing because it is different, but then you realise that you’re simply biased to your past experiences. The question then begs, would I not only serve fruit salad with mayo at my wedding but also forgo the priest and church to have a more humorous and charming host tell an amazing story before I simply promise my partner a life of love and happiness? I’ll answer with another question: do you know where to buy dragon fruit in South Africa?

三 Food

We caught a minibus to 泗湖山. A tiny town of approximately 3000 people, if it were ten times bigger it would still be considered minuscule by China’s standards. We arrived at lunchtime and immediately joined a banquet in celebration of one of 鲁畅’s cousin’s son’s birth. I met 鲁畅’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins and of course his parents. I have never wished with more desperation that I could speak mandarin fluently than my time with them. I was greeted with such excitement, warmth, and kindness which didn’t wane for a single moment across a week, and the only way I could thank them was with a smile. In the West we need to say “thank you” to express gratitude and it isn’t unusual for parent to scold a child for not doing so. In China, the closer you are the less likely you’ll say thank you. I said thank you repeatedly in the beginning, as is my programming when I feel grateful, but at times it seemed as if my thanks was met with confusion, so the smiles quickly took their place.

I was an obvious curiosity to the residents and I could always tell when people were talking or asking about me because I would hear exclamations of “南非啊,南非的 (South Africa, South African)” from time to time. I was so delighted to be present in this unique and warm setting and yet from the outside I think one might’ve thought my hosts were even happier.

If I remember anything from 泗湖山 it will be the feeling of family and the taste of the food. Breakfast cooked by 鲁畅’s mother was served soon after waking at 8am or 9am; sometimes her calling us for breakfast was the reason we woke up at all. Typically this was fried glutinous rice cakes that were lightly coated with egg, served alongside raw dates in a sweet fermented rice soup, and boiled chicken eggs or salted duck eggs. Salted duck eggs, a familiar looking food item I found myself scoffing, go down a treat. In addition, all meals were accompanied by a gently pickled green cabbage like vegetable with chillies chopped over them. I know you’re wondering about the combination of hot and sweet but like all food in Hunan, it was delightful. The breakfasts were simple, elegant, and absolutely scrummy.

I found myself savoring, or perhaps devouring is a better word, every taste so I was easily filled at breakfast which is meal I normally don’t eat, usually preferring to start later in the day with brunch. Lunch however was served at 11:30am. For reasons I don’t yet understand people in China eat much earlier than I am used to. Even in Beijing, the university canteens are closed by 1pm, having opened two hours earlier. Half five in the afternoon is when you’ll find the dinner service most crowded and again many of the dining halls are closed by 7pm. In my first few weeks in Beijing I often missed meals because I’d forget that I needed to be eating before 1pm. Eating at 8pm or even 9pm would constitute a very normal evening in my family home but in 泗湖山 we once started supper at 04:30pm. When I get the chance to treat 鲁畅 or anyone of the many friends I’ve made here in China to a home in South Africa, I’ll have to keep in mind that they might be starving in my company before the thought of what to eat has even popped into my head.

Lunchtime would arrive and I would still be full from breakfast. But everyday I would discover that the amazing breakfast I just ate was but a light appetizer, an hors d’oeuvre, and lunch was the main event. Chinese cuisine when served consists of many shared dishes usually with a staple food as the base, which in southern China, where Hunan is located, is rice. I ate so many different dishes and enjoyed so many unique flavors and textures I couldn’t describe them without writing a recipe book that I would then have to simultaneously release with an anthology of poems, some of which would inevitably end up on stage in beat poetry performances. However hard it may be to express in words, I would be doing you the reader an injustice if I didn’t at least try.

The town of 泗湖山 exists in what I understand to have previously been a lake. The ground is fertile and there is an ample supply of water from the many rivers that form veins throughout the entire landscape. The spring festival actually takes place in winter and it’s cold but thousands of years has everyone prepared for that. To call what I saw vegetable patches would be to underestimate their size and yield. I like to think of myself as a amateur horticulturist who takes pleasure in growing his own herbs and vegetables, and what encountered was nothing short of impressive small scale farms and all the produce made its way to my plate.

We need to remember that this is Hunan and they have their own very famous cuisine, 湘菜, that is renown in China for good reason. The people in this town have lived here for generations and some of the vegetables that are grown are unique to the area and their preparation has been passed down through families. Take these factors, make it the most important time of the year where all of this matters most, and now it’s time for lunch. The amazing salted duck egg from earlier? It’s just a side now. Salt cured pork fried and served with a local root vegetable that has a lovely light bite to it? Also a side, waiting on the periphery hoping to be sampled. All the dishes are served at once so it is common for several of them to have their own burners which means they will be cooking in front of you. We have vegetables, cold cured meats, and even thin slices of salted fats dotted around like satellites to mains representing our planets in this accidental galaxy of culinary greatness. The sides are varied and wonderful with flavors and textures working in unison to tease your tongue. And not to mention the contrasting and complementing colors that catch your eye like a bird of paradise in an already beautiful vista. We have salty and savoury reds and yellows, a classic combination, that is delivered in packages of soft crunches and light chews. Hints of sour spring greens with a spice enhanced crimson and maroon heat, this time all crunch as if to warn that the heat has a delayed and pronounced effect. There’s a white melon like half moon that’s pleasantly neutral with an expected but still surprising crisp cooling wetness that you welcome as you combat and savor the flavorful fire igniting your tastebuds and sacrificing them to the gods of good eating. We have sweet midday yellow sun corn and umami rose pink pork that is a medley of soft bites and effortless nibbles.

The mains were at the center of the universe on pedestals of flame billowing steam in defiance of the cold winter air. Fish farmed and caught a stone’s throw away is so tender your chopsticks effortlessly pull meat off the bone and grasp onto just enough flesh that you’re reminded of a time when people panned for gold and knew that even the smallest glisten made the effort worthwhile. Controversial until you’ve eaten it, one of my favourites was without a doubt the dog. I was warned of the dog meat in recognition of the expectation that my friends and family may disown me. However, I can say with confidence that a blind taste test would make anyone question their initial reluctance to let themselves understand why it is so popular. Wafer-thin slices of the meat in a spicy port red broth had already enticed my nose with offer my mouth could not refuse or risk spending a lifetime yearning after the missed opportunity. The dogs are bred specially for consumption and they are honoured in their preparation and enjoyment. To complete the trio we had terrapin, a freshwater turtle. Another exotic meat locally harvested, cooked to perfection before my eyes. Prepared with seemingly more liquid as if to recognize it’s origins on the table, the meat has a deep space black skin that further enhances the mystery before your tongue discovers the truth; gently spiced, full bodied flavour, gratifying bite with more resistance than fish but less than chicken and a taste that is neither yet exceedingly pleasing.

No meal was ever eaten alone. No meal was ever silent. Grandparents and grandchildren sat equally content around the table. The meals celebrating events of the past year, births and weddings, were bigger. The food at the larger events was even more plentiful and shared with the less fortunate and some of the people with disabilities from the surrounding community. I never once felt out of place and not only was I constantly encouraged to eat more, a request I so readily responded to with such enthusiasm that six weeks later I’m still trying to lose the weight gained, but often food was simply placed in my bowl. I think of this adding of food to be the other side of the same coin you experience when you have have a meal with someone you are close to and they don’t hesitate to take samples of food from your plate and in turn you do with theirs. In China, in such settings, food will be added to your plate, startling at first then forever warm. Unable to refuse these kind gestures, I once ate eight salted duck eggs in a single day; 鲁畅 and the friends he told are still laughing about it.

The phrase “好吃吧” would be said between glorious mouthfuls of goodness as people both proclaimed that food was indeed very delicious and to check in with each that they agreed. This phrase rung out to me to most because of the sheer frequency it was uttered and how it was modified in the Hunan accent. I will forever associate it with the warmth of people in Hunan and the mouth-watering food I ate there.

As an engineer, I like to believe that mathematics is our universal language. We use mathematical theorems to understand and explain the world around us and we do it well. But it isn’t until you’re in rural China, and young second cousins show they’ve warmed up to you, the strange person who speaks “英语”, by stuffing sweets in your pockets. And a grandmother, who having cooked for you for an entire week, watched you eat, told you to eat more, watched you eat more, then placed more food in your bowl, and watched as you struggled to be polite pushing to finish, sits back, smiles and calls upon her grandson and instructs him to tell his guest that he isn’t bad and he should come again next year. It is then you that realise food doesn’t explain our world, it is our world, and maybe the table setting isn’t such a coincidence after all.

As great as Hunan was and is, easily the best gift was 鲁畅. My host, guide, translator, travel buddy and friend with a wicked sense of humour. We meet up weekly and only now as I write this do I suddenly marvel at how easy it all was and how lucky I’ve been. It’s thanks to him that this was all possible and I’m immensely grateful. I’m telling you this because he’d probably think it strange and distant if I thanked him directly.

China is a vast country with thousands of years of history steeped in culture. I’ve just shared a tiny bit of my singular experience of the spring festival, the most important time in the Chinese calendar, from one very small and specific part of this great nation. I can’t begin to fathom the collective experience and if you’ve been paying attention you’ll notice I’ve only really written about one highlight from each of the first three days of my ten in total. I didn’t even give you a chance to glimpse the actual New Year’s Day or Eve. I suppose you’ll just have to plan a trip to China and have the experience for yourself.

*Special thanks to BL, KT, NF for proofreading.