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Archive for March, 2011

Jianshui was once known for its role in the tea and horse trade, it was a major city along the route between Vietnam, the Dai kingdom of Xishuangbanna and the edge of the Chinese empire. The town has a wonderful Confucius temple and classical garden. It is a great place to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

The Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, is the most important holiday in China. It lasts 15 days, and it commences on the first day of the first month in the lunar calendar. This is a time of family reunions; for many migrant workers this is the only time of the year that they see their parents, spouse, and child (in many of the places I’ve traveled the children are raised by the grandparents as the parents work in urban centers and send money home). It is common for families to make dumplings (饺子), and for older family member to give their offspring gifts, especially red envelopes with cash. For the new year families put red couplets on their doorways to welcome the benevolent spirits, while firecrackers are set off to ward off the malevolent ones.

2011 is the year of the rabbit (兔). There are twelve animal signs in the Chinese zodiac, and it is common to ask someone their sign here – especially when matchmaking. The story for the order of the animals involves a fight among these twelve animals, and it was decided that a race would settle the dispute. The ox was the lead in the race, but the rat was riding on his back and jumped off to win the race at the last minute. Therefore the rat is the first year of the cycle while the ox is the second. And as the pig finished the race last, it is the capstone for the rotation.

Jianshui was awash with venders selling fireworks for the holiday; sticks of dynamite a foot long, rolls of firecrackers three feet in diameter, and bottle rockets galore. As the night set in we took to the streets, the sound of firecrackers saturated the night. It sounded as if a war was underway, people would drive by and throw fireworks out of their cars onto the streets. The police eventually came to us and told us to go to our hotel as midnight approached, as they wanted to ensure that no foreigners were harmed. As I made my way back to the hotel other students were outside, and a patrol car was sitting a few meters down the road – to make sure we were safe.

As midnight struck and the New Year was ushered in, a deafening roar overtook the city. A plume of smoke hung over the city, it was an amazing experience. I was unable to sleep well that night, as the fireworks were unending.

Of course, as The Beijing Center explicitly forbade the use of fireworks none of the students partook in that aspect of the holiday. They have good cause to issue such a commandment, as every year the emergency rooms of Chinese hospitals become overwhelmed with injuries resulting from shoddy fireworks…

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Day 4 pictures

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Day 4

Today we traveled to a Hani (哈尼) village, and we arrived a bit late due to fog so thick that you couldn’t see more than ten feet ahead of you. The village we stayed in was home to 347 families, about 1500 people. The average per person income is about 1500 rmb ($230usd), and we paid them 40rmb per person for the night – or about two weeks salary per person. We are the only group of foreigners to stay with the village all year, but we were also there during the only time that many of the younger people come home from the cities (where they are migrant workers). I felt bad interrupting this family reunion, but our host family really appreciated the extra income.

We got to our host family, and were immediately offered cigarettes; my host father became upset when I tried to decline. During the course of lunch he gave me about five cigarettes, and made sure that I smoked all of them. Lunch was a simple meal of pork, rice, potatoes, moss, and a spicy dipping sauce. There was also a bag of mono-sodium glutamate (味精), this is very common throughout China – which may explain their stomach cancer problem.

After lunch we went for a three hour hike through the terraced rice fields. It was an amazing sight, and I cannot imagine the amount of of coordination and labor that had to go into constructing these. The early dynastic governments required usually three weeks a year of labor from every man to construct dikes, irrigation, and dams. Its important to keep in mind that China is a river culture, and a strong government was essential to control the rivers and prevent flooding.

At night we returned home and sat with our host family in the smoke filled kitchen, warming ourselves with the fire and a cup of tea – enjoying the conversation. I asked our host mother how old she was, and I was surprised by how long it took her to remember. This woman spends most of her day tending to the farm animals and cooking meals while her son works the fields. My host dad asked me to give him an American name, and we came up with Robert. I wrote it out pronouncing each letter "R-O-B-E-R-T", and he wrote a few characters next to it to help him remember the pronunciation.

These were some of the warmest individuals I have ever met. I am continually amazed by the generosity of the poor, during out entire stay our host family was offering us food, drink, and cigarettes (and they purchased one of the pricier 10rmb a pack brands). Despite their poverty they made sure that I, the well off American, was always comfortable and well feed. It was a great experience.

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