Staying Away from the Chinese New Year
李运兴 译 躲年
Last year, just before the Chinese New Year – the Spring Festival – I visited Egypt with a tourist group of more than 50 people. We were actually a small “society”, composed of different personality types: the self-important, the melancholy, the naïve and the crafty. Travelling across the alien land, we saw and heard many new things, which gave us an infinite array of conversation topics, but stubbornly the Spring Festival still remained a talking point. And we were full of complaints about it:
“What’s good about it? It’s all about eating, guzzling, paying visits and setting off fire-crackers.”
“It is no more than feasting: fish, meat, beer and liquor, which we have had enough of on ordinary days. Better to go back to the time when foods were rationed.”
“When paying New Year visits, we only talk about the good news, as if the world is so nice. And that only boosts the unfortunate practice of covering up the bad news.”
“Kids nowadays are very smart creatures. They surround you, grab the gift money, and won’t utter a ‘thank you’ until they hold the notes up against the light and make sure there’s a watermark.”
“You can no longer please your mother-in-law with a fruit package in hand, that’s too trifling a gift for the occasion these days.”
After this spasm of grumbling, we turned to congratulate ourselves: “Now we’re free from the hustle and bustle of the Spring Festival. Out of sight, out of mind. Like debtors trying to avoid their creditors, we’ve fled the Chinese festive tradition. Bye-bye, Spring Festival! I bet you can’t follow us all the way to Egypt.”
Indeed, Egypt provides us with a safe haven where we Chinese could forget about the Spring Festival and find peace of mind. The pyramids looked austere, the Sphinx stood in silence, nowhere could you sense a trace of the festive atmosphere at home. At the height of your enthusiasm, you could dance to the drumbeats of the alien land, or, changing into an Arabic robe, you could take a picture hand in hand with a native, as a souvenir of friendship as well as a proof that you’d left behind you all about your hometown.
However, as the Spring Festival approached, and as if controlled by a remote hand, a hidden sentiment began to bubble up among the tourists, men and women, young or old.
On the morning before the Festival some were found in low spirits, complaining about the unpalatable breakfast.
Later that morning we visited the Citadel of Saladin and the Mosque of Muhammad Ali. Both are world-renowned historic sites, yet the Chinese tourists hurried through them absent-mindedly, as if harassed by some remote concern.
Afterwards, we set out on our way back to the hotel.
The bus drove slowly into the city of Cairo. The buildings and the trees looked every bit the same as usual. “Stop here!” someone suddenly shouted. Startled, the heavily bearded driver slammed on the brakes.
The Chinese swarmed off and strode into a building.
The pedestrians were dumbfounded. The policemen in black uniforms closed in.
The building was the telecommunication service center, vital to national security, as it were. But the Chinese did nothing illegal but taking out money from their purses and paying for a small telephone card. Instantly, the telephone booths in the hall were filled. The latecomers flocked out into the street, where some dozen telephone kiosks were soon taken up by Chinese callers.
The Egyptians were all the more confused: What has happened? Haven’t heard there’s any big event in the world!
Who says there isn’t a big event? Noon here is evening in China, and not an ordinary evening at that. This is New Year’s Eve on the Chinese calendar, a time for family reunion. Just think of it, more than one billion people are having their New Year dinner at the same time! Isn’t this a world event?
With lines connected one after another, there arose a series of hellos, happy New Years and blessings of the kind.
“What’s on the menu tonight? Did you set off fireworks? Are you making dumplings? Does the gas stove work well? Is it cold at home?”
“Did she call me?”
“Has the New Year Gala begun? Who are the anchors?”
“Is granny well? Ask her not to sit up too late watching TV.”
“Ask dad not to drink too much, and to eat more vegetables.”
“Be nice, my child. I’ve bought you something nice.”
“It’s rather dull here. Not even a single New Year decoration is in sight.”
Words were thus being transmitted to China, none was urgent, yet each carried with its messages important to the dear ones.
At the moment of the year, the hot-tempered calmed down, the crafty became sincere, the melancholy cheered up and the happy ones were even happier. The New Year dodgers, shouting or murmuring into phones, were now ironically caught up in ringing in the Chinese New Year. The sky was azure blue, the sun shone brightly. God – or at least the one in charge of Chinese affairs – was surely focusing his gaze upon this part of the world.