Sunday, January 25, 2009

Starting the Year With a Bang!

Spring Festival is China’s most important holiday. It is called Chun Jie and it is directly connected with Chinese New Year. For the past two weeks, people have been frantically preparing for the most important time of the year. It is a time when people thoroughly clean their homes, symbolically sweeping out the old and welcoming in the new. They often buy new furniture, new clothes and other items for their homes. Everything is put in order. Family members from all over China travel back to their parent’s home just before New Year’s Eve to eat dinner together and welcome in the New Year.
No matter where you are in the country, you must drop everything and get home to celebrate with your family. Of course, that means everyone is traveling so train stations and airports insanely crazy, crowded places to be. If you travel by train as I once did, inside the car there is no space to move and getting out to use the bathroom is impossible! (This is when it helps to have Depends) Seats are often sold out or overbooked, so many choose a “standing” ticket which literally means standing the whole trip in the aisles, so no one can move. I know a young man who was so determined to get home that he bought such a ticket and stood for an 18 hours train ride! Can you imagine?

You will know that Chinese New Year is coming because you will see red lanterns displayed on the front of buildings, restaurants, and public attractions. According to the Chinese Zodiac, this is also the year of the Ox, so there are red cows everywhere. I am supposed to be lucky this year because I was born in the Year of the Ox, but this means that I also should wear red long underwear everyday to be blessed…Uh, I don’t think so! Red is the lucky color. After New Years Eve dinner, children and young adults recite a blessing to their elders and in return are given red envelopes (hong bao) . These red envelopes have money inside them as a symbol of good luck and riches to come in the future. Because everyone is traveling, pretty much everything shuts down for a week. Planning ahead and buying food, water, electricity, etc…is essential. You can imagine how crowded the stores are.

Other essential preparations call for making lots of jiaozi (stuffed dumplings), writing blessings on red scrolls that go on or over the door frame, and buying fireworks. Chinese legend has it that a dragon named Nian came to the villages each year to eat livestock, crops and even children, but after they discovered that the dragon was afraid of the color red and fireworks, the villagers put red lantern and scrolls on their homes and doors. They also lit firecrackers to scare him away. That is why they continue the tradition today.

In Michigan, most fireworks are illegal unless you are doing a show and have a permit, but here…everyone has fireworks! I’m talking M-80’s, huge strings of loud firecrackers and the kind you shoot up in the air to make those sky flowers we “oooh” and “ahhh” over! There are fireworks stands on every corner and people spend gobs of money getting as much as they can afford so their family will be able to start the year with a bang! At 12:00 the fireworks begin…and basically never end for a week! It literally sounds like you’re in a war zone with non-stop banging, whistling, and sonic booms from above and below. It is so incredibly loud that even inside your apartment, it is difficult to hear the person next to you talking because of the noise. It is both amazing and annoying! Apparently, the officials in Tianjin made a regulation that fireworks could be set off every hour on the hour for the first 24 hours of Chinese New Year in an attempt to control random partying, but as far as I can tell, that hasn’t really made much of a difference. With 11.4 million people in Tianjin, just about everyone has some sort of explosive devise, it’s crazy…and amazing that there aren’t more people in emergency rooms or fires started because of stray fireworks.

I must admit, I couldn’t resist buying a big wheel of firecrackers and a couple of Roman candles. When I bought them, I couldn’t help thinking how much my kids and my brother Curt would love to be lighting these things off with me. I mean, who wouldn’t love lighting those babies and listening to 1000 loud pops going off all at once. It’s a blast! I’m sure by the end of the week, I will be sick to death of the noise, but right now it’s music to my ears. (Look for the video on You-Tube; Chinachick61)


Monday, January 19, 2009

Dye(ing) to Feel Alive

I'm about as low maintenance as anyone I know when it comes to personal maintenance like using cosmetics, getting my nails done, or needing to have the latest fashions. I’ve never really cared that much about that kind of stuff, although I do admit I really like cheap, pretty earrings. Most of the time however, I could really care less about what’s hot and what’s not. It’s just not all that important to me. In the States, the only thing that I maintained on a regular basis was my preferred hair color…whatever I decided that would be at the time. I have had assorted shades of blond, brown, and even red hair during different periods of my life, mainly because I like variety and always liked to experiment with fun, funky styles.

Before I left for China however, I made the decision to let it all go, stop dying my hair and just let nature take its course. I knew I would be partially gray within months, but felt that it would be too much of a hassle to mess with it here and culturally not really necessary either. Little did I know just how brutal Mother Nature would be!

About 2 months into “au natural” I started to see the roots. A bit grayer than I had anticipated, but well OK, I am getting older. After 4 months of gritting my teeth and closing my eyes to the multicolored strands hanging from my head, I finally cried, “Uncle!” I couldn’t take it anymore. I got online and ordered my hair color and developed from the States and had it sent to Lacey’s house with an SOS for her to ship it to me ASAP! It was a hair emergency! Well she tried to send it, but found out that it couldn’t be shipped overseas…(thank-you Mr. and Mrs. Terrorist) So, I had to wait until one of my friends was going home for Christmas break and she said she would bring it back in her suitcase.

If there is such a thing as losing face over hideous hair, I think I had no face left. The combinations of having gray, dirty blond, gold, and reddish brown locks and no haircuts in 6 months was atrocious! With thick, wavy, multi-layered, crazy colored hair like I had it was a wonder the fashion police didn’t give me a ticket! I was just past the 6 month point, barely holding on to any shred of dignity I had left when my beloved dye arrived! I clutched it like a long lost friend. At last…victory would be mine! I made my friend take several pictures of the disaster just so I could remember why I didn’t want to look like a decrepit old woman before my time. I mean-come on! I’m 47 not 70…geez!

I put on some happy tunes and mixed up the foul smelling concoction with glee. Nothing could spoil the moment. As I slathered the goop all over my head I had a strange sense of satisfaction. I felt my roots rising from the dead and the fun, funky part of me dancing inside. I anxiously waited for my 45 minutes of developing time and quickly jumped into the shower to wash 6 months of gray down the hole in my bathroom floor. As I took the towel off my head and beheld the beautiful golden brown shine on my once lifeless hair, I looked in the mirror and said, “Yes! I’m back!”

Now I know to some of you this is just really silly and a senseless waste of time and money, ($6 whole dollars) but think of it as mental health maintenance. It’s way cheaper than psychotherapy which isn’t available here anyway, and for the cost of 2 cups of Star Bucks, I can feel like myself again. In my estimation…Not a bad deal at all