I’m so excited to be a part of the Chinese New Year Blog Hop launched by Two Americans in China! Since it’s officially the Lunar New Year in China now, I’m blogging here about the first time I celebrated the Chinese New Year.
So it was a whopping 25 years ago and I was studying abroad in Hong Kong. I had first traveled to China three years before that with a group from my high school. Our tour guide, Mr. Chen, was from Nanjing and had casually mentioned in a letter that I was welcome to stay with his family and him anytime I wanted to visit.
I was so oblivious to the customs in China and suggested making a trip during my week-long Chinese New Year break. Oy. But Mr. Chen was gracious and replied that that week would be fine and I should call him with my flight details. That in itself wasn’t easy. Back in 1991, no one but triads and tycoons had mobile phones, so that wasn’t an option. And it wasn’t possible to make calls to China on normal phones. I had to find a special one that connected to an operator on the mainland.
My hostel warden (the faculty member who lived in my dorm) had such a phone and let me use it to call Chen in Nanjing. Dr. Tang had recently returned to Hong Kong from Canada, I think, and she had three generations living in her flat. I felt like I was barging in, but she was very elegant and hospitable and left me in silence while I dialed the mainland operator. Luckily I had had two years of Mandarin at that point and could relay Chen’s number to the operator.
And voila–a connection was made.
I arrived in Nanjing a week later. It wasn’t the sunny, sub-tropics of Hong Kong, but I was excited to have a chance to practice Mandarin and see the mainland again after a three year hiatus. Chen had me stay in his daughter’s room, which was cold and cozy. No indoor heat or space heaters. A prelude for things to come a few years later.
The view from this room:
We ate our meals in the hall.
This is a street scene in Nanjing, although I’m not sure if it’s from that trip in 1991 or my first visit in 1988. 差不多。
Since Chinese New Year is the most important holiday in China, the Chens weren’t just going to stay home and watch tv. They had plans to visit Chen’s brother in a small, Jiangsu city. So they took me along–for three days.
All this time, no one ever treated me like an intruder or the houseguest that wouldn’t go away. They were incredibly nice and friendly. I hung out with the kids and watched the CCTV variety show with them on New Year’s Eve while the adults played mahjong all night long.
Then it was on to the countryside, sans indoor plumbing, to visit Chen’s parents. I didn’t mind the lack of indoor plumbing because nothing seemed more uncomfortable than no indoor heat whatsoever. I would get my comeuppance for those spoiled American thoughts three years later!
Back in Nanjing, Chen took me around his university and introduced me to his students. I wrote to this student for a year or so after my visit, but before social media it was too easy to lose contact with people. Sadly, that’s what happened in this case. In this photo, I’m wearing Mrs. Chen’s jacket because my lined trench coat didn’t hack it in the cold Nanjing weather.
As rustic, eye-opening, and difficult this trip was, it was also unforgettable and something I look back on fondly. I feel lucky to have had a chance to celebrate the Year of the Goat in Jiangsu province a quarter of a century ago.
To celebrate the Year of the Monkey this year, I’m raffling off an e-copy of Ban Zhao’s Instructions for Chinese Women and Girls (Camphor Press, 2015), for which I wrote the introduction. To enter, click here and just comment on this post about your favorite Lunar New Year memory!
Thanks a ton to Two Americans in China for inviting me to join their blog hop!