Memories of Chinese New Year

I’ve had a few reasons to celebrate recently: my fifth anniversary in China, my fifth Chinese New Year and, most importantly, the New York Giants’ fifth trip to the Super Bowl. Since this isn’t the first time Chinese New Year – Spring Fesitval, as the  Chinese like to call it – has coincided with a Giants’ Super Bowl run, I thought I’d reminisce on the magical day of Feb. 10, 2008 in Changchun.

 

            One problem with watching important American sporting events live in China – meaning, in the wee small hours of the morning – is the gaping void left in the rest of your day. Had I watched the Giants’ miraculous Super Bowl XLII upset of the Patriots back in the states, I would have celebrated deliriously for an hour or two, and then passed out from sheer exhaustion. As it was, the clocks inChina had just passed noon, and outside my window Chinese office workers shuffled about on their lunch breaks, totally unaware of Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, the 18-0 Patriots, and the magnificent David Tyree helmet catch which had just sent their world crashing down around them.

What should I do now? It was payday, which meant a fresh paper bag stuffed with discretionary cash waiting for me at school. There I caught up with my buddy Erik.

“Wanna grab a couple beers and buy a bunch of fireworks?” he asked.

“Hell yeah,” I replied, “This is a day worth celebrating.”

Spring Festival – the granddaddy of all Chinese holidays – was fast approaching, and the fireworks stands had spread to nearly every street corner in the city. I’ve always had a somewhat complicated relationship with this holiday. I love the days off, but I’m terrified of the chaos of traveling at the same time as roughly 900,000,000 Chinese people. I appreciate the startling casualness of elderly people playing majiang, but I’m frustrated by their initially violent refusal of any gift – I know they want the gift, I know they’ll take it eventually, do we really need all the pretense and keqi? I love the dumplings, but I still have a hard time biting into pig’s feet. But I have nothing but love for the fireworks.

For a few weeks each year the people of Changchuntake to the streets each evening – child in one hand, fireworks in the other – and light off a blitz of light and sound that consumes the city. The sheer number of people lighting fireworks, combined with the rather lax Chinese approach to public safety, gives the Spring Festival season a chaotic feel that is astonishing to behold – less “4th of July” and more “firebombing ofDresden.” The year before I had called home and held my phone out the window so family and friends could hear the carnage; I felt like a war correspondent covering the Battle of Britain. It truly is a joy to watch, but you have to keep your head on a swivel, ready to hit the deck if some misfired rocket should happen to explode a little too close for comfort.

Erik and I hit the fireworks stands just after sundown. We came with two large black trash bags, ready to devour the smorgasbord of fireworks laid out before us – skyrockets, bottle rockets, fountains, roman candles, belts of M-80’s. Within minutes we had caused a minor uproar on the street; Chinese witnesses were calling their friends to tell them that the waiguoren were buying up all the fireworks in sight. Nothing impresses the Chinese quite as much as a man willing to blow an obscene amount of money on fireworks.

I spotted a massive multi-shot box behind the fireworks stand: “The grand finale, we gotta have it.”

We hauled the spoils over to the nearest open space:Culture Square, in the center of the city. Spending any amount of time outdoors inChangchunin February is a life-or-death battle against bitter cold and the treacherous, icy sidewalks. Every foreigner who has lived inNortheast Chinahas at least once laughed of the absurdity of people celebrating a “spring” festival in late-January/early-February, with the temperatures often plunging past fifteen below. Still, the Chinese were calling it spring, and they had the fireworks to sell: when inChina, detonate as the Chinese detonate.

We started the show, launching glittering rockets toward the penthouses of the high-rise apartments, laying anaconda lengths of firecrackers to pop-pop-pop across the icy street. Chinese people came from blocks around, eager to partake in the mayhem. This wasn’t usual crowd of stalkers come to peer shamelessly into the exotic world of the foreigner. This was a kindred vibe – almost as if it were two regular dudes lighting off the fireworks. The crowd came simply to show the show.

As I lit off the grand finale I called out, “This is for the Giants!” The crowd clapped their approval. Of course, nobody in the crowd knew a goddamn thing about the Giants, or American football. They simply loved the fireworks.

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