When I was young, my father refused to buy fireworks. I’ve never understood it and surely didn’t like it -all my friends had their pockets filled with it!- but then, it wasn’t something we talked about. Looking back, I do remember that it had to do with safety, and knowing my father’s technical skills, I understand his decision. But we were allowed to sneak out on the early morning of each New Year’s day, and that compensated fully. We would roam around the wide area and skim every street and Chinese restaurant parking lots for firecrackers leftovers. Back then, many didn’t explode and we took care of them. I can’t say this was without danger, but because we can all still clearly see our ten fingers, I treasure these memories.
And so, with a somewhat childish enthusiasm, I thought Chinese New Year would be heaven-on-earth. Count it as one of the advantages of living in China: you get to celebrate new year twice. Fireworks twice, setting new good intentions twice. As to the latter, there really isn’t enough time in between the two new-years to mess it up, so that’s encouraging.
Just like Christmas and New Year’ eve in Europe and Thanksgiving in the US, with its compulsory trips to the family and overload of presents; for the Chinese, Chunjie (Chinese New Year) is the big thing: money is spent, presents are bought, trips back to family and hometown are arranged. The great migration. For the lower and middle class, this event can cost up to 2 months income and many days of camping out at the station to secure a train ticket home. With the supermarkets and malls virtually plundered of all it has to sell and everyone left town, shops close and China practically shuts down. For most foreigners, this always comes as a surprise. We somehow miss the notifications and end up with an empty fridge and not enough heating gas. With rumbling bellies we hit the streets in search for food and warmth only to find all streets deserted except for a sweeper here-and-there. It makes you wonder; with all these millions on the move, somewhere it must be very busy.
Yearly thorough cleaning is done just days before. And trust me, it is needed: all that is done the rest of the year is sweeping. Meat is prepared and balcony washing lines are full of drying chicken, ducks, dogs and sausages. The world turns red with paper lanterns in trees, upside-down banners on doors and gates and firework litter covering streets and sidewalks. Incense candles and fake money are burned to ensure grandpa’s good afterlife. Chickens are sacrificed. Its blood, decorated with feathers, is smeared on doorposts and cars and wherever else good luck is needed. A bloody mess, but better the chicken’s blood than your own, is the idea. This tradition is slowly disappearing though, and I really hope this is due to an improvement of driving skills.
Schools close for a full 4 weeks and kids will humbly but with untamed expectations sing to you: “Gong xi fa cai, hong bao na lai!” which means as much as “I wish you prosperity; now give me the red money bag!” The younger generation then receives a small red envelop with money from parents, older relatives and their friends, always hoping that the content is reflecting China’s economical growth. This is fun until you are married with a Chinese and have kids of your own. Then it’s gonna cost you! Especially when you lose track of all those cousins, all those whom you otherwise never see and more-often-than-not don’t really want to see, belonging to family members you only vaguely remember from previous new year ‘collections’. Without my wife carefully keeping records of our spending and our family, with a calculator in her left hand and the family-tree in her right, I would have to file for bankruptcy each year.
What disappointed me most was that until two years ago, firework was banned in our city. For safety reason. I am sure the bureaucrat who thought of this must have had a really bad day, unless of course, he was pocketing profits from growing countryside firework sales. Thanks to him, everyone had to buy their supply of highly explosive boxes from small back-alley shops in obscure little villages and bring it into the city by themselves. Cars and old shaky tricycles were loaded with fireworks and disappeared in the traffic. Chengdu traffic; so much for safety. But now this has changed. Orange tents -the firework tents- are set up on each street corner, and often one or two extra in-between. And so we are cordoned by a dozen potential bombs just beneath our complex. Each night, deafening crackers are lit only meters away from the tents and I see the salesman happily counting his profit while lighting the next cigarette. For safety, they all have a bucket of water beside their tent. I’m not sure yet how this can help with an explosion, but at least the cigarettes can be extinguished properly.
Anyway, we are on the sixth floor… and thus thinking that we are relatively safe, we can enjoy a spectacular view of the millions of fireworks, worth even more millions of RMB, thundering and flashing above the Chengdu skyline after the final countdown on all 49 Chinese TV channels, without spending one penny. My son begged me to buy our own firework, but I decided not to -not this year. We haven’t talked about it since, but I’m sure, one day, he will understand. The next morning, we went out early to roam the streets in search for last night’s remnants. All we found under the settling smog were deserted streets, cleaner than ever before, and here-and-there, a sweeper.
My wife and daughter had taken the afternoon and evening off. Recognition flights. Recognition flights for mum and daughter surveying personalities and shops, developing character and taste, and previewing which future paths to take and which latest movies to skip. I usually receive a full report upon return. From both. My wife will reflect on the topics discussed; My daughter on the items not bought. Nonetheless, a good time, not the least because they’re leaving the men to themselves.
It is during these imposed men’ s nights that my son Asher and I drive around -with Asher behind the wheel, be it on my lap; that we go for a walk in the neighborhood; that we photograph the man on his bike, the ducks hanging head-down from the tree, the small red butt sticking out the split in the baby’s trousers, or that we play chess. Later on in the evening we get our huge Chinese chopping knives out and fix our favorite dishes while sweating away in our too small kitchen. For reason no one has ever been able to explain, kitchen counters in Chengdu are very low, even for the Chinese. They keep forgetting to build drawers. I have to stand legs wide when I do the dish wash like a giraffe drinking water from a well. I convinced my wife that this is not healthy for me and we agreed to delegate the dish washing duty to our kids. The kids were for obvious reasons not in on this meeting.
It was during an orange chopping session that Asher dropped the question: “Dad, what does the F-word mean? Some kids in my class know it but I don’t…” There are those questions you know will come at some point in time, but when they come you feel desperately ill prepared. Here hidden away under the shadows of the most eastern Tibetan hills, sex, drugs and rock’n roll are still centuries away. Though HIV and drugs aren’t unknown in China, it isn’t on people’s radar as much as in The West and teenage-moms are virtually unheard of. Kids here seem to stick to their innocence and do their homework a bit longer and are not worried about boyfriends or condoms or clean needles. I guess you can call it one of the blessings of a family-oriented society where two parents, a handful of grandparents and a busload of uncles and aunts pressure the one and only child to perform and eventually provide. Or is it the blessings of an internet policy that prevents half the ‘morally corrupting’ sites available in http://www.freeworld.com to be seen? Maybe it is just due to lack of catchy TV stations to watch.
But it wasn’t so much the sexual aspect of the topic that troubled me. I’ve worked enough with kids as well as parents who habitually used these words in every sentence -for as far as they were able to speak complete sentences anyway- explaining to them the origin and the meaning and the use of this abbreviation and the word. No, it wasn’t so much the meaning that troubled me as much as the time it would take to do so. As a hard working dad, I needed some personal wind-down time. So I planned an escape.
“No dad, I don’t know any S-word. I mean the F-word.”
“Sure you know the S-word; you’re teacher uses that every day in class! Doesn’t she always say: ‘as soon as I say the S-word, you can start’?”
“That’s not the S-word, that’s the G-word, dad.”
“Aha, I see.”
“Yes, the G-word, and it stands for ‘go’.”
A thoughtful silence followed. I desperately needed some time to think. All I wanted was to quietly read my book. For a moment I flirted with the idea to delegate this question. “Why don’t you ask your teacher tomorrow?!” but I couldn’t. Wasn’t this our men’s night? Wasn’t this the ideal stereotype question fitting an evening as this? Still, I needed time. “I’ll shower first, we’ll discuss this later -go and play after you’re done here.”
I found him playing in the living room with his favorite cars; causing traffic jams and accidents on the Cheng Guan Kuai Kong Road. I was just about to feel relieved when he looked up to me – and I knew: the question would come again. And so over dinner that evening, father and son were talking about eggs, seeds, stems and testicles, slowly painting a simplified picture of the complexity called reproduction that even scientists have not yet fully unraveled, just because of the F-word. Before we reached the heart of the matter though, Asher had lost interest and turned to more urgent and pressing issues: how to solve his traffic jam and what chess piece to move. I suppose it had been sufficient enough for a ten year old. Just as I sat back and picked up my book, the doorbell rang; mum and daughter had returned.