SONYA’S HOUSE, CHINESE NEW YEARS: Day 154, Thursday January 30 2014

It is Chinese new Years Eve and apparently festivities start tonight! Breakfast was cabbage, beans, and seaweed, along with our usual rice pudding. The beans were cooked in a soup broth only made once a year from the juices left over from cooking the new years feast.

Today even Paige is busy, folding, folding, folding, “Ya ya ni kan kan” (look grandpa!) she shouts after finishing one sheet all by herself. Sonya’s grandfather is a quiet man with a face covered in soft wrinkles and laugh lines. He speaks to his great granddaughter in a kind, quiet, calm voice, and her face grins back at him across the table. He works calmly, quietly, and diligently with a precision and perfection I have seen no where else in the world.

Paige is hanging off the coffee table across from her great grandfather, who is perched on a stool and is folding sheets of yellow paper. Paige is helping him, folding over one corner of each sheet he finishes. Yesterday we watched the old man preparing the same paper to be burnt on New years day in memory of the dead. He would pick p a large stack and shift it left and right with small motions of his wrist, fanning it out wide and beautiful so that each corner of each yellow sheet was separate from the rest. He’d find the middle of the stack, revers the fold and repeat in the other direction, then find the middle and fold it back around, finally placing it in a basket he had laying next to him. Before he started a new stack he would pick up a wooden stamp and hammer a circle in each corner and in the middle of the paper. “coins for the ancestors,” Sonya had explained.

A large picture is now hanging on the previously blank wall. It features two big temples with blue roofs. At the entrance to the first temple are two deer on the right and two birds on the left. In the background are four red roofed temples and two towers. On the roofs of the blue temples are dragons, and two lions guard the entrance. The second temple displays a table with candles and plates laid out and birds dance on plum blossom trees in the garden. This, Sonya says, is hung on New Years to remember the dead.

A good chunk of our day was spent sitting around the cook stove covering spinach, salty vegetables, potatoes and meat, tofu, and fish, in a thick sticky dough that Sonya’s dad would deep fry in a pot full of hot oil. The result were puffy dough balls that were crunchy on the outside. We were encouraged to try each flavour as they came fresh from the pot. They were delicious, though I didn’t care so much for the fish which was full of tiny little bones.

We ate the freshly fried food for lunch along with more of the meat broth veggie dish. Nate had some baijiu with Sonya’s grandfather, but I stuck with wine. Sonya’s family doesn’t seem to impressed with the wine, I guess it’s not a drink of choice here. Sonya had a little, but ended up mixing it with her apple drink! Nate and I took a nap after lunch, and when we woke up we found more relatives visiting and were given more tea and sunflower seeds.

It was quite warm out today, and Sonya found a volley ball, which we took outside to play with her and Paige. When Sonya’s mother came by we passed her the ball, and she chucked it full force at Nate! Sonya’s mother keeps on telling us to stop being so polite! She laughs every time I say xie xie. Her (Sonya’s) father seems to think Nate’s hilarious. Nate likes to pretend his bugs are hopping to his mouth and Sonya’s father laughs and laughs.

We walked out to the lake this evening. The pollution is a thick cloud, and ahead stretched a long empty road. It was like a scene from a post apocalypse movie. Paige scooted ahead on her scooter, and later walked along the edge of the wall. Fireworks were exploding from every direction, and when we returned to the house lanterns had been lit and were hanging from the big wooden doors.

Paige wanted to dance, so we went out with her and Sonya’s mother. We only made it through one song before we were surrounded by “paparazzi”. Everyone had their cell phones out, everyone was taking pictures. We were invited into someone’s house, led to the couch, and given hot cups of green tea and a plate of raisins, dates, and small oranges, and of course more sunflower seeds. Pictures, pictures, and more pictures. Sonya felt very uncomfortable as everyone was asking her mother questions about her.

People came and went to see these strange beings that had entered their home. Sonya’s mom smiled, laughed, and chatted. Everyone laughed and gawked at Nate’s height when he stood up, and Paige engaged in a sunflower seed shell war with me and Nate (started by the ginger giant).

We were glad to escape when Sonya told us it was time to go prepare to eat the dumplings, though we were a little worried about more eating…

We sat around the TV again, the whole family working to make the dumplings. I washed my hair in a plastic basin around 11:00 pm, as I was informed I would not be able to wash it after midnight. We were to stay up until 12:00 to welcome in the new year. Paige was determined to make it, though pretty soon her body began betraying her. We’d ask her if she was tired as her head nodded up and down, “bu lai!” (not tired) she would state admittedly. When she did fall asleep it was a determined “bu lai” one minute, and then whump, out the next.

(At midnight) we said happy new years, then followed the family back to the larger building, expecting to crawl straight in bed . Nate and I had already brushed out teeth by the time we found out the night wasn’t over yet. “As you know,” Sonya said, “we must burn the paper for the dead.” Sonya’s grandfather was laying the paper out on the ground, a container of baijiu in one hand. Sonya’s sister climbed to the roof with a long red chain of fire crackers. She dangled the end on Sonya’s head, but the usually cheerful girl looked less then amused.

Nate and I followed Sonya onto the roof. The sky was lighting up in every direction, the sky sounded like thunder, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, flash, flash, flash! It was like we were in a war zone. We could see bright lights raining down in every direction. The dogs were barking. It was beautiful.

The papers were on fire and ash, sparks, and smoke were rising to the roof. When the paper was out a burning stick was used the light the string of fire crackers. Nate and I had returned to the ground to avoid the rising cinders. Now we plugged our ears and hurried to the far corner as the crackers went off. Bits of paper rained down on us adding a new smell to my fishy jacket.

Finally time to go to bed? No. Steaming plates of dumplings were carried to the dining room. Another sacrifice to the the spirits I hoped. There was already and extravagant meal laid out for them in the living room.

Now we can eat the dumplings,” Sonya informed me.

Dumplings were eaten with eyes half open, faces were washed, and bed was beaconing, “Uh!?” Sonya asked, “You don’t wash the feet?”

Oh, um, yeah, I’ll wash my feet.” And then finally we were allowed to crawl under warm covers.

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