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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Chinese New Year in Beijing

It started a couple of days ago –the sounds of what seemed like bombs or gunfire going off in my neighborhood. The first time I heard it, I looked out my window to see if there were any thing strange down on the ground. No, and people were walking about as though they had heard nothing. Not even any dogs were barking at the sound. So, I thought, it must not be a problem.

Yesterday morning, I started to hear a lot more such sounds. Alvin said it was fireworks, because it’s New Year’s Eve. I had never heard of fireworks during the day—what’s the point? He said they do it just for the sound. As the day went on, the blasts were more and more frequent. Then I began to hear what sounded like automatic gunfire (very rapid, like firecrackers) or like very loud static on the radio. Turns out, these were just different types of fireworks.

This is the biggest holiday in China, like our Christmas. Brian and Jennifer, a couple who teach at my school, who were kind enough to invite me over for dinner and fireworks viewing. There I met Joe, another American EF teacher, and heard about the differences between teaching in China and Japan. Contrary to all the stereotypes, he reinforces what I’ve heard from others, that there are severe discipline problems in both countries.

Ilisa and Bruno, a couple from Italy who are both architects, brought the dinner they cooked—spaghetti with clam shells and a whole fish (though no one was sure what kind it was). It was topped off by some delicious brownies, homemade by Jennifer. Later we were joined by Jurrie, a Chinese woman who grew up in the provinces in severe poverty, but now has a good job at an investment company in Beijing. I loved the conversation about the language similarities and differences among Mandarin, Italian, and English, and even some occasional talk about Portuguese and Spanish. Occasionally we translated for Bruno, who although his English is not-so-good, managed to keep us laughing with what little he did know.

All the way over to the apartment and all through dinner, the fireworks were constant, and getting more frequent all the time. I even noticed people shooting rockets from their apartment windows. Now that it was night time, the fireworks made a lot more sense to me, and we had a great vantage point after dinner on the patio, where we could see a huge section of Beijing from the 28th floor.

Imagine New York City, which has a population similar to Beijing’s, but where everyone is allowed to set off any kind of fireworks they want—the kind that in the US only the professionals are allowed to use. Then imagine that ever Tom, Dick and Harry is allowed to set off these fireworks any where in the city they want, with the favorite place being the middle of the streets. Then imagine that is augmented by several professional displays at various points in our viewing area. That’s Chinese New Year in Beijing. Here's a video that's similar to what we saw last night from the 28th floor: Here's a typical scene from the ground: It's been called the largest uncoordinated fireworks display in the world.

We could see for miles around into the distance and fireworks were going off all over the city as far as we could see. There were even some pretty nifty fireworks being set off right on the ground below our apartment; it was great to see them explode at eye-level.

It kept building and building, getting louder and more colorful and brighter. It peaked at midnight, but kept going all night long. Every other fireworks display I had ever seen reminded me of that song from the 60’s: “Is that all there is?” I never could understand what all the fuss was about. But THIS was a huge spectacle, which I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of. It was truly exciting.

About 1 am it was time to go. Joe and I were afraid we wouldn’t be able to get a cab home since all the cabs seemed to be off the streets (and who could blame them?), but Jurrie was good enough to deliver us home in her car. On the way, she had to dodge many of the fireworks boxes and canisters which were in the middle of the streets.

It’s a good thing I’m a heavy sleeper. As I said, the fireworks went on all night long, they were still going when I woke up this morning, and they are still going strong as I write this at 3:30 in the afternoon. They tell me this will continue for 15 more days.

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