Only two weeks into the term and I’m already on break! I guess the program tries to line their term up with American semesters so our summer break won’t be too short, but it makes for an interesting term. The second week went much better than the first, after not doing anything on Sunday (well, journaling and homework, but nothing high energy). I got over my jetlag completely, which unfortunately means getting up at 6 each day is much harder, but staying awake in the afternoon is easier. Class is also a lot easier, I can remember words for more than half an hour and I feel like I’m struggling a lot less. Last week I had been considering dropping down a level because of how hard it was to keep up, but I noticed that everyone was struggling a little, so I stayed. This week has proved that I made the right decision. I discovered Pleco’s flashcard function (Pleco, the best Chinese dictionary app you could ask for), and that has made studying much easier. My grammar is a little rusty since it’s been 6 or 7 months since my last Chinese class, but my writing has improved a lot since I started doing homework, so I’m picking it back up quickly.
Today is the Spring Festival, famous in the West as Chinese New Year. This means shops are closed and everyone has traveled back home to be with their parents, meaning Beijing is almost empty. When my teacher first described it that way, I was skeptical – coming from a town whose only high school has 300 kids to a city with millions of people, I fail to see how such a populated place could ever be described as empty. But going to school yesterday morning, only 2 or 3 other people got on the bus with me, and the normal flood of people from the subway station was down to a trickle of 5 or 10. Traffic jams, the norm in the city, are practically nonexistent, and nobody is out on the streets. It’s a bizarre experience.
As for the celebrations, the sound of fireworks started Thursday night. Even small fireworks sound loud because they echo off the buildings, and there was a short while after they started that I thought I was hearing shotguns. Then I realized how American that reaction is. Friday, instead of a test, all the students (immersion and non-immersion) got together to learn a little about the holiday, learn some calligraphy, and answer riddles for prizes. I particularly liked the calligraphy, and I’m going to start going to calligraphy class once school is back in session. I also answered 3 riddles, and used the prizes to decorate my room a little. Friday afternoon, I finally unpacked fully (which means I put the shoes left in my suitcase into my closet, and put my suitcase under my bed), and cleaned off my desk. That night the fireworks were everywhere, really loud and from all directions. (Even as I’m writing this, more are going off, although not quite as many). They kept up until late, although I was so tired I managed to sleep even with the explosions.
Early this morning I got up and went with my host parents to the Wofu temple, where there’s an immense statue of a reclining Buddha. The temple is at the back of the botanical gardens, so, even though it was dark when we got there, the walk was beautiful. It got lighter by the time we reached the temple, but I wish there had been a little more light, as there were no lights in each building, but it was still really cool. The first building had four ferocious looking (if somewhat obscure in the gloom) guardian spirits, the second had the fat, laughing Buddha who will be the next Buddha. The third had three large statues, whose personages my host dad was unsure of (although the internet tells me they’re the three previous Buddhas), and the last had the reclining Buddha. At each of the buildings with a Buddha, there was a brazier in front and two candlelit lanterns on either side. Each person would light 3, sometimes more, sticks of incense, bow or pray in front of the brazier, and then put the incense in. Then they could go into the building and pray in front of the statues before exiting at the back. Facing the exit in the middle two buildings there was another statue, although who they were I’m not sure. At the second building (the first with the Buddha), my host dad said that you don’t pray unless you intend to come back next year, but at the last two he gave me incense so I could also light it, bow, and put it in the brazier. He didn’t pray at all, but my host mom did, including putting a prayer on a ribbon and tying it to a large rack filled with prayers near the last building. Apparently this is the only time of year that they go to the temple, and the reason they go so early is to avoid the crowds. Seeing the streams of people coming in, I’m glad we did go early, as the line would have been too long later. This was also a slightly less popular temple than one closer to the center of Beijing, and I was probably the only Westerner there.
After that they brought me back to the apartment, which I was a little upset about. The Spring Festival is a holiday about family, but they were leaving me out as they went to go visit theirs. My rational mind says that it’s probably for the best – I wouldn’t have known anyone, and my Chinese still isn’t good enough to be able to hold a conversation with fast-speaking natives, so it probably was better for me to go back and sleep (which is what I did). Still, it’s hard not to feel left out. Instead I went to YuanMingYuan, the old Summer Palace, which supposedly has celebrations and shows for the Spring Festival, but I couldn’t find any. The park was pretty, despite the fact that everything is dead during winter (apart from the junipers and pines), and I got to see some black swans, but none of the festivities I was looking for. My host parents were back when I got home, which also eases the feeling of abandonment – I had been expecting them to be gone all day. So in the end I did get to eat jiaozi, the traditional food of the Spring Festival, and food is one of the most important things. My teachers also gave us electronic red envelopes, which Chinese adults use to give money to young people (I’m probably too old to get them from other people, but I guess we count as children to our teachers). All in all it was a pretty fine day.
During the break I hope to go out and see more of Beijing, even if traveling across the country (the ideal) is too expensive. This blog might get more frequent updates if I do – I hope this will be a busy week!
Some of my calligraphy from yesterday – the character fu means good luck, and is usually pasted on doors or windows, sometimes upside down, because the pronunciation for ‘luck has arrived’ and ‘luck is upside down’ is the same.
The three riddles I solved – are there any readers who want to take a guess at the answers? Leave a comment and I’ll tell you whether they’re right or not!