Chinese New Year Part 1: Spring Cleaning

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I moved to Taiwan 3 weeks ago, and it just so happens that tomorrow will be Chinese New Year. As a guest in this country, I have decided to take the opportunity to experience the New Year like a local, and have made it a mission to take part in all of the traditional Chinese rituals for the duration of the 8-day celebration.

Part one is easy: a little spring cleaning, a feast, and fireworks. I think I can do that.

A new year, a new beginning. In this aspect, Chinese New Year and the Western New Year are quite the same. It’s a time to make a mental evaluation of the year coming to a close, and to plan what one wishes to manifest for the year sneaking around the corner.

Chinese New Year falls on February 13 this year. For the Taiwanese, it will be year 103. On this eve day of the New Year, I woke up early for my morning run. I pushed the button for the elevator, and as the door opened, a cloud of smoke greeted me. It turned out I was about to share the elevator with a lady holding a bundle of burning incense in one hand, and her dog that looked like a tiny version of the flying white creature in the Never-ending Story in the other. I had to check myself to see if I was still dreaming. I also had to laugh at the fact that if I were back home, this would be deemed a fire hazard.

As I walked out of my building, I was greeted with even more smoke, and by my neighbors huddled over what looked to be like rows of individual trash fires.  I was happy, however, to see they were not trash fires, simply an offering to the Gods for New Years, which is part of a symbolic ritual representing getting rid of the old; either way I’m sure it still isn’t good for the environment.

Neighbors burning offerings

Neighbors burning offerings

Seeing as I just moved here three weeks ago, I don’t have that much clutter from the old year to burn. So I decided to write on a piece of paper a few habits I would like to kick, and positive ones I would like to adopt for the New Year. I then went downstairs to join my neighbors in the burning festivities, and threw my paper in the fire.

It is tradition to sweep your house on New Years Eve day, because it symbolizes sweeping away the bad luck from the year, and makes your house ready to receive good luck. Afterwards, the broom is hidden away and forbidden to be used on New Years day in fear of the good luck being swept away. Incense is then burned in the house to drive out any negative energy.

Well, good news is, I just bought a Swiffer at Costco.

After I swept, I realized I had no incense, so I went on an adventure to find some. It wasn’t long before I came across a shop with an altar of burning incense. I asked the lady (used my non-verbal communication skills) to see if I could buy incense there. She smiled happily, invited me in, and proceeded to hand me a bundle of incense. I asked how much, and handed her a 100 Taiwan dollar note (roughly 3 US dollars), and she shook her hand. I assumed she was giving it to me for free, so I put my money back in my wallet and made a look at her with the intention of conveying “are you sure”?. She then took my wallet and poured everything out from it on the table, which was quite comical because I travel with weird things- a piece of hematite and my lucky compass coin to name a few. After looking curiously at all of the items, she decided upon a ten cent coin as compensation.

I then stuffed everything back into my money pouch, lit two pieces of incense and placed them  on the altar. Everyone was staring at me intently with the hugest grins. I think it really tickled them that I was partaking in the New Year rituals. I said goodbye in Chinese, which isn’t hard because it is “bye-bye”, and took the rest of the incense home to be burned.

Among sweeping and incense burning, the Chinese also put red decorations outside their door for New Years, and it is customary to buy new shoes, get a hair-cut, and to settle all debts.

As I see it, my neighbors have put out plenty of red decorations on my behalf, so I feel I am covered in this area. I settled my debt before I left for Taiwan, so I am covered there, and as for a new hair cut, I am not brave enough to try out a Taiwan hairstylist just yet. Oh yes, and the shoes. I am kind of on a budget until I get my first paycheck in March, so no new kicks for me. Maybe my new apartment can count as a symbolism of something new? Hell, maybe the fact that I moved to a new country can substitute for something new.

Now for the fun part. Tonight, we feast.

New Year’s Eve here is not like the champagne popping, count down we celebrate in the Western world.  It is more like our Christmas Eve. Families get together in their homes and enjoy a feast called the “Reunion Dinner”, with dishes such as dumplings and a variety of fish. Dinner is usually eaten around midnight, and some families will visit temples afterwards to light the first incense of the New Year, and afterwards light firecrackers to scare away evil spirits.

Seeing as we have no family here to share our Reunion Dinner with, we called our friends Kailey and Jeremy, and planned to meet at 7 for dinner. We decided to be adventurous and go to one of the outside seafood restaurants that are constantly bustling with happy looking patrons eating steaming bowls of deliciousness. We usually have steered clear of these places because we don’t know how to order off the menu, but our game plan for the night was to point to the table next to us and ask for the same thing. The waitress and the family sure did get a kick out of it. Glad we could give them something to laugh about.

And out comes the food. A sizzling plate of stir-fry with tofu, veggies, and bacon in a oyster like sauce, and loaded with fresh garlic.  Pretty good. Okay, one for one so far.  Next, the waitress brought out a whole fried fish, which was baked in a sauce similar to the stir-fry, and accompanied with garlic and bamboo shoots. Delicious. The fish meat fell right off the bones.

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Last and definitely the least, the waitress brought out a burner, with a steaming bowl of soup on top. Inside there was an odd concoction of things; some I’m still not sure what they were. Cabbage, crab, noodle thingies in the shape of tubes, mushrooms, and pig intestines. The pig intestines were chewy and tasted funky, so I didn’t eat much.

All in all, two for three. Not bad.

Pig intestine soup

Pig intestine soup

We paid the check and walked back to  check out our friends’ new apartment,  enjoy some drinks, and to view the fireworks from the 34th floor of their rooftop. It was here I had one of those moments. You know, one of those moments that just clicks, putting your life into perspective, and assuring you that you are right where you should be.

Fireworks could be heard and seen all night long, but at around 11:30 they started going off like mad, and at midnight, the sky was full of lights. On top of the 34th floor, we could see every firework show in Kaohsiung. The bright balls of light would explode into patterns in the sky, and then seconds later the loud “BOOM” made it to our ears. It was absolutely brilliant.

Going back to the folklore of the Chinese New Year, the loud noises of the fireworks are used to scare away the evil Nian monster. However, we couldn’t find any fireworks of our own to light, so we decided the second best thing was to scream as loud as we could.

And this we did.

We all shouted at the top of our lungs, out into the night sky. We probably looked like mad men, but I don’t think Nian will be bothering us this year.

My boyfriend and I didn’t get home until very late, and I was a little tipsy, so I almost forgot to burn the first incense for the New Year as is customary. My boyfriend was sleeping, but I woke up and stumbled across the room to find the piece of incense I was saving,  fumbled for the lighter in the dark, and made my way to the roof of our building.

The fireworks were still going strong; a magical backdrop for the beautiful moment of solitude and reflection.

Happy New Year.

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Comments

  1. I love you Jenna and I am glad that you are happy.

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