A Chinese home for the holidays

As i mentioned in my previous post, the Chinese New Year is about family and what better way to spend that holiday than with one of my Chinese students and her family. Early yesterday morning we met my student at the subway station and then took a long bus to her hometown in Tianjin. She kept apologizing that we couldn’t take her car because her husband was using it for a business trip and she insisted that she help carry my bag. She also insisted that she buy us breakfast before we hopped on the bus. If a Chinese person invites you anywhere, whether that be to dinner or their home, it is usually custom that they pay for everything-down to the last coca-cola. When we tried to pay for our breakfast , she refused to let us do so. The foreigner and the Chinese person do this little dance where the foreigner  and the Chinese person argue over who foots the bill and then finally the foreigner must throw in the towel and let them pay. Although in my heart of hearts i knew i wasn’t going to pay for anything, it is customary to play the game.  I could tell that our trip was going to be one of pampering.

The city is about 90km from Beijing so it wasn’t too far and when we arrived we hopped in a taxi and headed to her house. My expectations of what Shan Shan’s parents home would look like were far different from the reality. I had expected a small little apartment with Mao paraphernalia and paintings of Chinese blossom trees. However, this home was straight out of American suburbia. Their home was in a recently constructed community of modular homes all built similar to each other. I need to devote a post to the differences between standard Chinese and American homes but for now take a look at the outside of this home.

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We took off our shoes and put on slippers because that is custom in most Chinese homes. Shan Shan told us that we could call her parents “ai” and “shu shu”.  These two references are common when addressing people in China that are significantly older than you. It is a sign of respect and a sign that you are like family. Her parents greeted us with smiles and told us in Chinese that ” their home was our home.” It was really touching and i immediately started to feel like i was in a family’s home.

While the outside was straight out of the West, the inside was very Chinese. There were dark wooden chairs with bright red cushions covered in Chinese characters. There were in fact pictures of Chinese trees hanging on the wall. Right next to the kitchen was a little bowl full of baby coy fish and on the shelves were replicated statues of Mao and past presidents of China. My first ten minutes at the house was a true “East meets West” kind of moment.

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After no less than ten minutes in the house, we were invited to the kitchen table for lunch. What we saw before us was  an absolute Chinese feast. Her father and mother had prepared duck, chicken, vegetables, rice, shrimp and pork. As we were sitting down, Shan Shan’s father pulled out the Baiju. Baiju is a VERY strong alcoholic beverage that is common for Chinese people to drink at large social gatherings or for family celebrations. Think of straight vodka but five times stronger. While Billy was encouraged to drink the Baiju, i was given a small glass of red wine. Shan Shan said, ” Baiju is more for men.” This comment really made me think of the stereotype that are still given to men and women in this culture. Baiju is considerd a man’ drink because it is strong and masculine and wine is considered more dainty.

Shan Shan’s mother and father were keenly watching us eat. They were concerned we wouldn’t like their food because we were foreigners and i assured them that everything was amazing. And it was. I had expected them to be eating with us but they just watched us eat and kept telling us to eat more. So, the first twenty minutes of eating was enjoyable and then it got tough. Eating the food became a marathon and i didn’t want to disappoint them. Thirty minutes in and i was about ready to throw in the towel but then i opted for one cup of soup. Then i threw in the towel and passed the eating burden onto Billy. I give him a gold star for eating as much as he did because truly ,he was full until this morning.

Shan Shan’s husband was away on a business trip but her young son was with us. A couple of months ago Shan Shan showed me pictures of her 2-year-old son learning how to swim. I thought he was cute then but nothing could prepare me for the amount of cuteness i was to experience. The whole afternoon we played with him and admired his curiosity of two foreigners being in the house. Actually , it didn’t take long until he was calling me, “ie” and Billy “Shu Shu”. Both his mother and grandmother told us that this meant he felt very comfortable with us. We spoke to him in Chinese and English which was really fun. He was all smiles the whole afternoon and so were we. Please see the happiest child below.

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That evening we learned how to make dumplings! This is something that I’ve wanted to learn how to for some time because it is one of the most traditional Chinese dishes. Billy and i took turns pinching the dumpling dough together but we were really bad at it in the beginning. Shan Shan and her mother came to our aid, making it look like a flawless art. It was mesmerizing to watch them pinch these very thin pancakes together to make a perfect half-mooned shaped dumpling. Although we were still full from lunch, we soldiered on and ate our homemade dumplings for dinner. I don’t throw around the word food coma too often, but we were truly in a food coma and i felt truly tired from eating that much food. We were asleep within two hours of eating.

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The next morning Shan Shan and her brother took us to a temple fair in town. These fairs are common occurrences during the Chinese New Year. While not all of these fairs are actually surrounding temples, this one was. We spent an hour exploring every nook and cranny of this temple and Shan Shan had her arm linked in mine and told me all the fun facts about the history of Tianjin. We walked into a room of ancient artifacts from the area and a random Chinese man stopped me and said , “Are you a foreigner?” No sir, can’t you tell by my fair skin and round ideas that I’m Chinese? But seriously, sometimes these obvious questions are asked. Shan Shan and i laughed afterwards and continued on our way. The sun was shining so  bright and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was a perfect winter day.

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An hour later, some older women dressed in ethnic Chinese costume and did a dance. There were several elderly men banging on drums and playing flutes to provide background music. Presumably, these men were the women’s husbands. I stood there for thirty minutes enthralled in their performance. With the temple backdrop, the women dancing and the men playing instruments, i felt the true spirit of the new year.

After a couple of hours, Shan Shan’s brother was gracious enough to drive us all the way back to Beijing and  he invited us to come back to Tianjin in a couple of months to go hiking with him. While i saw so many differences during our time in Tianjin, i saw so many similarities as well. The food, the mannerisms, and the style was totally different but the devout love of family was obviously there. Chinese families are so incredibly close and it emphasizes  the importance of those ties amongst the backdrop of so many other distractions in this world.

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