Well, it’s finally here. New Year’s Day is less than a week away. And final preparations are in full swing. The official travel period has begun. Many businesses are already shut down. Red signs of happiness and wealth are everywhere – literally everywhere. And the mood of the country is universally buoyant.
Without a doubt, this is the one thing that has come to define Spring Festival the most for me – the air of unqualified and unbridled optimism. In a word, hope.
And I think the reason is that while Spring Festival is all about family, it’s not about the family. It’s not a forced march. It’s not about what kind of family you have or whether you are a functional family or a dysfunctional family.
In short, it’s not so much a celebration of family, which is where most families fall short (What are we celebrating?). It’s about rejuvenation; the promise of a new day; the chance to start over.
It’s a massive re-boot. Sweep out the old; make room for the new.
And here’s the thing with hope – it’s not a zero-sum game in the vernacular of mathematical gaming theory. Everybody can win. Your fortune does not have to come at the expense of someone else’s misfortune.
Isn’t that the problem with most relationships, including family? In most relationships isn’t there always one person with just a little more power over the relationship than the other? And isn’t it that imbalance that creates the potential for strife and distress. Sure, there are exceptions. But even the exceptions prove the rule. Successful relationships are successful because both sides put aside that imbalance in the interest of the relationship. In failed relationships one or both parties does not or can not.
No one, on the other hand, can own hope. Everyone can own it in equal abundance. Circumstances often make that difficult but it’s not a limitation of hope itself.
During Spring Festival there are many five or six day events held called Temple Fairs. For lack of a better word, they are like carnivals. Each differs in character and emphasis but there is a common element to them all.
There is always an element of cultural heritage. Ancient plays will be performed. Traditional songs will be sung. Traditional dances will be danced. And, of course, there will be dragon dances, the traditional rhumba-line dance performed typically by people holding poles with connected decorations that give the whole thing the appearance of a slithering snake or break-dancing dragon. Every movie with a Chinatown scene inevitably shows one.
There is also plenty of food. I, for one, like the barbeque (don’t think American barbeque slathered with sauce) and the fried noodles. My daughters favor the candied fruits and cotton candy.
And while many Temple Fairs are devoted strictly to celebrations of China’s cultural heritage and tradition, many transform themselves into a combination of a traveling circus and Disneyland. No big tops or elephant acts but rides for the kids and plenty of arcade games for young and old alike.
And as long as I shall live I shall never forget the experience we had at our very first Temple Fair in the winter of 2007-2008. My wife and daughters had been in the country for only one month and my daughters were 4 and 6 years old at the time.
And when we first arrived at the Temple Fair we, like most foreigners who have recently arrived in China, were completely overwhelmed. Overwhemled by the noise, the sights, the smells, and, of course, the people. And if you feel uncomfortable in the middle of a sea of people standing quite literally cheek by jowl, imagine you are 4 or 6 years old and you look completely different than every last person around you, many of whom have never seen a person who looks like you up close and personal. (Staring is not considered impolite here.)
So to give the girls a break from the picture taking and the hair rubbing (My oldest daughter has beautiful thick blond hair – the color of gold – and everyone seemed convinced that if they touched it prosperity was sure to come their way. Thankfully, they always ask first.) we went in search of an arcade game. And the first one we found was a simple game where you throw a big plastic ball like the ones we’ve all played with as kids onto a large platform lined with small bowls of different colors. And depending on which color of bowl the ball ends up in, if it ends up in one at all, you get a prize.
There were players on all four sides at least 5 people deep and the mood was expectant to say the least. People wanted to win, of course. But what they really wanted was to test their luck, to get a glimpse of what kind of year to expect.
It was a brisk day but the sun was out and the winter wind napping. And when we finally got our daughters up to the front one of the men running the game, himself hopeful to see someone win at his game since that was sure to bring good luck to him as well, hoisted my 4-year old daughter up onto the ledge surrounding the game and keeping people the proper distance from the game itself. It was a game of impossible odds, as he knew, so why not give the cute little foreign girl a fighting chance. (The Chinese universally revere and adore children.)
The chances of winning anything of real value, of course, are statistically small enough to be practically nonexistent. After all, the arcade’s owner wants prosperity as much as anyone else. But the man gave my daughter the big plastic ball and without hesitation – or even looking – she tossed it high in the air. And it bounced and it bounced and it bounced. It seemed, in fact, a miracle that it even stayed on the table. But in the end it finally came to rest – in the bowl in the very center of the table – the one and only red bowl.
Silence. Not a whisper. Even the background noise seemed to lose its voice. And then, all at once, as if it had been rehearsed a thousand times, the sizeable crowd erupted. Erupted in a way I had never witnessed before and suspect never will. A flash mob of complete and utter joy. People were quite literally jumping up and down. They were hugging. Old women were bending over backward and flailing their arms skyward. Men, young and old alike, were howling at the sky. It was mass ecstasy.
The adorable little foreign girl with the flaxen hair, despite impossible odds, had won it all – the biggest prize of all. Surely there could be no brighter omen for the coming year. To have been there; to have been an actual witness; surely this would be a good year indeed.
Win-win; win-win. Everyone wins. Everyone gets a big helping dose of hope. It’s as good as it gets in the end. (Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics 7 months later. It was, indeed, a very good year for all of China.)
(Collective joy. I wonder if we haven’t lost our ability to experience this most powerful of emotions in the West. With all of the emphasis on individualism and personal achievement and reward, I wonder if we haven’t lost the ability to know the true joy of someone else’s achievement or good luck? And in doing so I truly wonder if we haven’t lost a bit of what truly binds a culture and a people. Would there be so much strife in Western societies today if we could truly share joy? )
But for every yin, of course, there is a yang. And hope’s is the emotion of anger and hatred. Hope cannot exist in imbalance with anger.
Thankfully there is an anecdote for anger and hatred and the Chinese understand it well. It is forgiveness and it is a critical part of their holistic worldview.
If Spring Festival is a celebration of hope, it is also a time for forgiveness. There are no good children who get presents and bad children who get sacks of coal. They all get red envelopes with money stuffed inside.
Service workers, too, like the barber or the masseuse or the women who works in your home, get red envelopes but it is not so much custom as opportunity. Some expect it for sure. And it’s always appreciated. But it’s somehow bigger than entitlement. It’s a symbol of things to come. More than payment for service past performed, it is a key to the lock that opens the door to the future.
On the 3rd and 4th days of the lunar new year, in fact, it is customary for the husband to visit the home of his in-laws, if not to grant or beg forgiveness, to at least give thanks for the gift of his marriage.
Hope – forgivenes. Hope – forgiveness. The continuous circle of a rich and bountiful life. Hope – forgiveness.
So, wherever you are this January 31, may you know hope and forgiveness in equal measure. May you witness someone doing something remarkable or enjoying a piece of good luck and may you give thanks that you had the chance to witness their joy. Because their joy – whoever they are – is your joy – if you are only willing to open your heart to it.
Next week I’ll share my predictions for China in the Year of the Yang Wood Horse. You will be surprised. I don’t do this for money, obviously, so I can afford to be a little bolder than the average professional soothsayer.
And then it’s back to a few more serious topics. Does China have an Achilles Heel? Indeed it does. And I’ll tell you what it is. And I guarantee it’s not anything you’ve read or heard anywhere else.
Happy New Year!
And thank you for taking an interest. My rising subscription rate has indeed given me hope for the new year. (Don’t worry; I don’t know who you are. I only know you are there. And even if I did I would never use or share the information. I promise.)
Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China
Notice: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity. They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.