The same thing happens every Chinese New Year (CNY) holiday: a mass exodus from Beijing. The sky turns blue, traffic reduces to levels otherwise not witnessed since the 2008 Olympics, domestic helpers return to their home provinces, and white collar workers, both foreign and domestic, head for tropical climes. By contrast, during our first winter in Beijing, we remained in the city over the holiday and we enjoyed the experience so much, we have made it a family tradition to stay in Beijing over CNY.
Growing up in Ashland, Oregon, fireworks were officially reserved for one night of the year, Independence Day (the Fourth of July). In Ashland and much of the USA, Independence Day represents a time of backyard barbecues, local parades, warm evenings, and municipal firework displays that seem to draw out most of the town’s residents. For my own family, it represents a time of reunion when my brothers and I gather our families at Mom and Dad’s place to share our successes, console our tragedies, relive our pasts, and argue our differences.
Similarly, CNY is also a time of celebration, family gatherings, and temple fairs, but the fireworks are on a whole other scale : completely off the chart. Every year, at midnight on the eve of CNY, I experience a profound sense of awe as hundreds of rockets light up the night sky with explosions of flowering sparks and spiraling comets while tens of thousands of firecrackers erupt into a cacophony of noise. All of this takes place in neighborhood after neighborhood, and in 30 minutes, I witness more fireworks than others have seen in a lifetime.
Not surprisingly, this dramatic display of pyrotechnics has left an indelible impression on Reina too. Our first flat in Beijing stood beside the designated community ignition point for all neighborhood fireworks and, on the 21st floor, we enjoyed the nightly display of fireworks exploding at eye level outside our living room and bedroom windows. Reina adored them, raced to the window whenever she heard them, and despite our concerns, slept blissfully through them each night.
On some nights during past holidays, we ate dumplings before venturing out early to light a few fireworks ourselves: towers of sparks that leapt into the sky and a few small rockets. For Reina, however, the sound of the other, larger fireworks quickly forced us to make a hasty retreat indoors, where we watched the night sky light up from behind the safety of a window. Night after night, we stared out in wonder at the magnitude of it all.
With that in mind, I experienced some trepidation when I informed her this past summer of the pending fireworks display on the Fourth of July when we visited her grandparents back in provincial Ashland. Not wanting her expectations to be skewed, I explained the brevity of the display and its diminutive nature. When she asked why we did not simply buy our own big fireworks, we discussed the municipal restrictions and the risk of fire in the dry summer climate. Finally, the fireworks display started and ended in 15 minutes. From the street outside, she exhibited little interest in the distant pops and showers of light. Instead, she showed much more enthusiasm for watching her older cousins light smoke bombs, sparking cones, and spinners while they wrote words on the canvas of night with sparklers. This, Reina enjoyed, despite the fireworks being exponentially more humble than Beijing’s offerings. Even though we encouraged her to venture outside and try her hand at lighting a sparkler or two, she felt content to watch safely from behind the glass, just like at home in Beijing