In Zibo, a city of five million people in Shandong province, the kids and I just spent our requisite Chinese New Year week. Their father was born in this city, but he has lived in Beijing for fifteen years and even he didn’t want to go back for the holidays this year. He only joined us for the last two days.
You see, Zibo is still a small town, by Chinese standards, and life in the provinces hasn’t exactly progressed as quickly as it has in Beijing. Take going to the park for example…
I took my kids to the park in the mornings three days in a row. Typical of Spring Festival, the first few days of the year were bright blue-sky days with unseasonably warm weather—enough to convince anyone that the lunar calendar is the meteorological master.
As the only foreigner—with two mixed kids in tow—I was the most popular person in the park. I was also the most ignored, simultaneously. People stopped and stared then talked openly about me at every turn, (assuming I couldn’t speak the language.) Crowds dispersed so I could walk through. The swings were emptied so my kids could swing on them. It’s the closest thing to fame a person can get without a request for autographs.
Eventually, this gets tiring. That’s when I loudly say something in Mandarin to my kids and watch the ripple effect of my Chinese language skills titter across the sea of parents and grandparents.
Chinese New Year to this long-term expat is a lot of extended family in close quarters surrounded by a second-tier city experience of otherness. I never thought getting back to smoggy Beijing would be returning to a breath of fresh air, but these past few days back home have been “blue skies ahead,” literally and figuratively. No second glances at the foreign mom in the park.
Thanks, Beijing. I can breathe again.
Photos: Courtesy of Ember Swift