To me, celebrating the arrival of spring sounds like one of the best reasons to celebrate. This is particularly true up here in my husband’s hometown in Northeast China, a most barren land in winter. I vividly remember when my brother visited us in May 2015. We drove all the way to the North Korean border near Ji’an, a mere 5-hour drive through plains and mountain roads. Driving down a road next to the Yalu River, we could see North Koreans on the other side of the bank, some washing clothes, some taking a bath, others walking home. The trees had barely grown new leaves yet. Snow had melted, but it was still cold and the pictures we took all looked grey.
Spring in Northeast China
Spring in Northeast China is short and starts late. I still remember the excitement I felt when my husband exclaimed that with the celebration of Spring Festival, winter was now officially over and spring about to start. I imagined changing into fewer layers in the morning, spending the days outside, and taking my son for walks, marveling at the revival of nature. Only later did I realize that for my Northeastern Chinese husband, the beginning of spring does not have the same connotations it does for me. To him, the start of spring means that the coldest three weeks of the year are over. His version of the start of spring is slower and more subtle than what I have grown up knowing of the Austrian springs. It might mean that the earth starts to defrost, not necessarily that the trees will start carrying green leaves and blossoms. We’ll usually have to wear winter clothes for a few more months.
Celebrating Spring Festival with my in-laws
I still do like the connotation of spring being just around the corner. Tomorrow, I’ll try to coax my toddler son into wearing layer upon layer of winter clothing and will bundle up my 4-month-old baby to do the unheard of –take him out in the midst of winter. Together we will travel to visit my in-laws. Since we have two small children we don’t have a massive celebration. When visiting relatives we don’t partake in drinking copious amounts of baijiu or watching the men smoke and play Mahjongg. We’ll stuff jiaozi and hang up New Year’s decorations instead and will enjoy a sumptuous New Year’s dinner. And that’s about it. I see myself lying in bed early, trying to comfort my sons as we listen to the boisterous echo of firecrackers exploding on the cement ground just outside the flat, a warning sign to the Nian beast to never put its feet on this earth again. We’ll probably also have our air purifier on full blast to counteract the pollution caused by the fireworks. My father-in-law has already cut my toddler son’s hair. People here say you can’t cut hair in the month after Chinese New Year, or a maternal uncle is going to die. Since I have four brothers, we don’t want to take any chances.
Wearing Red in the Year of the Rooster
This spring festival is special in that it ushers in my husband’s benmingnian, his zodiac year. My husband was born in the year of the rooster. He’ll have to wear red to ward off bad luck every single day of the upcoming year. Red underwear, red socks, or some other red clothes are all supposed to help ward off bad luck incurred upon people in their zodiac year by taisui, the God of Age.
Being married to China and having children whose cultural heritage is partly Chinese does not mean I need to believe in every single Feng Shui principle or Taoist tradition, but it does mean I need to respect local traditions and superstitions–as long as they are not harmful.
Ruth Silbermayr-Song is an Austrian illustrator, German teacher and mother of two. She writes about life in China as a foreign woman, her cross-cultural marriage to a Chinese man, and child rearing bridging cultures and languages on her blog China Elevator Stories. Her story of pregnancy and parenting in China has appeared in the anthology “Knocked Up Abroad Again”.
Photos courtesy of Ruth Silbermayr-Song