New Years in Middle of Nowhere, Hunan pt. 1

Cousin Katie and I spent Spring Festival 春节this year with 博哥’s family in Hunan. While this was the second Chunjie I’d spent in Asia, I

Picturesque Yi Yang

had spent the holiday during my year at Beida travelling outside China, and was thus excited for my first chance to have an authentic Chinese New Year experience. We flew into Changsha Hunan, early on Saturday morning, and 博哥’s mom (who I’ll call 李妈妈 for the purposes of the blog) and dad (李爸爸) met us at the airport for the drive to Yiyang 益阳, where 李妈妈’s family is from. Yiyang,a tiny (by Chinese standards) city of about half a million people, lies about an hour and a half northwest of Changsha. It’s got the rather drab uniform look of most middling Chinese cities: most of the buildings share a similar beige color and few are over eight stories high. We stayed in an apartment just off of the wide shop-lined pedestrian street (perhaps modeled after Shanghai’s Nanjing East Street) that is also a mainstay of all mid-level Chinese cities. It snowed most of the afternoon and evening of our first day there, such that the whole city was blanketed in snow by the second day. Covered in snow, the city resembled a less picturesque version of the homely town where the blockbuster Pepsi commercial I wrote about earlier this month is set.

We arrived in Yiyang mid-day on Saturday, in time for a massive meal with several aunts, uncles, and cousins, including a mid-sized bottle of baijiu split between the five men (including me) at the table. Unsurprisingly, non-stop eating and drinking were the dominant theme of the entire trip to Hunan, to the point of exhaustion. Every lunch and dinner became a big production,

All the meals were this awesome. Only thing missing from this photo is the boozeHanging out around the fire after a meal. It was too cold to do much else

with plenty of relatives crowded around a table piled high with food. The homemade food was, also unsurprisingly, amazing, although I was surprised that this Hunan crowd ate very little spicy food. Most meals consisted of a couple of large stews which boiled throughout the meal in electric kettles, flanked by an assortment of stir-fried dishes. As the meals wore on and the stir-fried dishes cooled, the remainders were dumped into the boiling electric pots, presumably to re-heat them and to soak up the flavor of the stew. Several family members live on farms, giving us ample access to amazing home-raised free-range chicken, and incredibly fresh home-grown vegetables, including some I’d never seen before.

Even this amazing food took a back seat to the single-mindedness with which a Chinese family at New Years pursues its alcohol. The level of drinking was

View from on top of a temple on a hill overlooking the city

exhausting. It felt like an act of physical exertion to drink heavily over a big lunch and then, just in time for the buzz from lunch to wear off, to start all over again. Luckily, this family was willing to spare us from drinking baijiu most of the time, leaving us to choose between beer and wine. The downside of drinking one of these, though, is that an appropriate toast often requires draining a full 5 ounce glass—whether it was full of beer or wine. According to custom, one is expected to toast everyone at the table, as well as be toasted back by the other drinkers. On several occasions, thus resulted in me finishing off more than a full bottle of wine to myself, to say nothing of the beer. A couple of times, 李爸爸 brought bottles of wine with him to toast us with when we went to visit other relatives. However, as the wine was mostly for our benefit (had it been up to them, they would have drunk just baijiu), few people had an opener handy. We watched instead as an uncle, showing remarkable ingenuity, drove an ordinary screw through the cork and used that as leverage to remove it.

While Chunjie festivities often last a whole week, the official start of the new

Burning "money" for ancestors to use in the afterlife

year was Sunday night. We gathered in an aunt’s apartment for the meal, but before we could eat, the family had to make a New Year’s offering to their ancestors. We gathered in the small apartment’s dining room, where several Mao posters overlook a round wooden table. We watched as Grandma laid out two plates of meat and a full stewed chicken in a bowl on the table, as well as a couple of plastic cups of rice, and two glasses each of water and baijiu. She placed a sprig of green onion over each of the dishes of meat, and lit a couple of sticks of incense. Each member of the family took turns bowing over the table, following which she burned a small handful of rough yellow paper, which I’d seen before to represent money. The little dish

Also from a temple overlooking the city. The low buildings in the background are a cement factory.

of incense was transferred to a small altar inset in the dining room wall.

I’ve decided to split this into a couple of entries since it’s too long for one blog post, but stay tuned next week for drunken fireworks.

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