Friday, February 23, 2007

Yangshan (photos below)

The first thing I noticed when I walked into Angel’s home was the calendar on the wall, featuring Mao Zedong. I haven’t been in many Chinese homes, and the thought had half crossed my mind that such portraits were usually in places where other people could see them, such as in shops, the fact of their presence being as important as the meaning they purported to convey. But the longer I am in China the more I realize how significantly the experience and memory of Mao, no matter how much it differs from the “truth” of history, has permeated the everyday lives of many Chinese people, attaining a meaning differing from, though linked to, the realities of his rule. Many foreigners who see such portraits—of Mao in China, of Ho in Vietnam—look upon them with some disdain. They know better; modern Chinese subjects have, regrettably, been duped by the state. But such thinking may just be an updated brand of orientalism, for how can I possibly presume to know what Mao means for Angel’s parents, who have chosen to include his memory in their private space?

The identical calendar of Mao hung on the walls of her other family members—Angel’s uncle got it from his workplace and gave it to everybody, and as I made the circuit from one household to another, and then back again, I realized how close-knit the family is. A particularly raucous dinner wasn’t a dinner so much as an attempt to grab a bite or two between toasts of wine. At that dinner I struggled to understand an uncle (I think) telling me about how an American pilot, a member of the volunteer Flying Tigers which flew for China during the Japanese invasion before the US officially entered the war, was shot down in Yangshan and protected by its citizens. He also told me that the US and China are the world’s greatest nations, which I of course found very interesting! (Incidentally, the Chinese word for nation, minzu, is also the word for race. Its etymology is complicated and much discussed, but it involves the important influence of racial imaginings of the Han in the conceptualization of the Chinese nation in the early twentieth century. Anyway it’s sometimes difficult to figure out which exactly people are referring to, or whether they themselves even know!)

The Spring Festival (or New Year's Festival) very much revolves around chatting with family members, often in front of the TV. Pictures of happy pigs (this year is the year of the Pig) hang everywhere. People put money inside hongbaos, which means “red envelopes,” and are, um, red envelopes, and give them to family members and friends. I got a ton from various people, though when I gave out some of my own I was a little confused about proper hongbao etiquette. I gave one to my friend Su and she said, “Oh! Are you getting married?” I also gave a hongbao to Angel’s parents, one for both of them. I happened to hand it to her mother, but apparently I should have given one to each of them—according to Angel, her mother won’t split the money!

On the first day of the festival (this year February 18th), many people in the town visit the local temple, a very beautiful, recently constructed place on the outskirts of town. There they burn incense and stare particularly shamelessly at any foreigner who might happen to be present. They also set off firecrackers, but there really isn’t anywhere that people don’t set off firecrackers during this time of year. Quiet is precisely what the Spring Festival is anything but. Especially at midnight on the eve of the first day, the noise is unbelievable! It was like a war had suddenly broken out around us. I don’t think I’ll forget the image of Angel’s dad grinning and holding his cigarette while throwing a bunch of extremely loud firecrackers out his front door.

Angel’s parents are extremely nice, but more than that, they are very interesting people, and I’m very glad to have met them. They are low-key and give the impression of knowing what’s up. Unfortunately I had a very difficult time understanding them because they speak Mandarin with a fairly strong accent, though they spoke very slowly for me. They speak I don’t know how many languages, as many Chinese people seem to: Mandarin, Cantonese, the requisite local language (“Yangshanese” I guess), plus two dialects of Hakka (because they grew up in a city with a big Hakka population, though they are ethnically Han).

It was interesting to see different ways of doing everyday things, for example ways of keeping things clean. And I realized that Americans are way too uptight about keeping things in refrigerators. Angel’s family doesn’t have one, but they still have plenty of eggs (which you don’t have to refrigerate) and eat lots of leftovers. Also, it seems that everyone keeps live chickens somewhere. Eating habits are different, as people frequently eat more food late at night. So are showering habits. People almost never shower in the morning, but do it at night instead. Many shower in the late afternoon or early evening because it’s “good for your health,” though I never found out why.

1 comment:

K said...

BTW Hakka and Cantonese are just dialects of Chinese. The people who speak these dialects are Hans