It’s been a full month since I returned from my trip to Changde, and what a strange month it’s been. As things gradually start opening up again and the world starts to feel a little more normal, I want to share a little more about what I’ve felt living through the past month in Beijing. The truth is, it’s been uneasy. The quietude, in a city that is normally so noisy, is something hard to describe. It’s like the feeling of walking into an empty classroom ready to teach, before you find out that classes were cancelled that day. Where is everyone? It’s like the feeling of learning that your favorite local store is going out of business and you don’t know where you’ll go for your favorite treat anymore. What will come next? It’s like the feeling of meeting up with someone after they’ve gone through a health crisis that has changed them physically, and you don’t know what to say. What can I do?
These are only the things I’ve felt, as an expat, far from the actual crisis. I cannot imagine what it’s been like for others in Wuhan and anyone directly affected by the virus. Now is a time for everyone to show compassion towards China.
In another respect, though, this seems to have been a long period of reflection for many Chinese people. They so rarely get this much time with family, or have so much time to discover new hobbies and interests. You may know that Spring Festival is one of just two week-long holidays in China. However, you might not know that most workers have to “make up” the holiday time by working on weekends before and after the holiday, reducing the actual number of days off to only about 3 or 4. Over the holiday time, many people travel long distances by train to return to their hometowns, further diminishing the amount of time left to relax.
The minimum number of annual leave days required by Chinese law is also one of the lowest in the world. If you’ve worked more than one year, but less than ten, you’re only entitled to five days of annual leave. Add to that the fact that many people in Beijing have long commutes to work to cut down on high rent prices in more central locations, and you can understand why, when I ask my colleagues what they plan to do over the holiday, their most common answer is “sleep.”
Over the past month, I’ve seen some amazing and hilarious videos of what China’s shut-ins have been up to, including dancing, improving their karaoke skills, and playing games. One article from the Chinese social media platform Weibo mentioned that citizens of Wuhan have been searching for new cooking recipes after receiving unfamiliar new foods from other provinces as donations (I’ve lost the original source for this, but I’ll try to find it again later). A friend of mine joined a virtual acapella choir of 150 people to create this moving rendition of the song “Stay with You” for the citizens of Wuhan. Another of my favorite videos that has come out of this month is this cute “Cheer Up 2020” video put together by a dancing group. It’s especially worth a watch if you enjoy swing music!
Over my holiday, I didn’t practice my dancing skills, but I did download a new app for practicing singing, called 全民K歌 (Quánmín K gē). The app lets you choose a song and sing along, while showing you how you’re doing, Guitar Hero style. Even if you don’t speak Chinese, the app has a wide selection of English songs and it’s easy to search within it. Since karaoke is so popular in China, this is a good app to practice with before visiting here.
Of course, it’s impossible to stay indoors all the time, and the most common activity I see people doing within my apartment compound these days is badminton. Along with table tennis, badminton is very popular in China, as a simple, inexpensive physical activity. I hadn’t played badminton for over a decade before Spring Festival, so it was fun to take up this sport again with Melissa and her family.
Another traditional activity here is playing mahjong. Since moving to China, I’d wanted to learn to play, so I was glad Melissa’s family had the patience to teach me. If you are like me, “mahjong” might make you think of the virtual solitaire-type game that first came out with Windows 7. As it turns out, the only thing that games shares with the original mahjong is the name and the colorful tiles. The real mahjong is similar to rummikub (a game actually derived from mahjong). The goal is to make sets of 3 or 4 tiles by either groups of the same tile or sequences. Normally, it’s a gambling game, as you play with poker chips, and someone wins chips at the end of each round. Like poker, the game only ends when one person has won all the chips.
Since there was no central heating in the homes, we played around a special kind of table. This table doesn’t have a special name in Chinese, so I’ve dubbed it a “cozy table” in English to differentiate it from other kinds of tables. Underneath the table, there’s a heating element (burning coal or electric), and it has a heavy blanket skirt around the sides of it. This allows everyone to put the blanket on their laps and keep their legs warm while sitting around the table playing mahjong. I really loved this design concept, and I think it would work well at some outdoor patio bars in the U.S. Perhaps someone reading this will be the first to introduce “cozy tables” to the U.S. (but please don’t use coal burners)!
As a linguistic aside, I did find that there are equivalents to “cozy tables” in other cultures. In Japan, it is called a “kotatsu” (炬燵), in Spain and portugal, a “mesa camilla,” in Afghanistan, a “sandali,” and in Iran, a “korsi.” I guess my real fascination with this table is not so much how the same idea appeared in several different countries, but how this design never developed in other countries. To me, it’s ingenious.
I was really lucky to have been able to spend Chinese New Year with Melissa and her family. Melissa studied art and taught Chinese calligraphy, so she was able to share a lot of cultural insight with me. She also took the time to give me a little calligraphy lesson. I spent a lot of time learning to make straight, even strokes with my brush, and found it a meditative practice. When making a stroke, you have to breathe slowly and evenly, and apply just the perfect amount of pressure. You need to hold your brush straight and turn it at just the right time. I’ve always been a bit clumsy, so practicing slow, careful movements was a struggle for me, but I enjoyed the practice.
I’ve never thought of myself as much of an artist, but I’ve always loved photography. I dusted off my DSLR camera for my trip to Hunan, and found an opportunity to practice during a walk around the local reservoir. Along with Melissa, one of her uncles, and her cousins, we explored some abandoned buildings and nature’s reclamation efforts. To me, there’s something very beautiful about things that are cracked or broken, and embraced by nature. Nature isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t mind imperfection.
As I’m starting to write again, I can feel all the mistakes in my writing. At this point, I want to just start, and not be afraid of embarrassing myself. There’s too much that needs to be said, and I know I won’t say it correctly for a long, long time, so I’ll just start speaking, and hopefully I’ll have it right by the end. Even from just one week of staying mostly indoors in a small town in Hunan, I found that I had three posts worth of things I wanted to write about. In the future, I want to travel more, and I expect I’ll have even more to share then. It’s going to come out wrong, so I hope you can take nature’s approach to reading my blog.
During Spring Festival, I started a project I’ve been dreaming about for the past year. I interviewed a teacher about her experiences for a book I plan to write. I found that she also had so much to say, but didn’t always have the right words. I think we all feel that way, and we can feel afraid to speak because of it. I was so glad that this teacher let me listen to her, and I hope that I can do justice to her passion and perspective.
If you liked what I’ve shared here, I hope you continue to read my stories over the coming months. This post concludes my writings about my Spring Festival holiday. Stay tuned for my next series! 🙂