PERSONAL NOTE: I decided to share my book with friends and students in mainland China because it is too expensive to order one from USA. Enjoy it and share it with people you care and love. Peace, Steve, USA, September 22, 2019 firstname.lastname@example.org blog – https://getting2knowyou-china.com
– 361 –
Everything seemed very quiet on New Year’s Day in China. Of course, we would be going to Jake’s grandma (father’s mother) for another big feast. And there we would meet all the relatives on Jake’s father side. Jake’s oldest aunt was in full control of the hotpot dinner with a few women helping her to cut, slice, chop, clean and put together many different ingredients for this special meal. Hotpot dinner involves a pot with boiling soup in the middle of a table, surrounding the pot would be all kinds of mostly raw ingredients that might include different kinds of meatballs, meats, variety of green vegetables, tofu, eggs, noodle, dried bean curds, different kinds of Chinese mushrooms, and finely chopped ginger, garlic and green onions. Anyone could pick and throw in what they wanted and the soup would cook it for you and other guests.
The adults always made sure the children got what they wanted. And all of them behaved very well on the first day of the Lunar New Year. There are numerous taboos on this day (actions or activities you must avoid to ensure happiness and prosperity of the coming year) than the rest of the Spring Festival holidays. There were four children (three boys and a girl) and a few young adults with their parents at the party. Jake’s 4th uncle died when he was a young man and now his only daughter, Wendy, is being raised by grandma and is going to a primary school near grandma’s house. Her mother works in another town. But Wendy has a mobile phone and talks to her mother often. She would play with the eldest son of her cousin sister. They are about the same age.
I doubt the adults would break any of the taboos. The children? It depends on which or what taboo. While some people might talk about the taboos, I suspect few would take it seriously in the modern age. Follow the advice: adhere to ancient traditions and avoid violating various taboos until the Lantern Festival. The one taboo I will always remember is: do not sweep the floor of the house on New Year’s Day. If you want to sweep, make sure you sweep in and not out…sweeping the dirt out means sweeping away the good fortune and wealth of the coming New Year. Most Chinese would take this one very seriously. This is China. And I heard about other taboos: avoid borrowing or lending money, do not use bad words, prevent children from crying, do not use medicine or see a doctor, married women should not return home, no porridge or meat, avoid noon naps, do not wake up people, do not use negative words like ghost, sickness, death or poverty, avoid breaking any mirror or glass or plates and do not dump the trash.
– 362 –
Of course, there are different reasons to avoid breaking the taboos. I was not aware of anyone deliberately doing something bad. But I was not happy with Jake’s grandma, tying a small crying cat with a long leash to a wall. It had nothing to do with the New Year taboos. As an American I love cats and dogs. They didn’t think I should play or hold the kitten. I did. I also took the crying kitten out for a walk in the yard and she was running and jumping with happiness.
Just for a few minutes. I doubt Wendy has time to take her for a walk once in a while because the kitten was crying the whole time we were there for the hotpot dinner. It seemed everyone was impervious to her loud crying.
And staying with Jake’s parents, we ate from house to house because Jake has many close relatives. I was so tired of eating that I was not being very grateful or “diplomatic” to tell Jake’s mom at the table in her house: (in Chinese) I am not hungry anymore! Please do not cook anymore foods! Maybe my Chinese was so bad she did not understand me or simply ignored my earnest pleas. Jake ignored me, too, when I told him unequivocally that I would move to live in a hotel if his mother continued to cook and cook and cook every day. Obviously, this would be against the Chinese code of ethics, or their hospitality especially to someone from the academic community. Or any houseguest. I could not afford to put on weight…long ago I had learned: easy to put on weight, difficult to lose it! Why gamble? Everyone in the house pretended they did not hear me. This is China, and Chinese hospitality has no ears.
We did attend a memorable dinner with one of Jake’s father’s colleagues. Memorable for two reasons. Jake took me on his mom’s scooter or moped (I think our weight had slowed down the poor scooter), riding in the cold evening winter air. At least I could hide behind Jake’s protective body. But the winter icy air was hurting my face. Luckily the ride was less than 30 minutes to the house. The daughter of the host came out to greet us and show us the way to the house. They lived in a big house with the grandparents living on the ground floor and the rest up on the second and third floors. The host’s daughter was also studying in the same university with Jake but she was determined to transfer to study in a Hong Kong university. What was very special and memorable about this dinner was the fact the host bought one of the most expensive fish for the dinner. They were not hesitant or shy to talk about the best fish that money could buy from the fishermen in their village. We all live a short distance from the ocean and the prices of fish and other sea-foods had gone up considerably because of the Spring Festival holidays. Jake’s mom told me the same story because she too loved to buy and cook seafoods most times of the year. There were other guests at the hotpot dinner around a table.
– 363 –
There was another surprise waiting to happen when one night first uncle invited many
of his colleagues (businessmen and women with money written all over them) to a big hotel for a delicious dinner. In China, most big sumptuous and expensive meals take place in hotels, not in restaurants outside the hotels. We met many of his business friends at this special occasion. He must have saved a lot of money for this Spring Festival celebration. There were many dinner parties going on in this big hotel with cars parked everywhere outside the hotel (there were also live entertainment in other parts of the huge hotel complex). I had seen this in many parts of China, the way how the rich spend their leisure and money, throwing parties and dinners for their best friends or business colleagues. I was lucky to be a guest at a few of such gatherings.
How special? At one such gathering, the distinguished guests (including an American diplomat now retired) were taking photos of each platter of food as it arrived at the table. That special! I, too, joined in the game taking photos of the special dishes, like attending a Japanese tea ceremony. Each platter of food was an exquisite work of art like a Japanese delicate elegant flower arrangement.
As if we hadn’t eaten enough delicious foods, Jake’s oldest aunt (father’s sister) also threw a big hotpot dinner party at her home, attended by all close relatives related to Jake’s father.
By now I knew what to expect at the table because most of the hotpot ingredients are the same. In fancy restaurants, we would get a big pot, divided into two sections, with one side spicy soup, the other side mild soup. Most hotpot soup served at family tables do not use hot spicy soup base. When I was at the campus, I had been to one particular home where the student’s mother used to boil a whole crab or whole fish or shrimp and use the broth as the soup base for hotpot. Some would boil pork bones. The commercial ones tend to be spicy with different kinds of seasonings and herbs. Personally, I prefer to use fish or crab because it adds a delicious distinct flavor to the broth for hotpot dinners.
Recently, according to China Daily, the provincial Health and Family Planning Commission in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, “formulated a compulsory regulation…to ban substandard materials in the hotpot soup base.” The province proposed a similar regulation to standardize hotpot soup base in 2006 but it was only a recommendation.
Now the regulation will take effect on January 15, 2017 and the province will impose penalties for noncompliance. Why Sichuan Province? Because the best hotpot restaurants in China are in that province. Sichuan hotpot is well known all over China and is very spicy, its broth is flavored with chili peppers and other pungent herbs and
– 364 –
spices. Chuan cuisine, from Sichuan Province in southwestern China, is the most widely served cuisine in China, known for its hot-spicy taste. There are Sichuan restaurants all over mainland China. There are Sichuan restaurants all over the world.
Now during the Spring Festival, instead of preparing individual dishes of traditional foods, the hotpot is the best alternative because you could easily assemble all the basic and necessary ingredients quickly and easily without too much work in the kitchen. I would say anyone can do it without any cooking experiences. The best part is you could serve it any time of the year…though very popular in winter months because the original hotpot (we could still buy one and use it) is one using hot charcoals to keep the soup hot and boiling. You have to know that in many homes in south China, there are no heaters in most houses during the winter months. So they welcome the hotpot at the table…to warm your hearts and stomachs with friends and relatives and loved ones. Sitting shoulder to shoulder at the table.
In the words of a Taoist monk (who appears in the famous Chinese Classic, A Dream Of Red Mansions): “You should know that all good things in this world must end, and to make an end is good, for there is nothing good which does not end.” I was too old to receive a hongbao (the Chinese New Year hongbao is strictly for children and teenagers and some young single adults) but before I left the LiuJiang village, Jake gave me a four-volume set of A Dream Of Red Mansions…one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels, considered a masterpiece of Chinese literature, with “its precise and detailed observation of the life and social structures typical of 18th-century Chinese society”. The covers of the four volumes are all in bright red, which symbolizes luck, happiness and joy, an auspicious color to ward off evil. It represents vitality, celebration and fertility in traditional Chinese thinking. This would be another fine introduction to understanding and appreciating Chinese culture, through Chinese literature.
I will not forget the five unforgettable days I spent with Jake and his family and all his relatives as we celebrated together the 2016 Spring Festival: The Year of the Monkey. Over the years, Chen Shuaifu, Chairman of the China Feng Shui Association, and a well known Feng Shui master, has shared his predictions with NBC News (a major TV network in USA) and on February 6, 2016, NBC News reported that Chen Shuaifu “was quick to note that Chinese President Xi Jinping, born in the Year of the Snake, would also enjoy good fortune in 2016.” The Year of the Monkey.
I could not be happier because I, too, was born in the Year of the Snake.
This is China.