China Journal‹Tuesday, February 26, 2002


            The Chinese really know how to do fireworks!  Today is the Festival of Lanterns which apparently really begins the New Year. This morning at 5:00 all sorts of fire crackers and big booms went off as if to announce the beginning of the festive day.  And now, at 10:30 at night, both the cluster firecrackers, the big booms, and occasional fireworks in the sky are going off constantly, the cluster ones sounding like hard rain hitting the roof.  The corridor right outside my balcony, which divides us from the next building, and the park out in front are both very active.  No sense going to bed yet.  It interests me that the dogs donıt show the least bit of interest, unlike many American dogs on the Fourth of July.

            This morning Zhang Jie and I went out to the park for a fast walk at 7:00 and then to join the Tai Chi group at 7:30.  The teacher and all the followers welcomed me warmly.  After the really nice warm ups, he turns on music and in succession they do the 24, then the 48, and then the 42.  I had learned one manıs version of the 24 and heard of the 100 but not the other two.  Just following along on that many is not the best way to learn but it was good exerciseŠprobably more than Zhang Jie has ever done.  The majority of the women doing Tai Chi are middle to older middle age with just a sprinkling of younger ones and only a few men.

            After breakfast of tossed green salad with pickles, bean curd pastries, and tea soup, I came in to try and get the email problem figured out, planning on being ready a little after noon to be picked up to go to the office.  At 9:50 Zhang Jie came in and said that her mother called to say I would be walking to the school at 10:00.  I quickly closed up the computer, changed clothes, and went out to the living room.  Here was a very eager, attractive young lady named Zhangyu, the 27 year old teacher of English at the primary school.  She is known as Miss Zhang but is no relation to my hosts. We werenıt walking, however.  Jian Goa was out in the car waiting to drive us over.  It is in easy biking distance and okay walking distance from the house, which I like.  The thought of being driven to work each day is not the most appealing.

            Sun Zhi Hong met us at the gate, then went on to the office.  Miss Zhang took me in to meet the headmaster who is a woman, Xingjin Xia.  As an unliberated soul along those lines, I was glad to see she was still called the headmaster rather than the head person or whatever.  Good for the Chinese.  Again other teachers gathered around  to look me overŠrather like judging horse flesh at an auctionŠand they all pronounce me very healthy and young looking.  Good for oneıs ego once you get past the auction inspection aspect of it.

            Miss Zhang, who is married with no children, took me to the office I will share with her, Renhai Ying (the second English teacher), and the music teacher Ciu Xiao Jian.  Miss Ren is 31, has a 7 year old daughter, and kept turning to Miss Zhang to translate every thing I said.  Fortunately they both seem eager for help and we all warmed up to each other over lunch.  I learned that school starts tomorrow.  I finally wheedled books out of them, received my schedule, cleaned out the very messy desk I will use, and was taken on a tour of the school.  My classrooms range over three floors with no particularly evident logic, so I may get lost a few times in the first week.  More about the school in future journals.

            Fu Ling came to take us to lunch across the streetŠjust the four of us, which was a good way to have us warm up to each other.  We will get along well.  All of them went through the same rinsing off the dishes at the restaurant routine.  Iım going to have to start watching as people sit down to see if others do it.

            After lunch Fu Ling sent us back upstairs to our office and told the girls to give me a cup of tea.  No sooner had Miss Ren prepared it than Sun came along to cart me off.  This time we went to the middle school (both junior highs and high schools are referred to as middle schools).  Again we walk into the headmasterıs room to a group of teachers and go through the horse auction routine.  Then we piled back in the car and went to the Bomei office.  Soon after we got there it was back in the car with Fu Ling, Pu Yan Ling, Cui Hua, and myself to go see the lantern festivities of the afternoon.

            We got out at the old Central Market where a few days before Cui Hua had taken me to the Buddhist temple.  Today the temple was a buzz of activity.  A large colorful two dimensional paper sculpture of an animal greeted us and, to the right, in a little courtyard area was a group of women in a drum corps.  They were in white satin pants and tops with some embroidered flowers.  Over that each wore a short blue cape with pink flowers that covered the shoulders and came to a V in front and in back.  A circlet of magenta colored large tinsel sat on each head.  A tuberous shaped red drum with flat heads on both ends was hung to one side by a red sash that crossed over the shoulder, came to the drum and then tied around the waist to stabilize the drum.  They wore white gloves and their drumsticks had red flags attached.  There must have been around thirty women, mostly I would guess in their fifties and sixties, though looks are misleading here.

            We (meaning I, the tall ³meiguo,² American) had been introduced to several head men.  The ladies all gathered around me and started putting one of their drums on me and showing me how to hold the sticksŠall of them at once.  There is a cymbal player who uses very heavy cymbals that look like partially flattened bells to set the rhythm and direct moves.  She started in and the ladies around me got me playing with them.  Pretty soon they got in formation and pulled me into the line and started marching in place and playing with me right with them, flourishing the flag as they showed me.  You can imagine the crowd of people that gathered and the photos being taken.  They really seemed to enjoy this lone Westerner joining in their fun.  That lasted long enough that I realized it was good exercise, and I wasnıt even moving around.  They all just bubbled around me when we finally stopped with many thumbs up signs.  Then they took their formation and did about a fifteen-minute flag girl routine drumming and marching the whole time.  Fancy moves with both the sticks and formations.  It was impressive.  At the end, they came back and gathered around me.  They wanted a picture of all of them with me.  One took off her tinsel and fixed it in my hair and put her white gloves on me.  At the end she presented me with the drum, sticks, gloves, and hair decoration.  I tried to protest but she was insistent.  I donıt know how far you go with this insisting-resisting routine.  I told Cui Hua I didnıt feel comfortable taking itŠbut I am now the proud owner of a Tianjin well used drum.  Now Iım wondering if this was the kind of routine the Chinese drum corps in Bakersfield did in years past.

            As we finally moved on, Fu Ling asked if I would like tea.  Now knowing what was up, I said yes.  It turns out that one of the observers of the drum corps action was a Mr. Han who owns the tea restaurant (no meals, just tea). He invited us to be his guests at his restaurant which was right across from the Buddhist temple in one of the 600 year old buildings that had been beautifully restored into a classy looking place (even the eastern style toilet room was both clean and classy).  Tea serving is a ritual there.  A tall upright glass has green tea leaves placed in it and is then filled with hot water.  The leaves all float at first.  Little by little, with the help of an occasional swiveling of the glass, the leaves begin to drop. It looks like a tree growing in a glass.  Also presented were dried apricots, pumpkin seeds with a delicious flavoring, a plate of fruit slices (kiwi, apple, and orange), and muffin shaped tea cakes.  After Fu Ling inquired if they had eggs in them, they brought up two slices of a delicious jellyroll type of cake with no eggs for me.  (Mind you, I was already stuffed from lunch not long before.)  Mr. Han sat with us at the table after he went down and put on his dubonnet mandarin jacket.  A reporter lady in her red mandarin jacket came to get information for a story in the paper about the drumming.

            Then a young lady in her mandarin outfit sat down at the end of the table to perform and explain the special way of making oolong tea.  It had aspects of a Japanese tea ceremony. She had a tray with the wooden tools: a scoop to measure the tea, pinchers to lift the wet tea leaves, a scraper to move the leaves inside the pot, a pick to poke leaves out of the spout, and a small, wide opening funnel to help the tea get into the pot.  The pot is a small iron pot that looks like it belongs to a childıs tea set.  Also on the rack in the tray are five dainty Chinese tea cups and five matching narrow cups about three inches tall.  There are many steps.  Tea is scooped into the little black pot.  Water is put in to ³warm the tea leaves².  That water is poured into the five tea cups in one continuous motion back and forth over the five cups placed with edges touching.  The water from the cups is then poured over the outside of the pot so that it is now warmed inside and out.  The rack is obviously to keep the cups from swimming in the water.  At this point I wondered whether Fu Lingıs habit of rinsing the dishes at a restaurant grew out of this act of warming the tea pot and cups.  When the tea is eventually poured into the tall cups, I marveled that there was enough in that little pot to cover five cups.  A round cup is placed on top of the tall cup and the whole thing inverted and place in front of you.  You can see no tea liquid.  When all are served, you hold the tall cup with your left hand, move it around slightly in the round cup and then pick it up.  It has captured the essence and the warmth of the tea. Take three separate breaths holding the cup under your nose.  Then you can roll the tall cup up and down your cheek, hold the opening near your eyes, roll it between your handsŠanything to enjoy the fragrance and the warmth.  Next you turn to the cup of tea.  You take three short sips.  On the third sip you should feel the special quality in your throat.  You are to hold the round cup under the rim between your thumb and index finger, with your third finger supporting the bottom of the cup.  As tea is sipped, she continues to pour more hot water onto the leaves which, by now, have swollen to fill the little pot.  They mentioned that you could eat the tea leaves too.

            When all this demonstration started, Mr. Han left for a moment and came back with two young women to interpret for me.  One was a very young waitress and the other was a shop owner who is planning on coming to Los Angeles later this year.  She had me put on her mandarin jacket for a picture.  My western bulk could hardly breathe in it, but we got a picture.  Meanwhile the helper went a few doors away to the store and came back with a red jacket of a larger size.  We then posed next to one of the musical instruments.  They each had taken a picture sitting next to me.  I am indeed both a curiosity and an honored guest.  She would have sent me home with the jacket, but the skirt didnıt fit so I had a good out on that one.

            Back to the office to regroup.  Now Fu Ling, Pu Yan Ling, Cui Hua, Zhang Jie, and I started out, stuffed four to the backseat in a small car.  We went to the Tianjin Fair Grounds for the lantern festival, stopping to eat yet once again.  The red globe lanterns are all over.  In one public plaza down town I estimated there were a 1000 of the large (a yard high) red globe lanterns in a freestanding wall formation. At another spot they were hanging three high alternating with the red Oriental knots all lighted up.  The fairground had two huge ones at the entrance and inside was a wall of 100 lanterns, each with the character of one of the first 100 family names in China.  We watched a wonderful dance with many characters.  The costumes and makeup are fantastic.  Disney would love it.  Along the sides are lighted display scenes with a few very simple moving parts.  They are on stages and people pay to go up within the scene and have their picture taken by family, not professionals.  The biggest was a large sail boat of lights that probably 40 people at a time could fit on.  It went into a large rocking motion like sailing on the sea.  A parade of 18 wonderfully costumed players all on stilts and waving or playing an instrument marched by.  If I had been on the stilts I would have been nervous at how people crowded around.

            At the appointed time began the fireworks.  In five minutes they probably shot off as many fireworks as we do in the states in a 45 minute Fourth of July show.  Itıs amazing.  They probably have five parallel fuses, light them all, and let Œer rip.  That went on for 20 to 30 minutes. All the while there were the high flying explosions paralleled with lower ones just above tree line.  The cloud of burned paper and fumes was huge and we could feel particles dropping into our hair before the show was over. When we left, there were fire crackers going off all around and a few individual fireworks all through town.

            Quite a day!