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Postcards from the ‘Jing: Happy (Chinese) New Year

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By JB on February 3, 2011

From jellied duck blood to crotchless baby pants to piss everywhere, our intrepid reporter “JB” chronicles the weird and the wonderful from the Chinese capital. She sends us Postcards from the ‘Jing.




For the last 24 hours I have been listening to a symphony of explosions.

It sounds like the 2003 invasion of Baghdad, but no: This is actually Beijing, and by god, someone is celebrating!

It’s Chinese New Year, one massive annual event where people go home to their families and party like rock stars.

The biggest draw is the fireworks. I tell you, they put the Times Square New Year’s sparklers in New York City to shame. Imagine hours and hours of fireworks all over the city, where people are seemingly unafraid to lose limbs if it means setting off the loudest and brightest display in your neighborhood.

Last night I wandered around Beijing to take in the sights and sounds. They love to get a head start before the major finale at midnight. All over the city the sky was lit up and the shots rang out. As I walked around, I saw small gangs of folks gathered around a brave fire-starter, waiting for the next sparkler to be set off. If I happened to be walking by, it caught me off guard and scared the shit out of me. Sometimes it sneaks up out of nowhere and once you’re right there in front of it, you realize just how loud it is.

Apparently the whole purpose of the fireworks is to ward off bad spirits as we welcome in the New Year. Or, it’s an excuse to get drunk and set yourself on fire, depending on what you’re going for. It’s a nice tradition that makes you want to feel safe. I’ve heard that dozens of people each year get seriously burned because of reckless firecracking. But hell, it’s all in the name of fun isn’t it?

In honor of my first Chinese New Year in Beijing, I wanted to share with you a few interesting observations and facts I have learned about this time of year:

1. Chinese New Year is the world’s largest migratory event every year.

Sometimes I forget that I live in a country of 1.3 billion people. But at this time of year, hundreds of millions of people travel home within the same week. It makes the pilgrimage to Mecca look like small potatoes, or whatever the Chinese equivalent of small potatoes might be.

2. It’s a holiday for all, a nightmare for many.

Technically, Chinese New Year lasts two weeks, but most people go home for the first week only. Because hundreds of millions of people are all traveling during the same few days, there are major restrictions on train ticket sales (most people travel by train). That means some people have to wait in line for days to get a ticket, if they even get one. Then they have to travel for God knows how many hours –- sometimes standing! –- on the train to get home. I ask you, where is the holiday cheer in that?

3. Beijing itself, a city of a gazillion people, is a ghost town for at least a week.

Yesterday I took a walk through my neighborhood, and it really was a ghost town. If they had tumbleweed here it would’ve been a-rollin’. I felt like I was living in a movie where most people on the planet die from a plague and I’m left to survive with only a few people I see on the streets. It’s truly surreal.

4. This is probably one of the only times I’ll ever get a seat on the metro.

A rare treat indeed. Usually when I take the metro on a weeknight, I have to shove my way onto the train. Then I find myself standing next to someone who smells like day-old liquor, someone who’s picking their nose like they’re digging for gold, or someone who smells like dirty scalp (you know what I’m talking about? When someone doesn’t shower in a while? Ew.).

But this week I don’t have to deal with any of that! This is definitely a highlight.

5. If you don’t want people to know how old you are, don’t tell anyone what animal you represent in the Chinese zodiac.

I always knew the zodiac animal coincided with what year you’re born, but back home few people actually know which year represents which animal. Here, it’s one of the major indicators of age. This was pointed out to me by a colleague who knows I’m a bit sensitive about being older than my other coworkers (even if by only a few years). Sometimes I’m hesitant to reveal my age for fear I’ll get that gaspy reaction to how “old” I am. Now I suppose it’s my duty to tell you I am a Dragon. Sigh.

6. This year is the Year of the Rabbit.

If you happen to be born this year or during another Rabbit year, it means you are talented and ambitious (read: a smug prick), admired and sometimes financially lucky (another reason to dislike you) and you like to gossip (uh-huh). Perhaps I shouldn’t be so sarcastic; I have several friends who are expecting babies in this Year of the Rabbit, so I suppose it’s a bit cruel to even jokingly imply their unborn children are assholes. But I will say the one interesting little fact about the Year of the Rabbit is the sale of rabbits – the actual, living animal – skyrocketed in the past few months. I asked someone once if they intend to eat the rabbits? But no, they are just pets. At least that’s what they say publicly.

All in all, my first Chinese New Year has been a good one. I really was caught off guard by how empty this place can get, but it’s nice to have the streets to myself. But before I leave you, I wanted to show you a small example of the chaos outside my window last night as China rang in the Year of the Rabbit.

It kind of looks like the fireworks you’d get back home, but the difference is, this shit goes on for hours, non-stop. That means I’ll be going to bed and waking up to a firecracker schedule for the next two weeks!

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