Sunday, December 21, 2008

Happy DōngZhì

By Kevin

"Do you want to come and eat jiaozi with us?" Wes asked, relatively certain that we'd say yes.

After all, today is Dec. 21 -- the first official day of winter, Winter Solstice Festival, or Mid-Winter Festival. "冬至 DōngZhì"

Even in our third year in China, we didn't realize this was a big holiday. Probably got obscured by Christmas in the past.

"It means, winter is coming," explained Lily, our Chinese tutor. She's right. It's been downright cold lately.

Lily and Cherry, Wes' Chinese tutor, came to his apartment at 2 p.m. They went shopping for materials to make dumplings from scratch for five. Around 4:30 p.m., they started making dumplings. It wasn't until after 7:30 p.m. that all of them were cooked and on the table. Cherry and Lily had insisted that we sit down and start eating while they were still in the kitchen -- after all, when you are cooking for guests, traditionally, the cook stays in the kitchen in China. But we were very American about it, so we waited and some of the dumplings got cold.

Lily explained that today most Chinese people would be eating dumplings.

Indeed, by the time we got home at 9 p.m., a roomful of our neighbors was still slaving away in their kitchen (which we can see into from our kitchen) making jiaozi. In fact, by 10:45 p.m. as I post this, they are still going strong.

"We eat dumplings because they are the same shape as ears," she explained. "If we don't eat dumplings today, our ears will freeze this winter." she explained. It seems they do so many things because the sounds of words are the same. This was the first time I could recall hearing that they eat a particular food because it looks like a body part they don't want to get frostbitten.

We laughed and sat down to eat and chat.

We exchanged the different names we have for grandparents, which made me miss Oma and Opa and the rest of my family. Ruth shared about Memaw and Pebaw. The girls shared about their WaiPo (maternal grandmother), LaoYe (maternal grandfather), NaiNai (paternal grandmother) and YeYe (paternal grandfather). The Chinese have separate words for paternal and maternal grandparents, but they explained that they also have pet names they use for their grandparents in their villages.

Eventually, we learned that Lily is an only child because in the time she was born, it was illegal for teachers to have more than one child. "If she had another child, she would loose her job."

Lily, like many in this generation filled with only children, wished that she had a sibling.

Then we learned that Cherry has an older brother who she never calls by his given name. "In our China, you never call anyone in your family who is older than you by their name," Lily explained.

"I remember one time I called him by his name and my mother punished me," Cherry exclaimed. "Now I only use it when I quarrel with him."

Cherry announced that she used to dislike having an older brother, but that the other day, he transferred 700 RMB into her bank account. "Now I like having an elder brother," she said, with a wide grin.

Cherry explained that her parents were going to have a third child, but that one of the leaders in their village noticed her mother's belly getting big. "He took her and drove her to the hospital and she had to have an operation," Cherry said, describing how close her younger brother came to being born. "It's so terrible."

"Those days in China, many things like this happened," explained Lily. "It was horrible."

I shared about my student in Tonghua, who only lived because his mother walked to a nearby village and hid until his birth (I wrote about this on my old blog, which you can visit here).

They explained how the fines for having more than one child were large when they were born, but now they're not as bad. "The fine hasn't changed, but people have more money now," Wes chimed in.

In fact, they have a classmate with seven siblings.

"Now, you can have more children," said Lily. "As long as you can afford them all."

But in spite of the economic growth in China, she said it's not easy for many families with more than one child. For example, she said, college is very expensive. Yearly tuition for students at this college is 4,500 RMB (about $650) -- still a big chunk of change in China.

We explained that families in America face similar difficulties, as college costs climb higher and higher.

"But we always think that America is so rich," Cherry said, surprised.

"But relatively, costs of most things are higher..." I began...

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