Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Chinese New Year - Xiaoshan

Arriving in Esther's hometown of Xiaoshan (sh-yow shaan), about 45 minutes east of Hangzhou, i mention to her how much warmer it was than Beijing.  Generally the Hangzhou area is eight to twelve degrees Fahrenheit warmer than Beijing. Plus, i thought i was tough, that i could brave the cold because i grew up in Chicago where the wind chill takes you far below zero.

But somewhere in China there exists an imaginary line.  Above this line, homes have central heating, and below it, you can see your breath indoors during the winter. On Nov 15th, they turn on the central heating in Beijing. In Xiaoshan however, homes do not have this feature, presumably because it is "the south" and therefore does not get cold. In Esther's home, located in this balmy southern town, my clothing for the next three days would be:
  • Two pairs of socks
  • Pajama pants
  • Jeans
  • Long-sleeve undershirt
  • Sweatshirt
  • Thick winter coat
  • Hat and Scarf
  • Gloves, when practical, i.e. when not eating.
I was still cold even wearing all that. You start the morning off ok, still warm from bed.  After a few hours of bone-numbing cold, your core body temperature is so far down, it takes an hour to warm up.  Fortunately, Esther's bedroom has a heater, and we hibernated for 12 hours each night, watching movies, not wanting to face the cold, cruel world outside that room each morning. I ask why they don't get heaters for the rest of the house. She said her family didn't mind it, that they were really tough, li hai

But regardless of the cold, it was a really nice holiday.  I bonded with her parents, but more so with her mother who is simply more extroverted. I call her Wang Lei Ma Ma, literally Wang Lei's Mother.  (Esther's name is Wang Lei, Wang being their family name.)  I call her father Lao Wang, meaning Old Wang.  This is appropriate and respectful, but they also find it hilarious at the same time. I do not know why.

Her parents and family all speak a local dialect, which is basically unrecognizable from Mandarin. No one speaks English. They switch to Mandarin when talking with me, or when they think i'm paying attention.  Her mom speaks pretty clearly, but Lao Wang less so.  He likes to use unusual words to describe things, and in return, he sometimes gets blank stares or friendly nods. Esther explained to him that he should speak to me like i am 5 years old, but he doesn't understand that concept yet.

Esther has no brothers or sisters, but she has cousins who look out for her like brothers would. I'm sure they have names, but they were introduced to me as Da Ge and Xiao Ge Ge (big brother and little-big brother). I talked with them for almost an hour, discussing the best cities to buy fake watches (Guangzhou), how cold it was (very), and how great Esther is (super).  It was clear i had won their approval when Da Ge toasted me at lunch, "I look forward to drinking with you this time again next year."

I met another set of cousins, all three were men, and their names were Lao Da, Lao Er, and Lao San, meaning Oldest, Second Born, Third Born.  Esther explained this to me: in a family gathering, the position in the family is more important than personal identity. Also, they probably knew i'd forget their actual names almost instantly.

I ate multiple dinners and lunches with her extended family.  There was always a men's table and separate table for women and children.  I was received at the men's table, where cigarette smoking and baijiu drinking were the main activities.  I stuck to beer.

I didn't bring a camera on this trip, so i only took photos using my iPhone. Most really aren't worth sharing, but here's one good one:

Xiao Ge Ge, dressed in a winter jacket, wearing a scarf, pouring shots of baijiu, smoking a cigarette.  Classic.

After three nights in Xiaoshan, we left her parents house for Suzhou and Hangzhou.


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