CNY

One of my favorite days at Washington Elementary School is when the third graders celebrate Chinese New Year. The hall fills up with yummy smell of Chinese cooking. The day ends with a parade, the school lined up on both sides of the playground shouting and shaking noisemakers. There is always a hint of spring in the air. That’s what I knew about Chinese New Year until this week.

When my husband was told we would be going to Taichung, Taiwan from February 7-20 we thought nothing of it. I tagged along for the heck of it. As the time drew near there was more and more talk of Chinese New Year {CYN} craziness. We had just been to Tokyo during the holiday season so didn’t give it much thought.

We land in Taipei. An airport bus takes us to the bullet train station. No muss no fuss. The sights, sounds and smells are different than our Japanese home. We are the only white people in the station. We get in a very long line to buy a ticket for the bullet train to take us to Taichung. The reader board shows that the train leaves every 20 minutes for Taichung only. That seems odd.  We are half way through the line when a lady standing next to me says in clear English. “Do you know you can only get tickets to Taichung? You will have to make a transfer there to get where you are going.” I thanked her for her concern and reassured her we are in the correct line. I hope the kindness of strangers will never stop impressing me. It is finally our turn. The clerk speaks English and seems very comfortable with ours. It is Chinese New Year she says. She tells us there are no reserved tickets available, if we miss our train, just get on the next one. What an odd thing to say I think. Why on earth would we miss our train?

We find our platform. We know from experience that the non-reserved tickets are in the back cars.   Sure enough a sign informs that the non-reserved seats are in cars 9-12. The place is packed. It feels oddly familiar, but I can’t put my finger on what. We find our line and stand in it. A train worker walks by yelling something in a language I don’t understand. (Whether I call it Chinese or Taiwanese I’m still not clear.] Many in our line leave and head towards the front of the platform. Unlike Japan, where the bullet train is announced by a weird electronic buzz, this train comes in quietly. As the front cars pass I gasp in disbelief. The cars are packed with human beings. There are no empty seats and there is no open space. People stand in the aisle like sardines in a can. Our car stops right on the dotted line. The door opens. It is a mass of bodies. No one gets out and no one gets on. People start running to other cars. Rich and I just stand there with our mouths open, my brain trying to grasp the concept that there is no room on the train. A buzzer rings and the train takes off.

The young handsome train worker comes smiling to us. In lovely English he explains it is Chinese New Year and that our ticket gives us the right to board. He tells us to go up to cars 1-3 and get on there. We can’t sit in a seat but we can stand in the aisle or in-between the cars. “Good luck” he says. The next train whizzes in. We easily get on. We stand in the car door entrance out of the way of those using the bathroom and vending machines. It feels good to stand and we can see the landscape as it goes by.

I immediately notice that the soil is red. Like in Oklahoma, Rich explains. There is a lot of standing water, fields, and rust. There are beautiful palm trees. So much green. We can see the horizon. There are no mountains like back home in Hiroshima. There are Chinese characters and little English. Billboards sport people from the west. They drive on the right side of the road. The feel is very different from Japan.

The train station in Taichung is packed with families. How do I know they are families? There are children, adults and elderly people; groups and groups of them greeting arrivals. I note that the energy feels familiar but have no time to think about it because we have to make our way to the taxi pick up area. It feels good to ride on the right side of the road. The ride seems wild and fast but is that because I am in a foreign country?

As our taxi pulls up to our hotel, tall, thin, handsome Taiwanese young men meet our cab. One immediately empties the trunk while another holds the door; another escorts Rich through the grand entrance. Sculptures, paintings, and ikebana accent the lobby. Lovely, young Taiwanese women check us in. We are informed that the rates on everything are higher and none of the usual discounts apply because it is Chinese New Year. Rich will have to order a cab everyday this week.  I am distracted by the elegant red lanterns everywhere. Happy sounding music plays in the background. In our room a shiny silver basket of fruit, a red envelop with chocolate coins, and a card wishing us a lovely new year awaits our consumption.

 

Although it was only a two-hour flight I feel I have traveled around the world. I stretch out on the big white bed breathing deep while Rich dives into the hotel provided map. He makes note that there is a TGIF very close to here. I scoff. Not eating at a chain I growl. We finally decide to go up and have our first meal at the fancy restaurant on the twenty-fourth floor. We nonchalantly get dressed. I am really looking forward to a different kind of Asian food.

To our surprise the maître-de basically laughs at us when we ask for a table. “It’s the night before Chinese New Year!” she says incredulously. Oh ok. We shrug.   We will find somewhere else. “Good luck.” She says. Hmmmm. So we head to the third floor for the regular dining room. The maître-de here is much more sympathetic. “My room is booked until 7:30. I can squeeze you in then. It will cost 2888 New Taiwanese dollars. Is this your first Chinese New Year? Everything in the city is going to be closed or packed. Let me call around for you.”   We sit down and she yells over, “do you like pub food?” Taiwanese swarm around us. They are all dressed up. Every group seems to have a baby and a grandma or pa. I don’t know if I am used to being stared at or that they aren’t. Everything is booked so we make a reservation. We head outside to walk around. The lobby is much noisier than when we came. There are people everywhere. But still one of the lovely young men catches our eye, greets us and asks if he can be of any help. We respectfully decline and head out into the quiet outdoors.

We are starving. As we walk down the street we see a familiar red and white striped sign TGIF. I concede. As we walk up the steps the doors burst open and a group of young staff yell “Happy Chinese New Year!!” They are giddy and loud. Do we have a reservation? Their faces fall. We tell them we just want to sit at the bar and have a beer. A young man name Joe escorts us. He looks about twelve, but since we have turned fifty we feel way that about everyone under thirty. We ask him how he is doing. He tells us it is difficult to be away from his family this time of year. I can feel the gears in my brain trying to adjust to this new accented English. His frankness is endearing. Then I think of all the young people working back at the hotel. They also are all missing their family.

We return at 7:30 sharp. When the elevator doors open it is the train situation all over again. Packed. The maître-de immediately sees us and seats us. We sit down flabbergasted. Looking around it is dawning on me why this feels familiar. Children and adults are dressed up, they are sitting in family groups, and their voices have a strong but lovely energy. This is their Christmas Eve! I watch as the wait staff try to seat the groups. Usually a middle-aged woman is telling everyone where to sit. Places are saved; there is much discussion between the parties. The children are gussied up but excited for what awaits them. We are a lonesome twosome in this crowd. I can’t help but look at all the families. They are so happy to be together. When I say they I mean THEY. The very young to the very old and every age inbetween are gathered around the large tables. Later I would learn that it is tradition to have a family reunion dinner on this night. And that is exactly how it feels.

I have never experienced a buffet like this. Everything is colorful and plentiful. The chefs look as if they are ready for an invasion. There are three big areas. Big chunks of meat wait under lights. As I walk around reading the labels I notice that lobster and crab are a common ingredient. One minute I am squinting trying to read and the next I am surrounded by plate carrying revelry. People are trying to get what they want, the wait staff is yelling and pointing. I notice people standing in a roped off line. Meanwhile, Rich is leaning over pointing to the prime rib and talking to the chef. It immediately reminds me of the first time he found those chicken skewers being grilled at the Bubble bar, the same bird dog stance. Looking back, I don’t know if he was getting bad looks from the people in line or I am just self-conscious. I put a few things on my plate and return to our table.

Nothing kills the appetite like a 200-dollar buffet bill. With that price tag I get in the roped line. Whatever it is they are waiting for, it will be good. Luckily a lovely wait staff person is at the head of the line to direct traffic. I am handed a platter of lobster, crab and seafood. The shrimp are huge. Their big black eyes and multiple legs put me ill at ease. I should be used to my dinner looking back at me by now.

 

 

Rich is here in Taichung to work. His building is empty except for the Americans that are here to help. As I walk through the city, the buildings are dark and empty. The sidewalks are packed with family groups carrying their goodies. I can’t help but smile at the kids. They are carrying the bulkiest bags. I see many lego boxes. I think of the money given in elegant red envelops with gold lettering. You can tell the grandparents are enjoying their time with their grandchildren. The train was a foreshadowing of the density we would encounter everywhere we go.

 

It is really quite fun to be an observer of a culture’s biggest event of the year. With no background at all, we soak everything in-the decorations, the food, the music, the energy. As a mom, I recognize the hallow eyes and fussy kids-holiday fatigue. But it still warms my heart and memories of Christmas past seep in. I know that I will now give my Christmas money in red envelopes.

And maybe that is the big PLAN. Our lives are forever changed. We now will observe not only Japanese holidays but the Chinese New Year. We will think of this island and its inhabitants and the kindness they showed us in the midst of their most wonderful time of year.

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