By Khanya Gundwana
All roads lead to anywhere else, but China!
That’s the usual narrative during the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival celebration period for many Africans that live in China. However, that wasn’t the case this year. Many had big plans for this time – like weddings that have been put off for too many times that they can count. Others planned to see their families. Then there are those that are like me that wanted to explore other parts of the country and South East Asia.
It’s my second year in China and my first time celebrating and learning more about the Chinese “Niu” Year, also referred to as the Lunar New Year, the Spring Festival, and all its customs. Let’s say I got my introduction to CNY 101. Lesson number one… ‘Niu’ (牛) means ‘ox’.
You can read about my experience in China during the pandemic and check out what I was up to here.
Since it wasn’t possible to explore the continent, I had big ideas of seeing more of China other than the usual excursion of just taking a short trip to Shanghai from Suzhou. I wanted to explore the desert, go to Mongolia, see the Avatar Mountains, the rainbow mountains…anywhere but Suzhou! If you told me “Hey, let’s go,” I’d pack my things without even any knowledge of where we’re going. I’d literally ask no further questions.
But instead, I was forced to the confines of my city yet again. I don’t know what it is about the time surrounding CNY, but it seems that that’s when China gets its bouts of COVID-19 cases. We began hearing of various cities around the country taking precautionary measures in the entry and exit of its citizens. Shanghai had a looming lockdown which scared me into thinking that Suzhou would go into lockdown again too. Horrifying thought. Nationwide, municipalities, organizations, and institutions were placing travel regulations against their employees and pleading with them to just stay put and not travel around the country during this time. Soon I had to get over myself and start making an effort to enjoy my month-long holiday in The Venice of China.
This meant I had to get a little creative. I put together this whole list of things that I could do in the city – archery, hot springs, checking out new restaurants, and editing my videos for YouTube. It made me feel like I could still live my best (and productive) life, even if I couldn’t do that in a different geographical location. But instead, I just ended up having too many late nights and events that I hadn’t planned take over my ‘Suzhou CNY To-Do List’.
I guess, I still need to learn not to over-plan in this pandemic-age we now live in.
I was fortunate enough to attend a Chinese New Years’ Eve house party and entered into the Year of the Ox with other Suzhounese expats. Everyone wore red, we made dumplings, did calligraphy painting, played traditional Chinese board games, and we got to take a sweet hongbao home. We were given a brief intro to the meaning of 福 (Fu), this is the sign we painted. It means “good fortune,” “blessings,” or “good luck.” Often, you’ll find this sign hung upside down in Chinese homes in an effort to have “all the fortunes pour down” directly into their homes.
Lorraine, our gracious host, would usually visit her own family in Lianyungang, Jiangsu (连云港) at this time of year. This time, she chose to open up her home to all of her expat friends and show them an (almost) authentic celebration of the new year. Before this, I’d only celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival in a similar way.
I met my friend Nokubonga, who’s a fellow South African from my hometown, at the party. It was her first time celebrating the CNY too. Aside from her and me, the guests represented many nations, namely Russia, Venezuela, Italy, Nigeria, the USA, China, and the UK.
The element of the family is a crucial one at this time of year. And as I was wishing my students and their parents a joyous time together, I added that they should cherish the time they have with each other. And my heart grew a little sore.
It’s been almost two years since I’ve left my parent’s home in South Africa. And it’s been two years that I haven’t been able to be hugged by my parents. I’ll sometimes mention how homesick I feel when I speak to them, while desperately fighting back the tears during our lengthy video calls. I know my mother can hear the sadness in my voice when she calmly and reassuringly tells me, “Hai, uzobaright wena Koko.” (No, you’ll be okay, Koko.)
There’s a fight going on mentally and emotionally. To keep my emotions in check and to not bury myself in my bed every day of the week. I have to stimulate myself mentally. This is why I spent more time with people, doing things like working out, going to dinners, lunches, brunches, birthdays, sleepovers, dancing, webinars. It was all to distract myself. Of course, I took the time to acknowledge my true feelings but I was careful not to spend too much time on that.
Natasha Pillay and Rishav Thakur, more warmly known as Tash and Tuxx respectively, are a South African couple from Durban living in Suzhou, and they just so happen to be my colleagues too. They don’t know much about CNY and they’ve never celebrated it in the three years that they’ve lived in China. They enjoyed the fireworks while they lived in Xining, Qinghai, though. But that was pretty much it.
February 2021 was supposed to be their fourth attempt at finally saying their ‘I do’s’ in the presence of all their loved ones. They have postponed their wedding over three times now (they’ve lost count of the exact number), due to the pandemic. They’ve planned and paid for everything. The show is ready to go, but the universe just hasn’t allowed their day to become a reality yet.
“I missed the birth of my niece’s baby. And I’m okay with being here but I’m often worried about my mother who’s single, growing older, and alone at home. I just feel a little trapped sometimes,” says Natasha. Of course, they would have loved to be at home, but Rishav appreciates being in China more. “There is some level of stress, but South Africa isn’t the most desirable place to be right now. And I’m all about being where the money is at. I have my job. And I think that’s the most important thing people are trying to hold on to the most right now,” he said.
Tanya Puth, better known as Tea, from Gauteng, South Africa, makes an effort to be there for her family. “I tried to be there for Christmas… I told my family to pick somewhere they’d like to go for Christmas lunch and the bill was on me. I popped in via video call to see if they were enjoying themselves.”
In her four years of living in Suzhou, she’s never really engaged in the major celebratory customs of CNY. Apart from watching the fireworks and making dumplings, of course. She says she vaguely knows the meaning of it and knows that this is the time associated mostly with being with family.
She took the time during her month-long holiday to just focus on herself. She got to work on her own personal projects that she can never find time for during her full-time job. This is how she coped with not being able to make a grand escape to Japan, which is where she planned to go during CNY.
Aside from sometimes feeling alone and a little restricted, I realize just how good I have it. I’m working and I’m able to seek out new opportunities, which are available in abundance here. The same can’t be said for many who feel stuck in a limbo that seem out of their hands. And then there are those who are actively putting us together in spaces that allow us to feel the slight warmth we’d enjoy in the embrace of our distant loved ones. We might not know much about Chinese celebrations, but I think learning about them while we’re here may bring us a little closer to what we already know.
We’re already well into the Niu Year now… I wish you ox-loads of strength, bravery, and courage.
What do you think?
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