The past week has been one filled with celebration for the Chinese New Year, called the Spring Festival (春节 or “Chunjie” in Mandarin). The first day of the new year was on Thursday, February 19, but the Chinese love, and need, to prepare at least a week prior. It’s part of tradition for Chinese families to have large reunion dinners during this time. Many of the restaurants and small shops around Yunnan University closed several days before the holiday, giving families time to return home and prepare for large gatherings. Paper lanterns and other red and gold decorations were plastered on the streets and storefronts. In accordance with the Chinese zodiac, this year is that of the sheep (or ram, or goat), so most street vendors were selling these stuffed animals, along with other red and gold gifts. Navigating the supermarkets is a bit of a nightmare during the week leading up to the holiday because everyone is out buying food, candy, and gifts. Preparing for Chunjie is a lengthier process than I’d imagined, but luckily, IES students were given a week-long Spring Break at this time to celebrate and travel on our own.
On the eve of the first day of the new year, several of us went to a Chinese homestay family for an authentic Chunjie, to observe some common holiday traditions. The homestay mother taught us all how to play Mahjong, a Chinese game with tiles containing four different suits; we played a few rounds before prepping for dinner. The game is a little like Rummy, but there are many variations of Mahjong throughout the country’s different provinces. I’m proud to be able to cross learning the game off my bucket list for China. It’s one of the most well known pastimes originating here, and you’re always likely to find groups of people playing in parks. After Mahjong, we learned how to make one of China’s most famous dishes, one commonly associated with Chinese cuisine in America – dumplings (饺子 or “jiaozi”). And because dumplings are small, or maybe because the Chinese know how to do dinner the right way, we made a lot of dumplings. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many dumplings in one setting before, ever. There must have been over 300 made by the time we were ready for dinner, of both the vegetarian and meat varieties. That dinner tops the rest for me, mostly because we helped to prepare it and shared it with new friends.
Another of my adventures over Spring Break was a day trip to the Stone Forest. It’s a big attraction within Yunnan Province, and is exactly what it sounds like – a forest of massive boulders. The Stone Forest is about two hours from Kunming by bus, so we left early Friday morning to allow enough time to see the whole park. Leaving Kunming took a little longer than anticipated, however, because we misread the online directions and took a taxi to the West Kunming bus station instead of the East station. One simple character truly means a world of a difference sometimes. After making our way to the correct station and onto the bus, we arrived in Shilin, where the park is located, around noon. The weather was perfect for an afternoon outside, so the Stone Forest was packed with other tourists. To our surprise, there were no other foreign tourists – we were the only non-Chinese in the entire park. It’s not unusual here to meet Chinese people, especially children, who have never seen a foreigner before, so in addition to the actual Stone Forest, we were also a major attraction. A surprising amount of families asked for pictures with us – definitely a confidence booster! The park was a beautiful place with tons of pleasant people to meet; it was definitely a day well spent.
Our Spring Break was an opportunity to explore Kunming and its surrounding cities. Chunjie is such an exciting time for all of China, with so much celebration to be shared, and I’m grateful for having had the chance to experience it first-hand, in the heart of it all.