2019 Spring Taiwan Temple Exchange Thomas Kuklinski

春節

I guess most people know it as Chinese New Year. That’s a strange name for it since many countries and people that aren’t Chinese celebrate it. The name literally means “spring festival”. People do say, 新年快樂 (Happy New Year), though, which makes sense because it comes from the Sinospheric tradition of using a Lunisolar agricultural calendar, wherein spring is the first season of the year. Should we call it “Lunar New Year” perhaps? No. I like 春節. It’s pronounced 「chūn jié」.

Good holiday, though. A holiday which, before coming to Taiwan, I had only been exposed to through (1) a Mandarin grammar lesson disguised as an idealized version of Asian culture (2) Philly’s Chinatown (3) the pageantry and spectacle of the CCTV New Year’s Gala and (4) the romanticized 1960’s Taipei lifestyle depicted by Pai Hsien-yung.

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My friend invited me to dinner with his family, and, to be fair, the drama of going to a dinner party did make me feel like I was living some kind of post-modern Taiwanese novel fantasy. But I wasn’t traversing a war torn country to reunite with some long lost relatives. I just took a suspiciously empty metro ride and walked through an even more suspiciously vacant city. You’re supposed to return to your ancestral home for this holiday, and hardly anyone’s ancestral home is a 1980s Taipei housing block, so the Greater Taipei Metropolitan Area empties out fast.

We ate hot pot, drank plum wine, played mahjong and it was lovely. Instead of ending the evening with a series of loud explosions or watching some thinly veiled (yet high production value) propaganda, we all watched a subtitled version of Beauty and the Beast and ate dessert at 2am. It was much more relaxed than expected. In hindsight though, it made sense.

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I’m not sure why I didn’t realize (1) a textbook (2) a performance for a majority American audience (3) rehearsed newspeak and (4) a 50-year-old work of literature aren’t suitable cultural representation. I wanna say I’m disappointed in myself, but like, coming into this experience, I was fairly certain I had a solid grasp on the whole 春節 thing. Like look at the examples I listed above. There’s at least an attempt at variety and scope. Like, I went to college.

Taiwanese people, and especially people in Taipei, have a comforting way of melting traditional culture into their daily life, like your mom sneaking vegetables into your favorite casserole. They’ll bow to a Mazu shrine on the sidewalk with bubble tea in one hand and a bag of Roots CanadaTM in the other. Or they’ll set an ancestral offering of incense, 金紙, and a #2 combo meal outside of their McDonald’s franchise. For what they lack in orthodoxy, they make up for in practicality.

In conclusion:

You need to actually experience a culture IRL in order to really understand it. But seriously, what you read is never really the full picture. Like, you could have hot pot with your Taiwanese friend and then watch The Lion King instead.

What I’m trying to say is,  I’m glad I got to spend 春節 in Taipei. I’m glad I was able to see the holiday first hand. And I’m glad I was wrong.

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