Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

Happy (Lunar) New Year!
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Yesterday was New Year's Eve over here. I had the good fortune to be invited to spend the evening with a friend and her family, and it was an occasion not to be forgotten, that's for sure.

It started out with a dinner. Preparations for the dinner began at noon.


(That's some fast chopping going on there, I have to tell you.)

While my friend's mom and cousin were cooking, the rest of us put up decorations:



And then we watched the Spring Festival programming on television - during the day, CCTV showed highlights from past Spring Festivals.


Then it was dinnertime:


Usually, my friends serve 14 or so dishes (has to be an even number of dishes) at the Spring Festival, but because I was there (a foreign guest), they upped the number to twenty. I did my level best to stuff myself silly to show appropriate gratitude. (Absolutely my favorite part of China is the way everyone feeds me all the time! I eat and eat and eat, and I still lose weight . . . )

I can't recount everything on the table, even with the picture to help me, but I can mention a few of my favorites: ba si di gua, which are sweet potatoes cooked and then dipped in a sugar syrup; garlic shoots with pork; Chinese salad with white tree-ear mushrooms, cauliflower, and potato noodles; spare ribs. In the weird category: Pork intestine. There's a little ritual associated with getting foreigners to eat weird things. Someone says, "Try this," and then everyone at the table turns to watch you very closely while you take a bite. Then someone asks, "Do you like it?" and if you say yes, everyone laughs. Then they tell you what you just ate.

(Pork intestine never gets to me any more, because, truth to tell, I actually like it now (especially when it's barbecued), after six trips to China. But I was also served something that I later realized was probably an entire pig's foot . . . I could have given that one a miss.)

We washed everything down with Bai Jiu (white alcohol, anywhere from 75 to 102 proof), homemade wine, and Russian beer. Needless to say, things got a little silly, with some impromptu dancing and singing and general merriment all around.

After dinner we watched the Spring Festival show, and around midnight, we set off the requisite fireworks. Here's the package:


It's about 3 feet by 3 feet square.

I got to light the fuse (which you do with a cigarette, not a match). I was rather unprepared; I thought it would take a while before the firecrackers went off, but they began popping immediately. Everyone else went to the porch, but I was more or less flattened against the garage, snapping pictures furiously without looking. Here's the only one that's any good:


Took about three minutes for all of them to go off. And they were going off everywhere all across the city - it sounded like a war zone.

Then back inside for another meal, with about eight courses, all of them different from the ones we'd had earlier.

Then, to sleep. I spent the night on the couch, finally getting back to my room today at about 1:00.

Today (and for the next few weeks) most of my friends will be busy with reunions - family gatherings, then reunions of old classmates from high school, college, graduate school . . . reunions with former co-workers and with other friends. I won't be involved with those, but I'm amazed at how many close ties my friends have, how many longstanding friendships. I'll write more about that on another day.

Right now, I'm just basking in the warmth of my friends' hospitality, and wondering what cosmic lottery I won to get here . . . before 2008, it never once occurred to me to come to China; it was never a place I particularly wanted to see. But boy, am I glad I came that first time. Who knew I'd fall in love with it? Life has a way of turning up the most wonderful surprises . . .

More soon. Now I'm gonna go sleep off that Bai Jiu.

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