An American in Chengdu

Year of the Tiger | January 31, 2010

Chinese New Year (known here as Spring Festival) is in two weeks, and I’m starting to get the idea that it’s kind of a big deal. This is when universities take their between-semesters break, and the powers that be have declared that the foreign teachers should get the entire month of February off. Tonight, as my final official duty before my vacation begins, I went to the school’s holiday party for teachers.

About a dozen of us had gathered on Thursday to coordinate a performance of a song; I was told I’d be handed the mic for a four-line verse, “since you are a foreigner.” This afternoon I practiced the lines, and when I sang them for Samantha just before the dinner started she declared my performance satisfactory. There was probably no connection, but she spoke much more Chinese to me this evening than usual, and assured the nurse sitting on the other side of me that “she can speak some Chinese.”

I needn’t have worried too much about giving a perfect performance; the sound system was bad, and most of the groups even less practiced than ours. In one group the men were dressed in silk jackets and the women in cute red suits with white trim that made them look like Santa’s Chinese helpers. Their singing was no less terrible than the rest of ours, however. In addition to the songs, there was a skit with a nurse and three slovenly patients, of which I understood nothing. The best performance was by four 20-somethings who danced to an R&B song.

The performance quality was really beside the point, though: the important thing for a Spring Festival celebration is that it be renao (“bustling with noise and excitement,” according to one translation). To this end there were gifts (one dispensed to each of us when we came in, others distributed by a raffle, and still others by performers after each song), toasts (someone would come by our table about twice a minute for this purpose, and we’d all stand up and touch glasses), exploding tubes of confetti, and, of course, the performances. There was much merriment and little conversation.

After about an hour and a half the room was suddenly half-empty. This, it seems, is how Chinese banquets normally end: early, and with few goodbyes. I walked home with my loot: fabric stool that can also be used to store things, a lucky red envelope with some token cash, a set of ceramic bowls with plastic lids for storage, and a large tin of mango-flavored candy. I’d also gained an intangible grasp of this concept of renao.

So happy new year, everyone! I probably won’t be blogging while traveling, but I’ll try to do the trips some justice when I get back. Here’s the plan:

Feb. 1-10: South to Kunming and Xishuangbanna with Cecilia

Feb. 12-18: Deano visits Chengdu; we see the local sites, including those long-snubbed pandas

Feb. 19-28: Malaysian Borneo with Deano, plus a few days in Kuala Lampur.



  1. Oh my god, you’re gonna love those Pandas!

    Comment by Deano — February 1, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

  2. 1. You get the whole month off? Awesome!
    2. So wait. They don’t even call it new year’s? Why do we call it the chinese new year if they don’t? I am so confused.

    Comment by Helen — February 3, 2010 @ 1:53 am

  3. Yes, I get the whole month off (part of the reason it’s taken me so long to respond to this comment). They do wish each other “happy new year” and it’s now the year of the tiger, but they don’t call the holiday New Years Day, maybe to differentiate it from what they call the solar new year, which they also celebrate. Clear? 🙂

    Comment by americaninchengdu — February 14, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

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    About me

    I've come to Sichuan in search of adventure, fluency in Chinese, and awesome vegetarian food. I have to concede that the baby pandas are very cute.
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