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For three days, beginning 5 February, 2000, The People's Republic of China and Chinese communities around the world will celebrate their most important festival, Chinese New Year.
Everyone returns to the family home so that the days before and after Chinese New Year are chaos on the mass transport systems. All of China seems a frenzy of house cleaning, shopping, praying, cooking, eating, drinking and setting off fireworks.
This year, according to the lunar calendar, we enter The Year of the Dragon. Further, The Tian Gan or Heavenly 10-year cycle is combined with the Di Zhi or Earthly 12-year cycle to produce a 60-year cycle seldom used or understood today except by artists and fortune-tellers. In Tian Gan, it is geng chen, the Seventh or Golden Dragon.
"Brian," says Teacher Jin, "on Thursday we will have dinner, please come. And Teacher Song invites you to dinner on Friday."
"Oh, but Alee has already invited me on Thursday."
"At what time?"
"That's okay. We will eat at six o'clock, but come at five so we can make jiaozi."
"Jiaozi is a Beijing New Year speciality," Teacher Jin says, "and I make the best jiaozi."
She shows us how to stuff the jiaozi and says, "Come, make, make."
"Ali," I point out, "Your jiaozi is too big and ugly. Mine looks better."
Suxi holds up her jiaozi. "No, mine is best."
"They are all ugly," Teacher Jin says, "but hurry because I am hungry."
"Teacher Jin, this is your first New Year in Fujian. Did you not want to go back to your family home in Beijing?"
She shakes her head. "Beijing is too cold and too far. I don't want to go."
Teacher Jin, her husband Lao Wu, daughter Xin Xin and niece Jessica have prepared what turns out to be a costly feast: duck, chicken, pork, shrimp, "thousand year" eggs, salad, hamburger, jiaozi, wine, beer, honey drink and Lao Wu's speciality, candied potato.
After the meal we eat the traditional tangerines and melon seeds and I have my first cup of red tea, which is actually black tea but in China is called 'red'.
Little Xin Xin brings out a xiangqi set and challenges anyone to a game of Chinese chess."How was the jiaozi?" asks Teacher Jin.
"The best," I say.
Alee's dinner is somewhat different. There are equal amounts of spoken Cantonese and Mandarin with a smattering of English. The food too, is a mixture of Fujian and Cantonese. People come and go swiftly, beer keeps coming in, peppy Hong Kong music adds to the fun of jokes and well wishes and there is a constant staccato of firecrackers and fireworks.
At midnight Will and I strike up a chorus of Auld Lang Syne.
"Will, this is Chinese New Year. We should at least sing in Chinese."
"In Chinese, Brian?"
So we do another off-key chorus in English and wish each other Xin Nian Hao and Kung Hei Fat Choy. Happy New Year. Wish You Success and Prosperity.
Five fully loaded buses pass us going to Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian. Finally a full one stops and we squeeze on. The fare is higher than normal. "Before Lunar New Year everything gets expensive," explains Chao Hui.
I see red paper signs on doorways of homes.
"They are dui lian," Chao Hui says, "blessings for the home for the New Year."
I see a familiar character. "This one is Fu, the same Fu as in Fujian, but why is it upside down?"
"Because right way up it means 'fortune', inverted it resembles dao meaning 'to arrive', so this way it means 'Fortune will come'."
"If I put an upside down Fu on my door, will my fortune come?"
"Ah, Kong Brian, you are already very fortunate. What more do you want?"
He was right and I was ashamed.
Teacher Song is also from Beijing but moved to Quanzhou 25 years ago. Her husband offers me cigarettes and tangerines while the others make jiaozi. Their older son has prepared his Beijing speciality - a very tart salad.
Again the table is laden with food including rice and noodles. For the occasion she brings out a tea set made in Yixing, of purple sand and with three seals.
"Teacher Song, do you miss Beijing?"
"No, it's too far and too cold. Quanzhou is warmer."
She asks about the climate in Trinidad. I tell her that if I were in Trinidad I would be wearing short pants and a T-shirt instead of a down jacket.
"Even better than Quanzhou," she says. Then, "How is the jiaozi?"
I say very solemnly: "It is the best."
She nods. "Be careful of the pepper, it's hot."
Again the 2 o'clock flight from Guangzhou to Xiamen turns out to be non-existent. I get the 4 o'clock one and arrive at dusk.
Leaving Xiamen airport, taxi drivers offer to take me to Quanzhou for 300 yuan, three times the normal fare.
I walk out to the highway and wait for a bus. There is very little traffic. An old man is also waiting.
"Happy New Year," I greet him. "I am going to Quanzhou. And you?" using the polite form of 'you'.
"I am going to Nanan County. Near to Quanzhou."
"Is Nanan your family home?"
"Yes. I am going to see my father. I now live in Guangzhou."
"You look like a teacher."
"Yes, I teach meteorology. Where are you from?"
"Trinidad and Tobago."
"Oh, near to Dominica?"
"Um, yes. Very good. How did you know?"
"Because meteorology is part of geography."
It is now dark. We smoke and wait. A crowded small bus appears.
"Going where?" my friend calls out.
"Shall we go?" my friend says.
"No, I will wait for a Quanzhou bus."
The bus conductor has leaped off and is tugging at the teacher's elbow. "Hurry! Hurry!"
"There is no more," my friend says to me and pushes me on.
At Jimei we walk about looking for a bus to Quanzhou but we are now off the highway and must take another small bus to Shishi.
The bus is overcrowded and for the whole journey we stand crouched between caged chickens, bags of market produce and jars of salted eggs. We get off before Shishi and wait in front of a closed gas station.
There is a sign and I idly practise reading Chinese. Two characters. South. Peace. Nan. An.
I point to the sign. "We are in Nanan County. Is this not your home town?"
"It is not very far."
A man walks out to the road and joins the wait. He wants to take a parcel to Quanzhou but is afraid it is too late to catch a bus.
The two of them squat and wait.
It rains softly and our recent arrival goes back home. The sky is vast and there is a peaceful silence. A Xiamen/Quanzhou bus rumbles up. It is half empty and unusually quiet. The ride is bumpy. I sit and look at the rain.
In Quanzhou we get off. Something troubles me.
"Where are you going? Where is Nanan?" I ask.
"Where are you going?" he asks me without answering my question.
"To Hua Qiao Da Xue. In the direction of Fuzhou. I know how to get there. Nanan is back there, by the gas station, isn't it?"
Motorcycle taxis swarm around us. They will take me to Hua Da for 40 yuan. He tells them: "Four kuai is enough!"
"It is New Year's! It is ten o'clock in the night! There is no other way! He must pay 40 yuan!" they say with relish.
A long distance Xiamen/Fuzhou bus comes up. He flags it down.
"Uncle," I say, "How will you get home?"
He steps into the bus and asks, "To Hua Da, how much?"
The motorcycle taxis are angry. They pull me away from the bus. My friend pushes me onto the bus.
"Wait," I say to the bus driver and he replies,
"Cannot!" and pulls out.
I lean out the door to say: "Uncle, Happy New Year!"
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