Ben-lights.jpg This week was the Spring Festival, also known as the Chinese New Year, so we had a nice break from the demands of class. This is their equivalent to Christmas and our calendar New Year all wrapped into one big holiday.

The city literally does die as millions flee the city to head to their hometowns in the country. This just goes to show that China is still a developing nation because many in its labor force come from rural areas of the country to industrial centers such as Beijing. Think of the migrations made to London, Chicago and New York during the Industrial Revolution, only this time on a greater scale.

On top of the many who return home, this is also a time when people with disposable incomes take vacations to warmer locales such as Hainan in the South China Seas. I chose to stay in Beijing over the break at the warning of our program’s Field Director. Traveling right now on China’s transportation infrastructure would be a nightmare, considering it is at the moment handling a large percentage of the nation’s 1.3 billion people. However, it was a nice break and I have had the opportunity to experience a real Chinese New Year.

Celebrating with family
The first highlight of the New Year was the dinner I had with my Chinese host family. We met at a restaurant that was really different from anything I had seen in the U.S. You walk in, and there is not one large dining room, as in most restaurants, but four floors of private rooms. My guess is that these exist and are popular because the Chinese, for the most part, do not really have large homes. When it comes to hosting family and friends for a holiday such as this one, they need more space.

My host family treated 40 of their closest friends and family to a huge New Year’s Eve dinner. The food was amazing, and the company was even better. Toasts occurred every few minutes, and everyone, and I mean everyone, was obliged to get up in front of the party and sing a little song.

My stage debut
With my luck, I was the first one asked up, and I had no idea what to sing. I had some coaxing by my Chinese family and ended up singing “Happy New Year to you” to the tune of the Happy Birthday song. Then the other two ACC students with me got up and sang. After that, it was the dads who got up, then the moms, and finally the grandparents and their friends.

It was an amazing night because I had the opportunity to see a part of China that I would not normally see. I saw a family during their most important holiday, and it was a great honor to be welcomed into their celebration. The smiles, laughter and connections I saw happening that night translate into any language and really changed my views on China. Despite the big government, the sea of people and every other problem a foreigner might encounter here, the people here are amazing. For the most part.

From my take on it, when you get to know the Chinese, and really make friends with them, it is only then that you can appreciate their culture, history and traditions. This place can be absolutely overwhelming at times, and there is so much to take in. Making Chinese friends and living their lives side-by-side makes the experience so much more rewarding, and it also gives one the opportunity to really appreciate being in this country.

Extreme fireworks
After dinner that night, I met up with some friends back on campus. We all walked down the street to the local fireworks stand and bought a boatload of fireworks. During the Chinese New Year, you are allowed to shoot off fireworks for a given number of days. It’s a relatively new phenomenon because the government previously prohibited fireworks in the cities. Now that it’s relaxed this policy, everyone is given carte blanche to shoot off fireworks whenever and wherever one chooses, literally. The city sounds like a war zone 24/7 for seven days. It was common to see fireworks going off in the streets with cars driving by; sometimes it was nerve-wracking, to say the least.

But on New Year’s Eve it is something else, especially at midnight. We went over to a friend’s apartment that has a great view of the city. When the clock struck 12, the city literally erupted into fireworks. It was not in just one location, but on the streets and at every corner. Beijing was a fireworks show for a good hour. I have never seen anything like it! In fact, there were so many fireworks that around 1 am, the city was cloaked in a blanket of haze. It was genuine fireworks smoke; the skies here have been incredible the past few weeks. I have no idea what to attribute it to, but the skies are as blue as any I have ever seen in Texas. Either something has changed or it is the winter winds blowing the pollution out of the city. Whatever it is, I hope it lasts!

Rest – finally!
The New Year was great because I got some much-needed rest. The week after the Spring Festival was a nightmare! I have never worked so hard in my life with any of my studies. As it is we commit about 10 hours a day to class time and prep for the next day’s lesson. On top of that we usually have to write an essay or two and work weekly on our independent project. This week we had our first portion of the independent project due, so that added to the workload. It was definitely a trying week, but now I fully know what to expect on the busiest weeks and how to handle it.

The independent project, along with the language pledge, is one of ACC’s hallmarks. It is more of a field study on a topic of our choosing, and we go out into Beijing to interview people and then also do ancillary research to complement what the people say. Then we turn around and write out a report using all the new grammar and vocabulary we learn in class. It is a great way to cement what we learn in the classroom.

My topic is Chinese lawyers and how they are finding their niche in this country amid market forces and a Communist government. This topic is of special interest to me because I want to go to law school, and ultimately end up in a job that will allow me to use my degree and work with the Chinese at the same time. So, studying the emergence of lawyers here since the 1980s seemed like a relevant topic to my future and genuinely interesting. Along with the emergence of lawyers in China, I am also looking at the public’s perception of lawyers and what kind of reputations they are already building for themselves. The interviews have been a lot of fun, and I am learning a lot about the issue.

Other than the Chinese New Year and the grueling week of class, I cannot say I have much else to say for myself. I went to Wangfujing, which is a major shopping avenue that has the city’s largest bookstore and the flagship Olympic store. That alone is an experience – they have the token pins you wear and the T-shirts, but they also have trinkets that are out of this world.

Olympics fever
The Beijing Olympic mascots: Bei Bei, Jing Jing, Huan Huan, Yin Yin and Ni Ni (Their names are derived from “Beijing Huan Yin Ni,” which means “Beijing welcomes you”) are these panda-looking creatures that are plastered on every corner of this city. The Beijing Olympic Planning Committee commissioned an artist to create jade stamps of the mascots. They wanted $42,000 US for them! I love buying Olympic memorabilia, but that’s insane!

When we left Wangfujing we encountered a cabbie trying to cheat us – it was rush hour so he tried to charge us 80 kuai for a 10-minute cab ride, the regular rate no matter what time of day starts at 10/11 kuai. This guy was in a standard issue cab so we could have definitely reported him. Cheating foreigners right now is the last thing the Chinese government wants, so I am sure if we had gotten his plate numbers we could have gotten him in lots of trouble.

We found another cab in a minute and did not have any problems. Wangfujing is a major tourist area so I’m sure they have lots of luck there ripping off foreigners. The best thing to do is walk away; most of the time there is an honest guy around the corner that will give you a fair deal for the same thing.

We also went to an acrobatic show as a group outing with school. It was fun and a staple on anyone’s first trip to China. This probably makes my third now, but they are still fun to watch. It is part Cirque Du Soleil, part kitsch and part traditional Chinese culture all wrapped into a two-hour show. It is amazing how small the people are! You first think they are kids, then you see their faces and realize they are probably in their 20s or maybe 30s.

Well, that’s all for now. This week promises to be a bit slower-paced, and next weekend I am going to the Beijing National Theatre (aka The Egg) to see the New York Philharmonic play – so that should be awesome!