Happy New Year! (and Chinese New Year)

This is the fourth and final in a series about celebrating the holidays in China. The following excerpt is taken from my book, Life Learned Abroad: Lessons on Humanity from China.


One week after Christmas came the New Year—the Western New Year, that is. On December 31, I went out with some students to one of the two Western bars in town.

The guys drank beers.

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And the gals had hot tea.

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At midnight at this bar, a bunch of middle-aged English and Irish expats rang things in right. With confetti falling and “Auld Lang Syne” blaring, they cheered and hugged one another in a euphoric celebration of life.

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Chinese New Year Celebration

Any Western New Year celebration was just a warm-up. The real deal was the Chinese New Year, a celebration and break lasting two to three weeks and the impetus for the largest human migration on Earth: Chinese migrant workers returning home to be with family. The Chinese New Year moves year to year from the end of January to early/mid February in accordance with the lunar calendar. Each annual cycle signifies the changing of the Chinese zodiac animal; 2011 would be that of the Rabbit.

My school, TPR, hopped into the New Year with style, having the means, the size, and the venue to hold their own celebration. Along with the school branches, Simone (the English name of our school founder) had also acquired an old temple property in western Zhuhai. Built between the late-1700s and mid-1800s, what is now known as The Beishan East-West Cultural Hub was once the former Beishan village town center, a complex of three individual temples, a meeting hall, and a theater for the then-village twenty minutes west of Zhuhai.

These grey-brick, clay-shingle roof buildings serve as standing time capsules of China a century and a half ago.

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TPR renovated the property to include the large theater, conference room, an exhibit of artifacts, and exterior aspects such as the plaza and walkways. The vision was to use it for concerts, business conventions…and New Year’s celebrations. And more than just ringing in the New Year, this TPR New Year’s celebration served as an annual recognition of the school’s accomplishments and standout employees. With the mixed-language audience of about 250, they were in need of two emcees. TPR asked me to be the English one.

I arrived at the Beishan theater early afternoon on January 25. This gave me some time to wait around inside the solid but cool structure until the celebration that evening. With no heat, and refrigerator-like conditions outside (most buildings in southern China don’t have heat), I walked around the back of the theater, paced between the rows of chairs, or sat in one of these chairs trying to be patient—and trying to stay warm—while watching the crew, decorators, and organizers prepare for the celebration. I guess I took the role of the spoiled talent and asked for a sweater, a blanket, anything. Shame on my Minnesotan self.

Eventually, though, the theater started to heat up backstage with the energy of show time.

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My school dressed me in black slacks and a fitted deep red jacket fastened with black rope-loop buttons and highlighted with a yellow dragon insignia down the right shoulder. My Chinese co-host, whom I had met an hour before show time, was a fortyish, smaller-statured gentlemen all decked out in a long-tailed tux. He would lead the show while I kept the English-speaking audience in the know.

All dressed and ready to go, I peeked out from backstage to see people filling the seats and awaiting the show with expectant chatter. Things were getting real. I was getting nervous. Minutes later, the houselights dimmed, the spotlight shone, and the curtains drew back. From my perch offstage right, I watched my tuxedoed co-host walk out to the applause of an eager audience and animatedly welcome the crowd using voice, face, and arms. In the shadows, I listened to his bright confidence and the audience’s approving laughter.

I rehearsed my notes. I even had some phrases in Chinese to warm myself to the crowd. It was hard to concentrate on my Mandarin, though. I feared stepping out into the light and interrupting what sounded like a successful opening by my talented and experienced co-host. I understood the importance of making a good entrance. If my nerves took over right away, they’d run the show, and it would be a long night. So I imagined I could best face and expel my nervous energy by actually sprinting out onstage. I once saw a taping of The Late Show with David Letterman, and in his pre-show audience warm-up he came running out to the audience’s delight.

But I changed my mind, thinking instead to walk out there as if I didn’t know where I was—as if thinking, “What am I doing here in this outfit in front of all these people?” It would be an act, but it also wouldn’t. I don’t remember how I even knew when to go out. I think there was a producer backstage to prompt me. Whatever alerted me, I put away my notes and walked out.

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I couldn’t see most of the audience as the bright stage lights pointed at me, but I could feel their gaze. It’s funny how we go through life wanting a certain amount of attention—no one wants to be completely ignored. The approval of others is nourishing and builds us up. But then when in the spotlight, we assume responsibility for others’ contentment. This can cripple, as if their eyes are draining our certainty, confidence, and freedom to be us.

Whatever. I went with my schtick.

I slowly wandered out looking all around and then asked in Chinese where I was. Maybe it was my poor Mandarin, maybe my bad acting, maybe it just wasn’t terribly funny, but the audience offered mind laughter. Then I asked in Mandarin if I was dreaming. The audience again chuckled. And then my co-host added some banter to play along. After he spoke a few sentences ending in an exclamation, the audience welcomed me with cheer.

Next, I took out my notes and spoke more Mandarin: “Good evening!” and “I’m glad to be your host.” The audience appreciated these attempts with louder applause and the night got underway.

Not only was this event for TPR, it was mainly by TPR. One young woman office worker performed a Lady Gaga lip-synced dance routine, another group of women performed a line dance to the song “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” and one young man rapped an Eminem song. Awards were handed out for Teacher of the Year, Administrator of the Year, and Employee of the Year. We drew tickets for prizes such as cash, a designer watch, and a bicycle.

My co-host and I traded talk time, his segues and introductions going first, followed by my own. It’s too bad we couldn’t communicate. Chemistry was hard to come by. Then again, maybe that made for better entertainment.

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I had been observing China all year. It was interesting to be the one watched—to observe those observing me—during this most significant of cultural events.

Xin Nian Kuai le!  Happy New Year!

I look forward to sharing more stories with you in 2016.

What say you?