An Unfortunate and Unforgettable Chinese New Year

Wow.

It was not really what I was expecting… and not what the Chinese New Year Celebration Committee was expecting either.

You know, some field trips just don’t go as planned and you kind of wish you had never had that really great idea or found that resource or event. That is kind of how I feel about Saturday night a few weeks ago.

The lead up to the celebration, however, was awesome! So let’s start there.

We’ve been studying ancient China for a month or so and have had a really, really good time with it. First off, I think the history of ancient China is extremely intriguing. It is so full of beauty, grace, delicate and intricate art, design, architecture, poetry, and music. But it is also fierce, cruel, deadly, unfeeling, vicious, and unrepentant. The contrast is so striking! I think because I grew up in the western world, the eastern world seems extra fascinating. It is something new and different, and therefore more difficult, yet so satisfying, to try and understand and wrap my head around.

To get a better feel for the culture of China (not just ancient China) we decided to spend some time learning and celebrating the Chinese New Year.

We learned that the older generations in China buy or make beautiful red and gold envelopes and give them to their grandchildren, nieces, nephews, etc. with a little money inside and a wish of good luck and good fortune. We skipped the money part, but still made little red and gold envelopes, wrote notes to each other, and handed them out on Chinese New Year. (I ran out of gold glitter! So we just went with red instead.)

This was especially awesome because we got to substitute endless amounts of Valentine’s Day cards for just a handful of red and gold Lucky envelopes instead.  Thank goodness Chinese New Year is right around Valentine’s Day. We got our card giving gusto out of the way without really going overboard and buying a lot of sugar.

We also made some easy peasy Chinese lanterns. Our talent for delicate, complex, and intricate Chinese design is somewhat lacking (or non-existent) so we just did our best. And then printed a few designs from a quick Google search.

To make the lanterns even better, I splurged and bought those little electric tea candle lights you can get in the wedding/baby shower decor aisle at Walmart. My 3 year old found the package of lights, so now we randomly find little glowing “flames” in interesting places through the house. That’s not so bad. I mostly have issue with them when I find them under my bare feet.  The 5 little lights we actually needed are still safe and secure in the lanterns. (Yes, because it’s been two weeks and I still haven’t taken them down. They’re just so pretty!)

Below, construction of the cards and lanterns.

 

BEHOLD! The final products!

 

IMG_4118

IMG_4152

Two my favorite quotes from the little well wishes for the new year went like this:

“Dear brother, I hope you have a very wonderful new year. Please don’t get into my stuff anymore.”

“Dear Mama, Happy Chinese New Year! Thank you for everything, and thank you for homeschooling me this year. I love you.”

If you are interested in reproducing like crafts at home, we used metallic markers for most of the artwork. The other big bonus was some red glitter tape that I bought last minute to fortify the handles of the lanterns. Because of the way I hung these guys up (which seemed the simplest to me) this red tape was a life saver. Normal construction paper would never have been able to hold up that amount of weight.

There are online instructions for both crafts just about everywhere… for instance here and here.

My daughter even came home from her art class with a Chinese New Year painting! This was kind of stepping out of the norm for this class. Usually they just paint winter scenes. I asked her what the character was and she said, “It’s called Angry Alien.”  That’s about when I figured this was her “free time” art picture and she had completely made it up.

She earned some creative points, at least. I stuck the painting up on the kitchen art clothesline.

IMG_4562

The big finale was the cultural celebration up north.  The celebration was held in a high school auditorium. I was picturing a bunch of people sitting on the bleachers in a really big gym. But no, this was a huge theatre equipped with extra balcony seating and a motorized orchestra pit that raised and lowered the orchestra 10 or 12 feet up and down, depending on the performance. I was very impressed! (And was glad we got there early to get good seats.) Outside the auditorium there were various booths set up catering mainly to the Chinese-American population. Just about everything was in Chinese, so it was a little difficult to get very much information. We did see some beautiful calligraphy demonstrations and some really fun posters explaining the various activities and meaning behind each of the days celebrated in the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year.)

IMG_4258

IMG_4259

IMG_4266

The decorations were really fun to look at, and occasionally someone would play the big drum right outside the auditorium doors. It felt just like the Chinese percussion piece we had listened to during symposium a few weeks back and really set a fun and exciting mood for the evening.

IMG_4265

IMG_4257

After we found our seats, the dragon dance started. It was fun to watch the dancers go up and down the aisles wiggling and blinking their eyes at people.

IMG_4335

The main show started with some words from the committee responsible for this highly anticipated annual event. Again, it was pretty much all in Chinese. But the part that seemed the most foreign to me was that even after the chairman began speaking, nobody quieted down and some even hadn’t taken their seats yet, nor were in a hurry to get to their seats at all. This lasted through the entire show! It was really noisy.  But everyone seemed ok with it, so we just went along with it too! Although culturally I am so used to sitting still and watching and listening, so my kids and I just sat there kind of like uptight sticks in the mud while everyone else seemed to be having a really good time.

Another really interesting thing I couldn’t help but notice was that everyone was taking pictures! I kept waiting for someone to say, “And please, no flash photography” or something to that effect. But no one ever did. So we all just kept taking photos and videos throughout the entire thing. There were tripods set up all throughout the audience – and one right in front of me. And when I say “all” were taking photos, I almost mean that literally! One of the women performing on stage in the orchestra even started taking pictures during her performance!

(Also, when you see my photos below, you will wish I had brought a tripod, too! Sorry about that!)

Both of those above observances were just that, observances. It was different and not what we were used to, but that was the entire point of coming to this event. To see something different.

What was REALLY different, though, were the communist overtones throughout the show. That actually did make me feel a little uncomfortable. The committee had invited a whole arrangement of  various government leaders such as police chiefs, mayors (from seemingly unconnected towns and cities), state representatives, congressman, and even one of the workers in the Chinese embassy in Washington D.C. Each, in turn as they wished, were invited to come onto the stage and give a speech. Each speech lauded the achievements of China, it’s importance to the economic vitality of the United States, and my particular state’s wisdom in embracing Chinese culture and seemingly understanding the importance and superiority of China.  One speech like this probably wouldn’t have caught my attention, but repeated speeches each followed by resounding applause – and jabs at the U.S. government – just made me squirm in my seat a little. There wasn’t anything overtly communist about any of it, (China is a really big deal and incredibly important to the stability, both economic and physical, of the world. And truly, people are critical of the U.S. government all the time. Our country rejoices in the fact that we don’t have to sit down and be quiet if we feel the government is serving itself instead of serving the people.) But there were just enough subtleties to remind me that our the American and Chinese cultures are very, very different.

After all the political introductions and speeches, the show finally began with a host and hostess in elegant ballroom attire – I think she changed her dress at least once during the night. It was almost like being at a game show or a variety show on T.V.

IMG_4383

But unlike TV, things kept going wrong. I felt so horrible for the performers. Songs would start late, or performers would come out late onto the stage.

IMG_4367

IMG_4371

IMG_4380

Dancers forgot their parts. Some performers, who turned out to be just pretending to play instruments, were exposed when the their movements were painfully in discord with the music being played over the loud speaker.

IMG_4453

IMG_4440

During my favorite performance some of the back stage mics must have been switched incorrectly, because the audience heard a pretty lengthy one sided conversation over the loud speakers which had nothing to do with the show.

IMG_4387

IMG_4398

After a different performance, as the curtains were closing they snagged on some of the overhead decorations and ripped a banner halfway down. A back stage hand ran onto the stage thinking he would just quickly finish the job and pull it all down before quickly running off stage. But even that backfired! The secure part of the banner was just a little too secure, so he yanked and yanked and nothing happened, except he looked and felt pretty foolish. Eventually they got it fixed, but still.

IMG_4409

IMG_4435

It felt kind of like a mystery movie, where someone is trying to sabotage the show for their own evil designs and motives. They keep laying snares and releasing little traps, anything that will disgrace the performers and committee. And then the poor host and hostess would get back on the stage in all their glitz and glam and try to pretend like everything was fine, tell their scripted jokes, laugh their scripted laughs, and walk off stage while we waited for everyone backstage to put things back together for the next performance. It was kind of painful, even, because I know people had worked so hard to put on a wonderful celebration and it must have been humiliating for one thing after the other to go wrong… especially in front of so many government officials!!

But that wasn’t the worst of it.

The fourth act of the celebration was a solo soprano singing a song about beautiful blue flowers. The curtain came up, the music started, but nobody was there. The spotlight rested at stage right waiting for her to come out, then darted to stage left thinking maybe she would make her entrance there, and then finally found her back at stage right.

She walked out poised and graceful. Her dress glittered and twinkled in the lights. It was the most beautiful shimmering pale blue, like the little flowers she would be singing about momentarily. She slowly and elegantly walked to the front and center of the stage. I was watching all of this through my camera lens, waiting for it to focus in the dark from such a distance so I could get a perfect shot of this beautiful woman. Almost there… almost there…

And then she was gone and everybody stood up and started screaming.

(Remember that earlier bit about striking contrasts?)

My heart sunk into my stomach. Someone had forgotten to raise the orchestra pit and this poor woman had walked right off the front of the stage and fallen at least 10 feet straight down. I grabbed my kid’s hands and said, “Pray for her! Just pray for her, right now!” And we prayed that she would be ok and that someone would be able to get to her soon.

What a nightmare.

People jumped up out of their seats and ran to the front of the auditorium to see what had happened and if she was ok, although I could tell from my seat in the back that no, she was NOT ok. We waited about 10 minutes for an ambulance and some paramedics to arrive. They had to bring the stretcher front and center on stage and then slowly raise the orchestra pit to bring her up and get her on it. All this time, not a word from her down below. I don’t know if she was unconscious from the fall or not, but I tried to calm my kids by telling them how brave she must be being during this really awful accident.

IMG_4405

Thankfully someone had the decency to put up some blackboards and stacks of chairs so she wouldn’t be exposed to the staring and gawking of the crowd, even though many of them, including the children, had run to the front of the auditorium and were watching her suffer from above, almost as if it were part of the show.

And still, people were taking pictures.

The ballroom gown hostess got back onto the mic and explained something at length in Chinese. I asked the people behind me if they could tell me in English what she had said. But although they understood the gist of my question, they didn’t know enough English to help me out.

So we just sat there. There was nothing we could do. We just sat there horrified and worried and sick to our stomachs. All the fun of the evening was gone. People were leaving, and I was tempted to leave also, but these people had worked so hard, rehearsed for hours, and spent so much money to put on this production. I almost felt like it would be ungrateful to leave early. But oh, the atmosphere in the room was very, very uneasy. The hostess got back on stage to let us know that the representative from the Chinese embassy in D.C. had informed her colleagues back east of the incident and we would be advised further on what we needed to do.

You know what? I can tell you what you need to do. Just call this lady’s family already, get her to the hospital, and say a group prayer or something! You don’t need a government official to do that!

But in China, actually, maybe you do. The prayer part, I mean.

Anyway, we just felt awful. When we finally left (earlier than anticipated after all), we said more prayers for that poor woman.

It’s been two weeks and I still feel can’t completely shake the feeling. I kept checking the news to find out if there was any sort of update on the singer, but I guess the media wasn’t invited and nobody knew to report. I could not find a any mention that anything had actually gone on at the auditorium that night at all.

Homeschool field trips are not supposed to make you feel so bad. Botched and sabotaged shows are only supposed to happen on old school Scooby Doo episodes and that one Miss America movie with Sandra Bullock.

I’m confident nobody actually was sabotaging the show. That is obviously ridiculous. It just felt that way because of all the odd occurrences and the horrible accident. And I am pretty sure that this was not a typical night for the Chinese New Year Celebration Committee. But to be honest, I don’t think we are going to go back to this next year.

Nobody in our family wants to relive that. Or even remember it. Which is maybe why it has taken me two weeks to finally type this up. It was just a horrible, horrible accident, and watching someone fall like that, in such contrast to the scene of peace and beauty the instant before, was really jarring and truly shocking.

Oh, that poor, poor woman.

In any case, it was an unforgettable night. Therefore, we can forego the outing up to the city next year and just hang our lanterns, hand out our red and gold cards, and order some Mongolian Beef from our new favorite Chinese restaurant in town.