As I am sure you can imagine, I was ecstatic to get back in touch with the family from Suichang that I stayed with in 2010 (see previous post), and jumped at the opportunity when they invited me to spend ten days with them over the Spring Festival holiday.
While I was curious about how the tea farm was running as well as their restaurant, tea harvest season doesn’t start until March, and because it was winter break I assumed the restaurant would also be closed. Instead, I was simply looking forward to catching up, and was excited to participate in their New Year celebrations.
As I stepped off the bus I immediately heard Aiqiu, the mother, call my Chinese name, and we both erupted in laughter as we hugged. She led me over to where her husband sat in the driver’s seat of a shiny new car, and she explained they had replaced their old pickup truck earlier that year. We chatted nonstop on the ride back to their home- covering everything from her mother and father-in-law: who are fine and she said were also excited to see me; her daughters, who are now 14 and 9; their restaurant business: she said they stopped running it three years ago because they became too busy; and the upcoming tea season: she said once March comes they would be very busy and the women would be returning to help them pick tea.
After a ten minute drive through town the buildings began to fade into vegetable plots, rice paddies, and the tea mountains. We turned onto the dirt road leading up to their home and pulled up to the drive way, and the Grandmother and youngest daughter (Nainai and Zhu Zixi) were already waiting in the doorway. I nearly tripped over myself rushing up the driveway as the older daughter (Zhu Zifei) came bounding down the stairs, and we all exchanged hugs through fits of laughter.
After dinner we passed the night in the parent’s room/their living room, drinking tea and chatting while a Chinese soap opera played in the background. The girls are both studying English in school, and Aiqiu explained that tomorrow she will go to her mother’s house to prepare food for the Spring festival, and she asked me to teach English to the girls in the morning while she was gone. I was happy to do so, and we all laughed as the girls asked me to teach them English animal vocabulary– as their animal requests started to get more and more complicated I needed them to act out the animals words they wanted to learn, which just led to more laughter.
Our English study session the next morning was awesome, especially compared to what I remembered four years ago where I had tried to to explain some mish mash of English vocabulary I had come up with on the spot while Zhu Zifei made a slight effort to listen, but mainly looked over my shoulder to watch the television that she had on mute in the background. Because she is now 14, English is a core piece of the curriculum that will have a significant impact on determining her entrance to high school and college.
Later that afternoon we went on a hike through the tea fields…
Then in the evening when the parents returned from where they had been preparing food for the spring festival at their grandmother’s house, Aiqiu invited me to the kitchen to watch as she and her mother-in-law prepared tofu. First they strained the tofu with water, then let it sit before straining it again:
Meanwhile, outside Yeye (the grandfather) was cutting open a chicken gizzard for an offering they would make to the Land Gods as a tradition for the next day’s New Years Eve celebration:
When all the tofu was collected in a square, they flattened it out to be cut and prepared:
The following morning after breakfast I followed Yeye and Nainai up over the mountains and through the tea fields to where they have an alter situated into the side of one of the mountains. They carried a basket containing some bowls of food, a chicken, and what appeared to be the a part of a pig, along with some paper and candles.
After laying the food out, Nainai lit the candles and incense, while Yeye took off further through the mountains. When he had disappeared over one of the peaks, Nainai lit the paper on fire they had spread out in front of the altar.
I asked if this ritual was something they do just for the New Year, and she said they do it many times over the year, basically for every holiday, and they will do it again tomorrow morning as well.
The next day was New Years Eve (which is also when everyone celebrates their birthdays). That evening, after everyone had rushed about cleaning the house, the grandparents set the alter (pictured below) under the duilians that Zhu Zifei had painted earlier that afternoon (pictured above). Meanwhile, the mother gave the kids red envelopes with money and gifts.
Then, except for the grandparents who retired to their own bedroom, everyone crowded around the television to watch the Spring Festival Gala (what some from the US would equate with that Dick-something Rockin’ New Year’s Eve show). At 12am we all gathered outside to set off fireworks, and then went to the kitchen to eat cake.
Aiqiu asked if we set off fireworks for Christmas, and I replied no, because for the most part the government has made it illegal to set off fireworks. She laughed and said that the government has also told them not to do it but no one pays any attention – that is just the way Chinese people are.
The following morning we were all allowed to sleep in, and after breakfast everyone dressed up (the girls in the new clothes they had been given the night before) and we set off for the temple that was in the mother’s hometown about a half hour away.
On the drive over, the streets were strewn with the red paper residue of firecrackers, and families and friends were gathered in groups in their driveways while kids played in the street.
When we arrived at the temple, Aiqiu told me that every year they come here, but only for the Spring Festival. Inside most people moved from statue to statue, bowing three times while sometimes whispering a prayer. As we moved about the temple, she explained what the statues represented: some were for good health, others for wisdom, and the one room with two statues (pictured below on the right) were the land gods.
After we had made our way around to stop in front of each statue, Aiqiu took me over to a large bell with a wooden hammer, and although I tried to decline the invitation to ring it, she insisted, saying that it would help me find a good husband. She then had me repeat the exercise at the drum on the opposite end if the altar, just to be sure.
I asked Aiqiu if every village will have a temple like this, and she replied that yes, but each village will have their own statues.
The following morning we all piled into the car by 8, but all I knew was that we were going to Hushan, a place near Aiqiu’s home we had passed through on our visit a few days earlier, and that it would entail some boating. After winding our way through the mountains, and eventually turned onto a dirt road that led to the edge of the lake.We waited there along with groups of other families also carrying red boxes and bags typical for Chinese New Year gifts.
Eventually Aiqiu’s brother came buzzing around the corner in a wooden canoe/boat (it was shaped like a canoe but had a motor attached to the back) and we all piled in and took off.
As we rounded our way through the mountains we eventually came to a series of net grids attached to small huts on rafts. We followed Aiqiu’s brother as he hopped out onto the raft-hut, and then watched as he and Aiqiu’s husband waddled their way over opposing sides of the grid, pulling up the net that was submerged under the water as they waddled.
After they had waddled their way halfway down the grid, the father dipped a pole net into the water, and emerged with an enormous fish. We all piled back into the canoe-boat and took off further up the lake where we docked at the edge of a mountain with steps carved into the side, piled out with our New Years boxes and gift bags in tow, and hiked our way up the path until we arrived at a small village where Aiqiu’s brother, wife and son live with the wife’s grandparents. Aiqiu explained that everyone in this village makes their living from fishing as well as growing vegetables and tea.
The fish was immediately gutted and chopped into pieces, and Aiqiu and I sat side by side to tend the fire under the stove as her brother began to prepare lunch. Mostly Aiqiu took charge of adding more bamboo to the fire, but eventually she left me in charge while she went to help cook. While laughing, she asked if I knew how to handle the fire, and I, also while laughing, responded no. She thought I was joking (I wasn’t) and went to help her brother.
I assumed I just needed to keep the fire going, but it soon became obvious that I had no idea what I was doing when I miscalculated how much bamboo would be required to maintain the fire, adding way more than was necessary until Aiqiu and her brother, behind clouds of smoke and laughter, pulled me off fire duty. Luckily it was also time to eat so everyone was too distracted to make any comments about my lack of kitchen skills.
After lunch we said goodbye and piled back into the canoe, only to putter over to a small island where these wild green sprouts were growing. We hopped out and started picking, and Aiqiu explained that these are used in a traditional New Year cake that they prepare each year for the holiday, and they would use these sprouts to make the cake again next year.
That night at dinner Aiqiu explained that the house and tea farm is actually state-owned, and they just renewed their second 5-year contract with the local government to manage the tea production. Their farm includes 160 Mu (26 acres) of land while most other people in the village have 4 or 5 Mu (because the standard size for government allocated plots will be less than 10 Mu).
After these next five years she thinks they will move back to their previous home (that I had visited the previous day with Nainai). They are not sure if they will continue to pick tea or if they will find other work. A few days earlier she had also explained that when the youngest daughter enters middle school (and will then also live at school full time like her older sister), she and her husband may go to find work in Hangzhou or Shanghai.
She said that while this place is very beautiful, they may be able to find better work opportunities in the city.