Last Chinese New Year, my host family did not do much. It was a relief back then not to be overwhelmed by random relatives and large feasts, but this time I wanted to have that experience. I visited my teacher, Caroline, at her home in Yun Cheng Shanxi and, from there we went to her family’s home in the countryside, Ji Shan. My appetite was slowly, but surely returning to me, but I still struggled to stay up past nine. This meant watching only an hour of the New Year Gala, which was fine because I have yet to understand a word of it (I thought maybe after three years I would find it more comprehendible…maybe even catch some jokes, but no, not really). As usual, I sat in silence as everyone around me periodically burst into laughter. I would say the highlight of the hour I saw, and probably the whole show, was when Celine Dion appeared and tried to sing Mo Li Hua with a Chinese singer, and then sang My Heart Will Go On…weird. The family made dumplings for dinner, tons of dumplings, which was also something I missed last time I was here. My host grandfather in Beijing often made dumplings, but I never really appreciated how much effort must have gone into it. Trying to make a few myself certainly changed that.
The actual visiting of the family is exhausting. You see everyone on the father’s side the first day of the New Year, and then the mother’s side the second day. We visited the father’s family, went to a temple with a giant Buddha made of earth and mud, saw a thousand year old wall paintings, and then went to the old theater in the family’s village. It was an amazing building made completely out of wood and also had some paintings. It reminded me a lot of the Polish synagogue I worked on a reconstruction of this summer. Caroline remembers the theater functioning when she was little, but it was now quite dilapidated because there are no funds to preserve it. A painting of a tiger on the outer wall had math problems scribbled on it. I can’t imagine a cultural relic being used like scrap paper in America. This whole trip has made me think a lot about preservation of art and historical relics. China and America seem to be on to opposite ends of the spectrum. Dong Dong, Caroline’s brother, immediately touched the Buddha’s foot (the Buddha was also at least a thousand years old), and he also rubbed his hands against the walls of the ancient wall paintings (the light and temperature were not at all regulated either). People here have a different attitude about historical objects. They do not seem to think much about preservation, these kinds of objects are all over and people are used to being exposed to them. Maybe part of it is the history of defacing such objects. First the Japanese took whatever, or parts of whatever they wanted. Then people defaced anything traditional-looking during the Cultural Revolution. People did whatever they could to protect objects from destruction, though their methods still did not always allow for full preservation. For instance, people had covered the wall paintings with mud, to protect them during the Cultural Revolution. So there is a history of people taking the fate of these objects into their own hands and I think people have maintained this kind of attitude. Now, there is nothing significant guarding the objects and, I guess, who is to say that displaying objects in this way is wrong. Maybe they won’t last as long or remain as well in tact, but people can really get up close and interact instead of staring at a distance at something behind glass rigged with alarms. Still it’s a little horrifying to me when something like the theater is disrespected. Aside from the doodles of math problems etc. someone had recently stolen some of the wooden decorations. It’s sad that something the village prizes so much has no way of being protected and easily enjoyed.
Anyway back to New Years. On the second day, we visited the mother’s side of the family and headed back home. The next day was my last day in Yun Cheng. Caroline and I biked to the high school. It was WAY bigger than Jingshan or any American high school and provided an interesting contrast. All the students live in dorms and the classrooms were not nearly as nice as those at Jingshan. We then went to a fancy set of apartments and joined a group being shown the inside. I felt like I was on House Hunters…We decided the rooms were fancy, but too small. I am really grateful to Caroline and her family for taking care of me and making me feel like part of the family these past few days. I leave for Shanghai tomorrow and will finally start my orientation in Hangzhou the day after.