On the 17th of February, we were invited to Paul's house in Dajia, (大甲) in Taichung County (the country outskirts of Taichung) to celebrate Chinese New Year with his family and friends.This was our first time venturing outside of the city on our own. Thanks to Google Earth and Paul's directions, we arrived on our scooter with little trouble.
Paul's invitation was an opportunity that allowed us to gain a more profound understanding of the customs and meaning behind this celebration. I feel that in Canada, our interpretation of Chinese New Year was somewhat distorted as we were exposed to an adapted version of the Chinese New Year made to fit into a North American context.
In Canada, Chinese families seem to celebrate with other members of the Chinese community in their area to minimize feelings of isolation from family, friends and their homeland. This means parties in large halls, parades, huge fireworks displays, traditional performances and buffets.
The grandiosity of this event in North America gives the impression that Chinese New Year is really big. However, after our experience and discussions with Paul and his friends, we have come to realize that Chinese New Year is in fact a more intimate, humble celebration in its native land.
Before, I had believed that Chinese New Year evoked the same great feelings of anticipation and excitement that Christmas gives to people in my country. Now, rather than comparing the Chinese New Year to Christmas, I would say that it is more akin to Thanksgiving in the West...that is, an extended thanksgiving which lasts 15 days.
In Taiwan, anyhow, Chinese New Year appears to be a time when families get together and give thanks. This is a 'spring' festival, according to Paul, that traditionally fell after the harvest. There is no extensive gift giving, but children and employees alike can expect to receive red envelopes containing money from their relatives and employers, respectively.
One important custom is to give thanks to and to worship ancestors. Every home generally has a shrine, usually in a room called a temple, where food and burning incense are arranged on a table. Part of the Chinese New Year tradition is to bow before this shrine in worship and thanksgiving of ancestors.
Traditionally, ancestors are supposed to be located on the left side of a temple, but in Paul's temple they were located on the right, due to his ancestors' special status as generous people (this, historically, was decided by the emperor). Paul's shrine is also somewhat unique from the majority of the population because it holds a small box containing statues representing his great-grandmother and great-grandfather. His family must therefore worship two family names.
After worship, the meal is usually served. We enjoyed many 'delicious Taiwanese foods' (they like to use the word, 'delicious' here), including pig's knuckles, lemony chicken, angel hair pasta with Taiwanese pesto, seafood, and tofu with vegetables. The meal was prepared by Paul's wife and their Vietnamese housekeeper (Their housekeeper may later prepare for us a traditional Vietnamese meal, which Paul and his family have been reluctant to try on their own so far).
After the meal, we visited Maoli temple where there were large, paper mache pigs and other traditional symbols. The engravings and sculptures in this temple were amazingly detailed and historic. In history, Maoli is said to have been quite wealthy, according to the writings near the entrance of this traditional temple.
The behaviour of the people worshiping seemed casual in comparison to the solemnity practiced in many Western Christian churches. However, it should be noted that some of the traditions of worship have been forgotten here, as many contemporary worshipers unknowingly enter in the doors intended for the gods, according to Paul. In addition, 'Hell money' (traditionally burned to appease the spirits of ancestors) is now dumped into a trunk and burnt in an incinerator to reduce air pollution (traditional burning produced a lot of BAD smoke).
Later, we returned to Paul's house and continued to feast upon traditional snacks (nuts, shredded cheese and Taiwanese candies). At this time, we enjoyed the company of Paul's friends and family.
During our scooter ride home, the streets were lined with impromptu fireworks. The fireworks regulations are quite lose here, so people will set them off anywhere at any given time, especially during traditional celebrations. There were 163 fireworks related injuries this year.
I should add that Paul's house is located on the same property as his factory which produces 'puffed dye', and other water-based dyes, that they sell to companies like Nike and that are used on items such as runners. Paul gave us two traditional hanging mementos. One reads something like, 'luck and smooth sailing' and the other reads, 'prosperity and riches', in Chinese. It is a very personal gift from him, as the writing is printed using the puffed ink from his factory.
Paul is becoming a good friend of ours. A few months ago we all went hiking together
in the famous 'Shito Mountain'. It was a refreshing change from the densely polluted air of Taichung. We were sure to breathe deeply during our hike.
Before the hike, we met Paul's best friend, Alex, who was one of Paul's evening visitors during the Chinese New Year celebration. Alex treated us to some amazing soup at a small, but famous, Taiwanese restaurant in the foothills of Shito Mountain. He also took the picture of James and I. In the next picture (I took it) you can see Paul and his wife, Alex, Paul's son Michael, and some goon we don't know who just sat down at our table and started eating.
One thing that James and I have noticed during our time here so far is that everything is different, but at the same time, the same. Hiking up Shito Mountain was very similar to hiking in the North Bay area. With the exception of poinsettias, banana trees (with leaves the size of our bed), huge spider webs that could trap a bat, and other minor foliage differences, we felt right at home. It was very nice to get a glimpse of another part of Taiwan.
And what did we do for Christmas, you ask? Well, we attended a Christmas party thrown by one of our Columbia colleagues for homesick foreigners. There, we participated in a secret Santa gift exchange and enjoyed a turkey dinner with pumpkin pie and, of course, Christmas pudding for dessert.
On December 25th, our families were missed, but it didn't quite feel like Christmas. I have to say, I think that both James and I felt that the Chinese New Year took on a greater significance and that we felt more festive during Paul's Chinese New Year celebration than we did at Christmas. It goes to show you, a holiday is not a holiday without family and friends.
Best wishes for the New Year and 'gong shee' to everyone back at home!