First published on Global Times 08:36 February 10 2011 By Bill Siggins
Last week I joined the world's largest annual human migration and headed home for Spring Festival.
This ancient tradition links the past and present and provides a cultural identity as strong and unifying as a natural instinct. As a foreign son-in-law, I'm still only an interloper and the Spring Festival process remains an exotic, eye-opening experience.
Unlike most of the hundreds of millions of other travelers flocking back to their hometowns for the new year, we eschewed the pain of train travel and the hassle of airports.
Arriving on the family's doorstep after a 13-hour drive, I saw that the odometer for the trip had reached the auspicious number of 1,181.8, which in Chinese sounds similar to yao fa (becoming rich).
The heartfelt welcome home made the grueling journey worthwhile.
Everyone was delighted to see us although my bear hugs and cheek kisses threw every-one into a tizzy. They claim my beard scratches but I know that even during these warm and fuzzy moments public displays of affection are not exactly the Chinese way.
Our first order of business was to visit my father-in-law's urn, housed in a shoe-box sized, glassed-in cubical. He has many, many neighbors at Xi'an's mausoleum for contributors to the founding of the PRC.
This was not exactly a solemn occasion. Just as we have done for a decade now, we carried his framed picture and a small polished rock etched with a poem to the special yard for offerings. We brought candles, cakes, fruit and a bottle of coke for him. At the gate we bought millions in paper money and braids of fireworks. We laid it out nicely on a cement altar and cracked a few jokes as we burned the cash, telling him to spend it wisely.
My nephew held his beloved grandfather's photo to his chest so they could both face the sun. The younger man looked to the sky, breathed in deeply and smiled in rapture. The scene was utterly serene.
Then the prepping for the big night got underway, with menu planning, grocery shop-ping and more fireworks to buy.
My attempt at internationalization with a bacon and eggs brunch fell flat. The strawberry jam was eaten with eggs rather than toast, and forks were quickly abandoned for chopsticks. But it's not my party.
If it weren't for the fun of belittling the performances on the New Year's Eve television gala, the show would be an absolute bore. I did relate to the big song-and-dance number involving China's national ethic minorities. The distinctively beautiful women and husky handsome men from Xinjiang and Tibet shared a confidence stemming from pride, power and artistry.
Along with our efforts at criticism, we were also busy sending and receiving text messages. The most creative included puns on the number two which in Chinese sounds like the character for rabbit.
Despite all the complaining, the show was watched to the bitter end and at the stroke of midnight it was fireworks time. This year my nephew, who is now 30-something and very successful, had switched from splurging on too many fireworks to buying too much imported wine. From my perspective this was big progress.
The dangerous pyrotechnics were followed by a late night visit to the Buddhist temple where we shared a quick prayer with thousands of other irregular worshippers.
At noon the next day Chinese dumplings magically appeared on the table. It was time to really exhale. We all loafed around playing with our handheld electronic devices, and a new iPad won the prize as the most insular toy of all. This is not a sign of progress.
Tradition finally trumped technology when we pull out the mahjong tiles, which brought us together again with hoots of laughter and talk.
On the fourth day of the festival we steeled ourselves for the long drive home.
The early-morning highway was empty as we raced across the dry yellow earth.
Around one long, slopping curve I saw my entire week pass by the window. In a broad dormant field a family were paying respects at a tomb stone, while further along children were mischievously dancing around fireworks, and in the foreground an old man and his grandson were trying to get a kite airborne.
A motorbike bounced along a path between the fields and I knew exactly where the man, woman and child were going with their big red parcels: To visit family, of course.
The author is the founder of R.D. Communications. billsiggins@ realdogcomm.cn