Lisa McClure's China Diary

February 1, 2000

As usual, Lara and I are very busy here in Jinzhou. We've been here nearly a year already, and are still learning so many new things. We still are planning to stay here another year and a half, returning the summer of 2001, when Lara turns 6, so she can start school in the States.

Right now, school is out for the winter vacation, and the entire country is preparing for Spring Festival on Saturday. It's the biggest holiday of the year, and the fireworks have already been going off for the past few days. All over town, street vendors display beautiful piles of fireworks of all types.

Tomorrow morning, Lara and I will be going to a small city north of Shenyang called Tieling, to spend Spring Festival with one of my students' family. We went there for New Year weekend, so we already know that we'll have a wonderful time with Jackie's family. We will stay there nearly a week, and very soon after we return to Jinzhou, we're planning to take the train down to Yangchun in Guangdong province to visit Lara's hometown. We'll be off-line until around February 20th.

One of the things I've been doing during this winter vacation, has been to teach a few adult students conversational English in the evenings. They want to emigrate to Canada, and need to improve their English so that they can pass the visa interview.

After my class ended this evening, I walked to the babysitter's to pick Lara up. Our neighborhood was dark and quiet, because the students all went home to their families a couple of weeks ago when the semester ended, and most of the vendors have also disappeared. It's cold here in Jinzhou, and though the last snow was weeks ago, plenty of ice and piles of old, dirty snow remain, completely unmelted. But I've learned how to dress warmly, so it was a pleasant walk under a beautiful, starry sky.

My walk was occasionally interrupted by firework blasts. Lots of folks have already begun to celebrate Spring Festival. And all along the street, I could see small fires burning, each with one or two people hunched over them. These small, scrap paper fires have special significance. Before the fire is lit, the person draws a circle on the pavement, with a sort of igloo shaped opening at one edge. The fire itself is simple, usually consisting of bits of paper trash. But the fires are burnt in honor of the ancestors, so it's a sort of religious ceremony, and on most evenings you can see people burning these little fires on most street corners. Special yellow paper and pretend paper money is also sold on the street to be burnt in these fires.

I walked past these little ceremonial fires, a dim unrecognized figure. The streets I walked were mostly unlit, so it was a rare chance for me to be a completely anonymous figure, not 'the foreigner'. But too soon, I arrived at the babysitter's apartment. She's one of my former students, and she and her mother, like so many Chinese women, dote on Lara and beg to keep her for me. As usual, this sort of adulation turned Lara temporarily into the worst sort of obnoxious, giggly brat, but eventually I managed to force her into her coat and boots and we said good night.

Chinese manners demanded that the babysitter and her father attempt to walk back with us, and we were forced to walk faster and repeatedly beg them to return home. When they started to talk about getting us a taxi home, I whispered to Lara, "Run!" and she (understanding Chinese culture far better than I do, even) immediately set off down the street as fast as her little legs would carry her. I followed briskly, and quickly left behind us a couple of people satisfied that they had done their duty, but glad to be able to get back inside their warm home.

Lara and I were equally relieved to be able to go home alone, and it was a pleasure walking back together. We even started to feel a little warm, as we climbed a small hill. So, when Lara suggested that we take a motorcycle pedicab back home, I decided that it would be a good chance to give her some practice as my interpreter. Lara speaks Chinese very fluently now, and at 4 1/2 years old, she's beginning to be able to actually translate for me.

I told Lara that if she would negotiate for the cab, then we'd take one home. I reminded her that she shouldn't pay more than 2 yuan for the ride (about 25 cents) and helped remind her to tell the driver where we wanted to go and to ask him how much the ride would cost. She did a great job, and as usual, the driver was very amused to be negotiating with such a small child. Lara didn't even have to bargain him down, as he only asked 2 yuan right from the start. (people always give Lara the cheapest prices. That's another great reason to have her negotiate for me.)

So, we climbed into the small plastic covered cart behind the motorcycle and off we went up the hill to school. As we approached the west gate of the campus, I told Lara that if she wanted the driver to go up the final steep hill inside the west gate, she'd have to tell the driver herself, so she did, loudly and repeatedly, until she saw him begin the climb. I handed Lara the two small red bills, and she proudly paid for the ride after we arrived.

And I was very proud of her. Perhaps this may seem like a small matter, but I know that when we travel alone to Guangzhou and Yangchun next week, I will be depending upon Lara's help almost as much as she depends on mine. She's one heck of a great kid, let me tell you and I know that I'm incredibly lucky to be her mother.

Have a very Happy Spring Festival, everybody!

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