Wednesday January 28, 2015

Cultural Immersion: Chinese New Year with Local Suzhou Families

During the celebration of Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, China Institute students stayed with host families throughout China to celebrate the holiday and learn more about Chinese culture and tradition.  Afterwards, students were asked to participate in an essay writing competition, reflecting on their recent experiences. Thank you to all those who participated, and congratulations to our winners! 

First Place - "Spring Festival: Old Traditions in a New Light"
Vidyaarthi Pugalenthi. Freshman, Marketing
Prize: iPad

“...It was the second night I was staying in the Zhou household for the celebration of Spring Festival. I spun the lazy Susan, Mrs Zhou and Mr Zhou looked at me to ask as how the food was, and with a grin I tried food from the feast of Chinese style noodles, rice, fish and Indian food. I replied, “hao chi.” My attempt to show my gratitude through my broken Chinese made my host sister Jenny giggle and her grandparents excited as I caught them off guard.

We finished our dinner and rushed outside before it got too dark. I held Jenny’s hand and we skipped out to the small street in front of the house. Mr. Zhou lit the fuse and Jenny and I let go of each other and sprinted in opposite directions as we heard the popping and whistling of the fireworks. I looked up and spun myself in circles twisting to get the best angles to look at the vibrant blossoms in the sky. The unintentional twirling in the dark street made me feel like a child. I felt so free.

I remembered running barefoot on the black tar street in the little suburb in Kentucky with all the other kids. The sprinklers grew exponentially that Independence Day. We were lighting off small firecrackers and running away screaming pretending like they were going to explode and soar into the sky. I remember running so fast we felt like we could fly. I slowly brought myself back to the reality; I stood at the street corner and watched the joy on the faces of my new friends and family who made my first Spring Festival in China one to remember.

The beautiful thing about the holidays is that no matter where you are in the world it’s meant to make you remember the things that matter the most, - the people you miss and the times that may have been forgotten or overlooked. Spring festival isn’t about the fancy outings or extravagant gifts. It’s about being happy. The things that truly make us happy are the people we surround ourselves with and the moments that make us who we are today. During the Spring Festival, I felt more in touch with my own story while I created a new one with some kind-hearted people that I lived with in the heart of Suzhou. Whether its summer times in India with my grandparents, running the streets on the 4th of July with my Kentucky family and friends, or exploring the colorful reds and golds of spring festival with three new smiling faces of the Zhou family: Tradition is about celebrating a culture and generations of getting together with family and friends."

Second Place - "Chinese Spring Festival from an American Perspective"
Lydia Williamson
Freshman, Marketing
Prize: Scholarship

"There are approximately 7,327 miles from my where I am living in Suzhou, China to my home in Cincinnati, Ohio. Traveling half way around the world is a bold move for a 19 year old college student. Upon arrival, China welcomed me with open arms. The first thing I was drawn to was China’s unique culture and breath-taking sights. After a few weeks of staying in China, I quickly learned how truly captivating China is! 

The admiration of the Chinese people was shown when a local family adopted me into their home for my first Chinese Spring Festival. My host family ensured I had the most authentic Spring Festival an American could have. As an artist, the best way for me to express my feelings was to attempt to paint it.  I spent some time reflecting and then used my watercolors to come up with a few pieces of art to share.

The first painting represents all the streets strung with red lanterns and the doors of houses decorated with red papers. I was taught that the color red symbolized luck and good fortune. It was an honor when my host family asked me to help hang up some of their decorations. It reminded me of Christmas time when my family puts up the Christmas tree. Walking around Suzhou, I noticed that the entire city had been illuminated with the color red. It was something I had only ever seen in movies!

The next event I chose to represent in my paintings was the Buddhist temples I visited. Countless Chinese people devote their time during Spring Festival to their religion. My host family generously brought me to two different Buddhist temples. I witnessed a completely different way to worship. Thousands of people crowded into the temple’s courtyard and proceeded to light incense. Once lit, they prayed and thanked the gods for all that they have received in the past year.  Walking through the temple, I followed the lead of those around me and held my hands together and wished for a life full of good fortune and happiness. It was beautiful and enlightening to participate in this religious tradition.

The last painting I created was of the nightly fireworks. Every night at about 10 o’clock you could hear the “boom, boom, boom” of the fireworks going off outside.  My host family loved fireworks as much as me and the rest of Suzhou.  I learned that setting off fireworks during Spring Festival is actually a part of an age old tale told in China. It was once believed that a man-eating monster would come out at night and the only thing it was afraid of was loud noises. Fireworks were used to scare the monster away. This was one of my favorite parts because it brought back memories from home.

My home in America may be 7,327 miles from where I am staying China, but it feels like I am not that far away. I have a home in Suzhou, China and I feel pride when I get the opportunity to tell people about my adventures in China. 

Third Place - "Spring Festival: A Cultural Immersion and Experience"
Jesse Thompson, Freshman, Marketing
Prize: Scholarship

"The Chinese New Year, often referred to as the Spring Festival, is the celebration of a new year in accordance to the lunar calendar and is also China’s largest holiday. My roommate Dan and I received the phenomenal experience of staying with a host family, the Johnson’s, during the festival while studying abroad in China. I was informed that my host family was half British and half Chinese. My purely Chinese host mother, Annie, and her English husband, John, had two teenage children named Catherine and Jack.

On my first day arriving at the Johnson home, we began the Spring Festival traditions. The first tradition was the writing of fortune, as well as other Chinese characters on scrolls of scarlet red, and small pigments of gold leaf. I learned to use the brush and black ink to create characters, and then we hung the ornate scrolls around each door entry as part of tradition. I then participated in the tradition of dumpling making, in which we hid small coins in the dumplings because, if one is found while eating, it’s good luck.

This led to the biggest tradition of Spring Festival, which was the massive family dinner. Before leaving to stay with my host family, friends and professors often explained Spring Festival to be the equivalent of an American Thanksgiving. I found this to be very true with my host family. Sitting at the table I can recall feeling overwhelmingly full, yet more dishes of delicious food continued to fill the round table. Each dish was different and represented something important to the festival. After dinner, my host family and I enjoyed watching the Spring Festival Gala, which is similar to the ball dropping ceremony during the American New Year.

As midnight approached we were given sparklers and walked through the garden by the Johnson’s home to see the various colors and booms that lit up China’s sky. Once the fireworks calmed, and we could only see smoke, we congratulated everyone around us. The Johnson’s and I called exuberantly to the neighbors, “Xin Nian Kuai Le,” which means happy New Year in Chinese. We returned to the Johnson’s home for an exchange of red envelope money.

On my last day with the Johnson’s, Annie wanted to spend some quality time with Dan and I. We had previously mentioned that we are very interested in Buddhism, and wanted to see a temple if possible. Annie made an appointment with the master of a local Suzhou temple. We ventured to the temple, and met the master, who in Chinese is called, Shifu. We meditated, drank tea, and ate lunch, all at the temple with Shifu. The experience ended with a gift.  Shifu explained to Dan and I our elements during lunch, and what we lacked in our lives. He graciously gave us a handmade wooden bracelet, explaining that wood would balance us, and we gladly accepted it and thanked him.

I came out of the Spring Festival experience with far more than just, “I enjoyed my time with the Johnson’s.” I left with an array of new friends, findings, and a broadened open mind. Spring Festival was but a stepping stone in my path of friends and experiences.  The Johnson’s, and the many individuals they introduced me to, truly gave me a new beginning in China. They allowed me to explore a different perspective aside from any other student.  I am forever grateful for this unique opportunity, and cannot wait for our next meeting."

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