July 6, 2013, by Tony Hong

The Spring Festival

 By Klara Habartova,

Second Year Student, BA Contemporary Chinese Studies, The University of Nottingham UK.

For all Chinese, the Spring Festival (the New Year) is the most look forward to period of the whole year. It is a time when the word ‘together’ gets a new and much deeper meaning. A time when most of the Chinese people travel hours and days to finally see their families.

When I heard about the Homestay program run by Vis-à-vis organisation, I wasn’t in doubt even for a minute and I joined the program, excited to see how Chinese families celebrate their version of our Christmas.

The New Year spent with my host family was amazing; I could write hundreds of pages to describe how this festival is celebrated. But this is not exactly what I want to share here. This visit just enabled me to see something that remains in my mind until now.

When my host family found out that I am interested in ancient Chinese architecture, they decided to take me and show one of the mountain villages in the north of Shanxi province where their relatives live. I was quite excited as I have never been to such a place before, even more when I knew how beautiful a winter scenery is anywhere in the world.

It took about 2 hours to get there by car. With increasing altitude, the weather was getting worse and snow heavier. Because our car equipment didn’t include snow chains, it is quite easy to guess what happened – the road was just too slippery and when meeting another car in the opposite direction, the breaks just stopped reacting and we crashed. The speed was very slow luckily, so nobody was injured. It was just the car that had suffered a not so nice surface damage. Anyway, to stay safe, we decided to stay and wait until the weather and road situation improves little bit. But that has not happened, so a stay in the village overnight seemed inevitable. And here the adventure began.

The village was in mountains, with only one driveway leading to its bottom. With less than 500 people, I felt more like joining a big family than a residential area. The surrounding area was beautiful – cascading hills with many fields covered with a light blanket of white snow. Houses were also placed in a cascading way, which was little bit strange, but once I entered one of them, I found the reason. Houses weren’t houses in the proper way, even though they looked like them from outside. In fact, local people simply dug a hole in the hill and built a little cave to live in. The bigger family, the more caves were placed together. ‘Those rooms’ weren’t connected with each other and all of them had their own entrance. Usually not even covered with door, just with a piece of a heavy fabric.

I found out soon, no electricity of water was available anywhere. I found this fact a bit cute as I have never experienced anything like this before, but that feeling only lasted until I decided to look for a toilet. Generally said if a house here is a hole in the hill, what can the toilet be like? Nothing else than just a hole in the ground, of course. Didn’t surprise me at all, but a little bit curious was the fact that this toilet had absolutely no walls, door, even no roof. So just imagine the situation when in the northern part of China (winter temperature about -20 degrees), during snowy weather, you have a need to go. I call this slightly ‘uncomfortable’ and honestly, tried my best to avoid going there.
The washing facilities were about the same in simplicity, basically a sink placed in each room, with the need of getting water from the well.

But the thing that I was completely impressed about wasn’t the standard of living here, but the way local people just cope with it in the daily life. They live on the basis of: harvest and eat, so meals are basically made of stuff found or planted in the fields, using just the basic spices. Simple, full of vegetables, and incredibly delicious.

Because there is no school in the village, the level of education is very low here. Most of people don’t even speak mandarin, only with the local language which is completely impossible for me to understand. There is a primary school in the nearby city, about 7 kilometres far, so children attending the primary education have a nice one and half hour walk every morning as many parents just don’t have the means (such as car or bike) to give them a lift. Also the fact that there is no electricity means that those children just don’t know what a TV is, never listen to music and have never seen a fairy tale.

The absence of shops and similar facilities causes people to be completely dependent on the farming yield size. If they need to buy something extra, it gets a bit complicated as many of them don’t do paid work because they have to spend all their time looking after the crops, cultivating field and similar activities to secure their families.

Even though their life is incredibly hard, people there are happy. During the time I spent there, I never heard anyone to complain, even though they would have many reasons to do so. They are happy for the sunshine, happy for every apple falling from the tree, happy for having each other. They have an amazing ability to enjoy the little things and to see the world in the most positive way.

I wish we were able to do the same. Life would get much easier for most of us…

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