This week I’ll post a two part series because it’s too long to read in one sitting. It’s called Kulturkampf because it chronicles my struggles during the week that is Chinese New Years, my most eventful time in China so far.
Chinese New Year, celebrated on the lunar calendar is a multi-week event. People emigrate from the their cities of work back to their villages and families. So for a few weeks, I felt like a Jewish family on Christmas. At Beida, everything was closed, and I resorted to eating oatmeal in my room during the day to save money for Chinese New Year festivities. During my time abroad, I’ve decided that when in Rome, do as the Romans. During Chinese New Years that means getting bibulous and shooting off fireworks. Going into this, I knew I was bound to lose something — I just didn’t want to lose a thumb.
The weekend was kicked off with my 21st birthday celebration. The birthday had less significance than if it was in the US, since you can drink in China one you grow your first facial hair. For some Chinese, this means effective prohibition. Whatever the case, I was determined to be a cultural ambassador of good ol’ ‘Murrican drinking tendencies. The Chinese are not known for their drinking ability, so it was my duty as a public servant to pass on a great American tradition — 21 shots on the 21st birthday.
As a cultural gesture, I began the journey with Chinese 白酒, which is 60% ABV. After that, we ventured to a friends apartment, then some bars and clubs and finally McDonalds. The details, understandably, are hazy, but in the morning I began to piece things together. When I woke up on a towel outside of my dorm room door, the satisfaction of presumptuous success was over-shadowed by a sense of self-loathing. Where were my phone, my room card/ID, and money? At least, I had the foresight to not bring my whole wallet.
While people left the city to celebrate with their families, firework stands took their place. In Beijing, and most Chinese cities, people are permitted to shoot off fireworks in the city for the week of 春节(Spring Break). On the day of Chinese New Year’s, fireworks can be heard throughout the day, sounding something like a war zone. You wake up at 8 am to the boom of fireworks, and as midnight nears, fireworks can be seen in 360 degrees. People simply set off fireworks in the streets of Beijing. Traffic comes to a stop and everyone joins in the revelry. In Beijing there was no show put on by the city; instead, the public has access to fireworks on caliber of those used during the rest of the world’s New Years. Even better, they’re dirt cheap.
As midnight nears, if you aren’t hearing the boom of fireworks, you’re hearing car alarms all across the city crying in unison. At this point in time, Beijing’s smog had cleared up, but by midnight on New Years, the haze of fireworks replaced smoke. The city is still littered with the red tissue-paper wrapping of fireworks, as well the giant cardboard shells they launched from.
We followed up midnight by going to Beijing’s premier club, Spark. The club was relatively empty since most of the Chinese people had returned home, or they were setting off fireworks in the streets. The club wasn’t packed, but it made up for quantity with quality. Being Beijing’s premiere club, it was filled with European models working in Beijing’s fashion industry. The music was also a nice change. Instead of the typical Top 40 playlist, the DJ’s spun house and some throw-back hip-hop.
Upon entering, I spun a raffle wheel and won 12 shots for friends and I. I realized this saved me almost $100. Not even that, however, resulted in enough courage to approach the models. After a while a few friends and I realized that most of the girls there were paid promoters of the club. In other words, they were paid to come and make it clear that everyone with white skin, fake tits, and an eating disorder frequented Spark. It was the place to be.
Every conversation with these girls eventually led to, “Let’s buy a few drinks,” so I ended up talking with a few Swedes who worked in finance in Beijing. I shouldn’t have been surprised that the conversation focused around the corruption of finance in China, especially Beijing. Shanghai has a much bigger financial industry, but Beijing’s is closely tied to government and direct investment. Since these deal with investment primarily in China, it escapes the peering eyes of Western regulation. With its lack of transparency, Chinese guanxi, laughable regulation, and underdeveloped stock markets, corruption runs amock. Insider trading is a part of business, and the customer is a cash cow. This, along with environmental issues and more, will eventually be the speed bump that slows Chinese growth. Through classes and discussion with Chinese people, you come to realize that the Chinese citizens have a much less optimistic view of China’s future than the rest of the world does. Sure, they’ll be a world power, but it will take longer than many on the outside think. From an outsiders perspective, China is a land of blistering growth, but political, economic, and environmental issues have created a pressure cooker that is about to burst.
Our night at Spark resulted in me losing my iPhone in the cab we took home. Unfortunately, the cab we took was an illegal one. It had the same paint scheme as the licensed cabs, but the price was twice as high, and the driver refused to enter our campus, which would’ve required him to show his ID. This all meant that he was going to be impossible to track down. Managing to lose two phones in two days, my self-loathing had hit new levels. The blog title had never been more pertinent.
In the morning I set out to find my Chinese phone and cards. I went from place to place, and after conversating in my broken Chinese, I finally found my phone and cards, learning some new words in the process. Some friends and I were setting off on a cross-country tour of China the next day, so finding my phone was a huge relief.
In the coming days I’ll post about our travels to Nanjing, Suzhou, and Hangzhou, but I’ll leave you with the song that, regrettably, embodied 春节 so far.