Ringing in the Chinese New Year
It was a chilly morning as I rolled out of bed, put on some jeans, and walked over to the chicken coop to collect that morning’s freshly laid eggs. As I walked there, the baby water buffalo in the enclosure headed over towards me and began butting my legs with his head; I’m pretty sure he wanted me to pet him. After obliging the baby water buffalo, I handed the freshly collected eggs to my homestay dad and he began to fry up breakfast for us: himself, his son, and me.
Lashihai is a small village about a half an hour’s drive from Lijiang, a major city in Yunnan province. It’s home to the indigenous Naxi people, and will be our home for a week. We were struck with wonder as we approached the village for the first time; surrounded by mountains and bordered by a large lake, Lashihai is an absolutely beautiful place. The natural features and the instantly recognizable Chinese architecture blend to make the village emanate with tranquility and a sense of home.
We’re lucky enough to be able to stay in this amazing place for the most important holiday of the year: the Spring Festival, the New Year of the lunar calendar. All across China, people are flooding home from cities to villages to spend time with their families, and Lashihai is no different. Every day, more people come home to spend the holidays with their loved ones.
After breakfast, the people of Lashihai spend time together, warming their hands by the fire, going to each others’ houses, and preparing food together. On one special day, after eating a breakfast of fried glutinous rice patties dunked in sugar, our families brought a picnic up the mountain to the grave sites of their ancestors. There, they showed us how they honored those that came before them. First, they gathered pine needles and spread them out over the graves, making a base for the offerings. Next, they placed various kinds of food: meat, candy, fruit, and other things on the graves for the ancestors to eat in the next life. Groups of people walked around, lighting incense and putting it next to the graves, sprinkling alcohol and tea on the ground, and burning up paper money so the ancestors would be rich in their next life. Our families were sure to include us: I lit incense, set fire to the money, and laid out candy on the graves. The whole event was very lighthearted- lots of people laughing, drinking, and having a good time together. After the ancestors’ needs were attended to, we ate a delicious meal, and then rested on the side of the hill, chatting and relaxing.
This excursion is not only special because of our proximity to Naxi rituals and customs, but because of the bonds we have made with our host families and the time we’ve spent with each other that we wouldn’t have been able to in Kunming. Talking with my homestay dad is such a rewarding experience because of his infectious enthusiasm and gigantic heart. Though I don’t understand most of what he says, as he speaks an amalgamation of the Naxi language and the local Yunnan dialect, it’s always nice to watch some TV or warm our hands over the fire together as he teaches me snippets of the Naxi language or talks to me about life in the village. With my homestay brother, we’ve been able to spend time together playing soccer with the other village kids, Coby, and Alexander, as well as play some Chinese chess together. I’d learned the game while in Kunming, and fortunately enough, when I asked my homestay brother what he liked to do in his spare time, he said he liked to play chess, so we were immediately off to a good start. Besides my immediate host family members, it’s been amazing to spend time with other members of the community. Many people are related in the village, so we’re always going to each others’ houses to eat and talk. As for the rest of my group mates, in Kunming itself, life can be hectic and it can be difficult to arrange times to hang out in the city. Here, we’ve been able to go down to the stunningly beautiful lake just north of the village, and talk about our experiences or just chat about whatever we’re thinking about. Once, Alexander and I went at night to the lake, intending to read some books, but ended up talking for a few hours while gazing at one of the most spectacular night skies I have ever seen.
Staying in the village of Lashihai has been one of the most incredible experiences of our journey in China so far. It’s provided a welcome break from our routines in Kunming, beautiful scenery, a chance to meet and bond with new people, and insight to the lives of one of the Chinese ethnic groups. We’ve been able to ride horses, go kayaking, and hang out as our families play mahjong together. I can’t wait to see what the next few months in China bring!