Thursday, January 29, 2009

“Xin-Nian Kui Lai” – Happy New Year! Make Lots of Money!

Here was the plan. Load the van with the wife, the three kids, the two in-laws, the two visiting sisters, and drive across the city to this traditional folk village, then hit lunch, then duck out to the countryside to wander a mushroom orchard, and stare off a mountainside at the city below. Typical day, right? No problem. Here’s the thing. It’s Lunar New Year in Asia, which is the craziest time of the year, we’ve been in the country only three weeks, nobody speaks Chinese except SungJoo, and I was driving the eight passenger Mini-V. What could possibly go wrong? Come on, really?
On New Year's Day, 4707, according to the Chinese calendar, I awake early and go for a run. The night before the city was electric. Fireworks exploding from balconies and rooftops, sidewalk clearings and building balconies and over awnings into the black sky. And everywhere the Chinese were telling me:
“Xin-Nian Kui Lai.” - Happy New Year!
“Kong Shi Fa Trai!” - Make Lots of Money!
I bow, repeat the line back. Smile to myself.
About a mile out my legs are already throbbing. Thick doughnut like smog bubbling in my lungs. I cough and spit and sprint up alleyways and choke on the remains of the Last Year’s Eve. Red banners and ribbons litter the street. Pools of black ash. Busted out firecrackers and burnt up rockets. From what I can see the Taiwanese are either masters at pyrotechnics or could care less about human safety. In fact, riding home in the taxi the night before, there were flaming fireworks erupting over our heads shot from sidewalks among crowds of people. Brilliant sprays of fiery light cascading down over the hood, reflecting in the dash, and I rolled the window down and leaned out to see the shapes. A yellow zig-zagger. An sunflower of indigo petals. An orange and red dragon dipping across the tree line and darting away. We told the driver to circle the apartment and laid our heads out the open windows on the slow ride around just gazing up into the buildings awash in flickering light. I closed my eyes and listened to the crackling snaps, the pounding booms, and whistling flares, and thought, somewhere there are people who love me, who keep pictures of me on their wall, who pray for me, and write me letters, and even wear the clothes I left behind especially for them. They remember me, and I think, I’m living this moment for them. I’m living it because they couldn’t be here to see it for themselves. They are at home with their lives, and their obligations, and fears, and the chances that have slipped away.
The thought makes me race harder and I hurry home following the same path around the apartment as the night before. There’s immediacy to my pace. I’ve a plan for today. A continuation of last night’s feeling toward loved ones that are far away. Today we are heading out into the city. Today I am driving.
Now, everyone knows the Chinese invented fireworks in the same way that everyone knows that Alfred Nobel earned his endowment through blowing up half the world with dynamite. Yet not everyone knows how to say “fireworks” in Chinese. In fact, despite Chinese being the most popular language in the world with over a billion speakers, most of the people I was thinking about the night before can’t even count to three in Chinese. So today was for them too.
For the past two nights I’d stayed up late memorizing our route. I was like my own Google Taiwan. The first Chinese character I learned was for road, “Lu”, which oddly enough looks like Laurel and Hardy, a skinny man and a fat man taking a stroll side by side, and, despite its complicated squiggles, once you see the pattern, the meaning becomes very clear. In fact, the more you look at Chinese characters, the more their symbolism, depth, and humor come out. There are so many examples of this. The character for tree “mu”, is a vertical line with two slashes, put two of these characters together and you have forest “lin”
Other times it more an interpretation.
There is this character of three boxes stacked atop one another. As we were driving once I asked SungJoo and she said they were three mouths.
“Mouths, huh? Okay. I see.”
She went on to explain the three mouths meant people, but it could also mean something a famous person spoke, or perhaps something scandalous people gossip about. Each interpretation becoming deeper than the one before, and certainly more in-depth than my original thought.
The notion inspired me. Today I would figure it out. Today I would go deeper into the city than I ever had before. I would arm myself with a dictionary and a notepad. I would make a plan and stick to it. I would trust in my intellect more than bravery or dumb luck or the kindness of strangers taking pity on me. I would do it because it existed in my head and I would make it real. So we loaded up the car with people and baby bags, diapers and a thermos full of milk and headed out, sticking to our guns.
From the People’s Park we drove west on Xian Shang Lu. It felt good being behind the wheel again, like throwing a baseball around the backyard with my brother Grant, just natural. The scooters were restless though, racing around us dangerously like darting dolphins, and taxis swerving and pedestrians leaping like dervishes from crosswalks. I took a right on Zhong Ming Lu, with its characters of sun, “ri” and moon, “yue”, which together form the character for bright, “ming.” Then through Zhong Gong Lu, with its characters for Taichung city which look like a broken roof and a target and mean ‘flat area.’ By now my head is spinning. I am flying down the highway like someone who is cinching up rope. Face pressed to the glass, notebook of characters clenched in my teeth, we were making it. Hang a left on Da Ya Lu, with its character for big, “da”, then a right on mighty Wen Xin Lu with the character for sky, “tian” and another that looks like a fish caught on a hook. Of course, these were my favorites. The characters I can interpret and ascribe my own meaning to, that's always been the most fun for me. Like the left we took on Chong De Lu, the symbol for ‘loyalty’ which resembles a warrior in a mask with a long beard, or ‘folk park’ which looks like a mushroomed house ala Smurf land. I know. I know. You’re getting drowsy. I know.
We arrive at the folk village just in time. Two men in a flaming yellow and orange dragon suit catapult across thin pillars shooting flaming ribbons into the air and raining down candy from their paws while a traditional orchestra clangs symbols and drums and Xi’an and Rebekah cover their eyes and ears. The cultural ceremony was spectacular, with a back drop of deep red brick temples, koi ponds with lily pads big as Thanksgiving platters, reflecting pagodas and moon shaped bridges etched in stone. Insatiable children laughing and eating pancakes cut into the shapes of the 12 zodiac animals and adults passing out red envelopes with good luck coins, and everywhere I turned I heard:
“Xin-Nian Kui Lai.” - Happy New Year!
“Kong Shi Fa Trai!” - Make Lots of Money!
From there we pile back in the car and head the opposite direction, driving down Bei Tun Lu, which is the character for ‘north’ but looks like arrows traveling in all directions at once. New Paradise Restaurant is a traditional joint with Mao Tse Dong quotes and communist propaganda posters and hanging red lanterns and rusted bicycles and Chaing Kai Sheck cigarettes and a Chinese orchestra playing ‘Old Susanna’ on these beaten speakers hanging by nails on corner rafters. It’s perfect. We scarf snow pea soup and roasted duck and sticky egg wraps dipped in hot mustard and take in the atmosphere. Toward the end of a meal I skip out the back. It’s always hard for me to sit in one spot and I stroll upstairs to this abandoned movie theater and stand before these black and white photos on the wall staring back at me, and I wonder what they have to say to people like me who pass and sigh and say things like, “That was so long ago. Look at those styles.” Would they say, “This is my life staring back at you while yours is passing you by?”
After lunch we head out into the countryside and it’s surprisingly easy to find. Cross the train tracks and a left on Jing Wu Lu out toward Dakeng Village along the scenic route. Here the lanes are wide and we drive past natural springs along the river banks and tea houses hidden in the hills, rustic alleyway vendors and hanging laundry in scenes that could only be Asia. Old men seated on wooden benches shuffling checkers, parents dragging children to scalding spas nicknamed ‘dumpling soup’ because of the crammed naked bodies in the public tubs. Farther along the road, up into the hills, the lanes narrow, and the driving becomes harrowing. I hold my breath at each passing car or truck. We are even clipped by a scooter who veers off road. The scenery is lovely though, high above the city into the mushroom farms which sprawl out in fabrics of shaded brown and beige. I am excited, pointing and laughing and discovering. I pull the car into the side road overlooking the city and turn around and it is then I realize everyone in the car is sleeping off lunch. Heads back. Eyes closed. My Korean family is leaning against one another in total silence. I am alone. I made it alone.
Exiting from the car I step onto the rocks overlooking the city and peer down. I tell myself, what I will remember about this day is not the dragons or the roaring scooters or the funny mushroom signs. Those are captured on film and can be seen any time I want. But what I will remember is that today I got behind the wheel and made a plan and stuck to it. I figured out a way to make it work. I didn’t do it to have a good story or to live and tell the tale, I did it because it was for others, to show them if you trust your intellect you can accomplish anything.
In the back of the van I carried a surprise. The other day I saw this kite in a shop beside the apartment. It was box shaped and red, the Chinese color of good fortune, and I couldn’t help myself. I brought it home and put it together with the girls, untangled the wire, and reinforced the supports with clear tape. I ran a little atop the ridge until the wind picked up and the kite took flight. It was heavier than I anticipated and strong as the breeze pulled at my arms. Higher and higher the kite soared, dancing along clouds. It was this perfect picture of me standing there with this brilliant kite high above the city and no one to take my picture and no way to reach my camera and so I just laughed and let it go, and like this crazy hot air balloon the kite just rose into the nether reaches. It’s funny. I never would have done that as a kid. My possessions were always so valuable to me. I named by bikes and my shoes, my pillow and my baseball glove, ascribed funny words and expressions for all of them: “Geronimo” the BMX racer; “Blue Midnight” a pair of old Chuck Taylors. The names were never hard to come by, I never had to look deep, they just came to me. I wish I would have named that kite though, because when I turned around the van doors were opening and my in-laws and wife were stepping out clutching my daughters and staring strangely at me.
“Why did you do that?” My father-in-law asked.
“Yeah, Daddy?”
But an answer didn’t readily come. So we hopped back in the car and repeated the route back. Getting lost only once, but finding our way eventually. The next day, the second day of the new year, I also awoke early and took Xi’an back down to the kite store and found another one, this time much stronger and better than the one before. We took her home and fixed her up and with a sharpie I wrote the character of ‘yan buo” on the side. It took me a while to get it right. Still thinking about my answer to the man in the kite store.
“Xin-Nian Kui Lai.” - Happy New Year!
“Kong Shi Fa Trai!” - Make Lots of Money!
He said.
I bowed and repeated the lines.
“Daddy, Xi’an asked as we headed to the park later that morning. “What is that word?” She pointed to the side of the kite. “Is it written in Chinese?”
We held hands crossing the street and all the way past the men playing checkers and didn’t let go until we were in the middle of the field and running, the kite mid air.
“It says ‘firecracker.’” I yelled to Xi’an as the kite swooped down and was caught up in strong breeze, lifting higher and higher. “That’s the kites name.”
“Oh,” she nodded, and then I let her hold the strings.

1 comment:

  1. So the Chinese language scares me...but I think that you are the perfect person to tackle it!