Easiest way to describe my first experience with the Chinese New Year’s Eve celebrations: an American Fourth of July with more food, more fireworks, fewer safety measures, and just as much alcohol. At midnight, I stood outside watching people of various levels of sobriety light fireworks and I realized just how intense a fireworks display could be. I was used to the shows given back in the U.S. where there was only one major display within an area – nothing could have prepared me for being surrounded by hundreds of fireworks being set off within a thirty meter radius. With a smile on my face, I watched the colorful explosions around me, thankful that I had several days of new experiences awaiting.
I’m almost ashamed to admit I nearly missed the impressive welcoming of the New Year. Well, it would be impossible to actually miss it here, but I did almost call it a night early. Yes, I would have still been witness to flashes and thunderous sounds of fireworks which escalated from their seemingly constant background noise to a festive apex, but it certainly would not have been the same experience. Surrounded by locals as well as fellow expats, I was actually excited for a holiday I had no personal connection to. Being in such an environment where I dodged falling debris as I watched the fireworks made me more curious about what to expect for the rest of the Chinese New Year.
I was not prepared for the amount of food I would eat. I honestly don’t know if I could have actually been prepared. Massive amounts of food were presented on New Year’s Eve, but it never seemed to end. Granted, it’s not like this is entirely out of the ordinary for a Chinese meal, but it was amazing how much food was made despite the fact that Kunshan had essentially turned into a ghost town once the New Year officially began.
As it turns out, the people who had been standing everywhere on the street lighting fireworks on New Year’s Eve vanished. The next few days were eerie in many ways as soon as I walked out the door. Streets usually full of pedestrians and honking vehicles were suddenly empty; almost every shop lining the streets not focused on selling fireworks was locked up. While I know those changes had begun a few days prior, it was as if Kunshan had become a ghost town overnight. For once, you could walk straight across a street and not have to hope a car wouldn’t hit you.
I learned there were still plenty of people here, however, on the occasions I went with my family to the parks around Kunshan. When I thought there was no one left in the city, it turned out that they had just gone into hiding, reemerging only to set of more fireworks on days where it would lead to the advancement of their wealth and to walk around one of Kunshan’s many amazing green spaces. Personally, I was more entertained by their presence in the parks simply because those were the times when I gathered most of my memories.
In my time in Kunshan, I have been stared at for being a Westerner, yes, but it wasn’t until the New Year when I was actually asked to pose for pictures with groups of teenagers and random middle-aged women. To be fair, it’s better than watching someone ten meters away from you try to “secretly” take a picture. It’s not that I hadn’t experienced the picture-taking before – I believe there is a picture of me in some house in the middle of China thanks to a visit to Hua Shan a couple years ago when I took a picture with a family from a town smaller than my current apartment complex – but it’s always a bit strange to have someone ask to take a picture with you. I agreed though, and just stood there with a smile on my face while friends of those standing at my side snapped as many pictures as they could. Once they had taken all they wanted, I went back to walking around and enjoying the sight of families taking advantage of their time off work.
Unfortunately, a quick trip to Singapore prevented me from getting to experience each day of the New Year celebrations (although I can’t really complain since I was enjoying a vacation in warm weather). There were still many things I did get the chance to see, though, and they are things I will always remember. In the future, I hope to witness more of the celebrations, even if a week off work makes for a great excuse to travel. But, even if I missed a little bit of the week this year, I did gather enough experiences to make the few days I was present memorable.