Spring festival is so cold. I arrive wearing thermal underwear, two long-sleeved t-shirts, a jumper, thick jeans and a winter coat but it’s not enough. Uncle’s apartment has no central heating, and I’m mildly appalled to see light snow drifting through the open windows. But the warmth of my welcome makes up for it.
“Everyone, Bing He has come.”
“Bing He, happy new year! Come sit down, have some tea!”
“Auntie! Happy new year!”
“Happy new year, everyone. I’m very happy to be here.” I get an adorable, toothy grin from my 9 year old niece. Tiny and well-mannered, she doesn’t accept my red envelope stuffed with cash until I force it into her hands.
They settle me on the sofa, and I watch my uncle arranging chopsticks and bowls of golden liquor around the many plates of food on the dining table. A place for each ancestor, I think, but I’m too shy to ask. I clutch a paper cup of hot green tea tightly in my hands as snow settles inside the room.
My niece watches tv, and my aunt interrogates me on my job and boyfriend. I evade her questions about where I stay when I’m visiting him in Shanghai. More relations knock on the door. More welcomes and hellos and Happy New Years!. I smile, say hello, fail to understand their dialect-accented Chinese, and huddle closer to my niece for warmth.
Relatives and friends pass in and out. My aunt lights a pair of fat red candles on the table, and drags a huge metal bowl into the middle of the floor. Uncle carries out a bundle of red strings and gold and silver paper. They look very different from the paper “Hell’s Banknotes” that my mother used to buy in London’s Chinatown.
Without much ceremony, aunt and uncle light the money for our ancestors on fire. Ashes drop into the metal bowl, and smoke starts drifting across the living room, obscuring the dancers fluttering on the tv.
I suddenly have one of those moments - a complete and utter awareness of being and place. If you like to travel, you might know what I mean. I am entirely aware with my whole being that I am in Dingqiao, in my uncle and aunt’s apartment, sitting on the sofa, with miles of residential blocks just like the one I was sitting in stretching all around. The gardens and apple trees of Wimbledon are very far away, and my breath is cold in my mouth.
It’s not a bad feeling. Sometimes I think that I travel just to experience moments like that.
We clear away the ashes and candles. Uncle disappears into the kitchen, and soon delicious aromas waft out. More relations arrive, my niece’s parents and more of my cousins, and it’s time to eat.
There is turtle and crab and salted pork, and much more. My favourite is niangao, soft rice sticks in sauce, very auspicious for a long life, they tell me. There are smiles around the table, and I take photos of everything for my mother. “New year is so lively,” we all agree.
After watching hours of the New Year Gala on tv, where I’m disconcerted to see Celine Dion singing in Chinese, I go to bed. Bed is a wooden mattress, piled with quilts. I cover the bed with my clothes for extra warmth. I drift off to sleep to the sound of fireworks, exploding like cheers in the night sky outside.