In China, it isn't New Year's without fireworks. The ancient
tradition of lighting a string of firecrackers when guests enter
a house is partly meant as a charm to ward off bad luck, with an
equal measure of pure fun in the land that invented gunpowder. It
is just one of the many traditions that have evolved around
China's biggest, and most family-oriented, holiday.
Across China and in communities throughout the world, this year will be no exception as on Feb. 7, the new year begins, and the calendar enters the year of the ox. Airports and railways will be jammed to capacity with people returning home for the holiday, to enjoy time off from work, family reunions and an elaborate New Year's meal that features the plentitude of an American Thanksgiving feast, but with a greater number of dishes.
At Hopkins, though, the Chinese community of students and faculty from the People's Republic of China will be delaying things somewhat.
They will be celebrating the new year with the traditional banquet--but without fireworks--at the Glass Pavilion on the Homewood campus Feb. 9. The celebration, which will include a dinner, entertainment, movies and videos, karaoke and dancing, is sponsored through the Chinese Student and Scholar Association, one of the largest student associations at Hopkins. Organizers say they are expecting over 300 people to attend.
"We want people from home to feel they are part of a big Chinese family here," says CSSA president Zhiping Qian, a research associate in the Department of Pathology in the School of Medicine. "Especially for the newcomers, we want to make them feel welcome to American life."
The Chinese New Year's feast is traditionally served in an even number of courses, with each two courses paired for culinary reasons. Unlike Thanksgiving, there is no turkey or other single traditional food, but rather, a series of favorite dishes, often ending with a soup. The house is lit with lanterns and small candles, and the table decorated with a cooked whole fish--meant as a symbol of plenty--or often a pair of fish, presented belly to belly. The fish are not eaten at this meal, but are saved and consumed in subsequent days at the beginning of the new year.
In China--and other places where fireworks are not restricted as in Baltimore--the feast does not usually begin until the head of the family has lit some fireworks. More follow at midnight, at which time large urban areas can sound like battlefields. It is, says one Chinese native, "as if the whole city is exploding." The next morning, it is traditional to start the day with a meal of dumplings. Like any feast, the New Year's banquet is meant to feature more food than is reasonable--or even possible--to consume at a single seating.
The CSSA feast--which was underwritten, in part, by grants from the education office of the Chinese embassy, the International Club at the medical institutions and several local businesses--will feature soup and 16 courses. Although perhaps the highlight of the social season for Chinese members of the Hopkins community, it is just one of many different activities the group sponsors throughout the year.
The CSSA has chapters on both the East Baltimore and Homewood campuses, each with a number of clubs that promote activities ranging from fishing and basketball to karaoke and Qigong, an ancient Chinese training regimen said to promote physical health and mental well-being.
The idea, said Qian, is to provide a social outlet for club members while creating a forum for the entire university community to learn about Chinese culture. "We hope to enrich the spare time of our members and the whole community," he says.
The club has also had to serve as a de facto welcome wagon for newly arriving students from mainland China, who often come to Hopkins with textbook, as opposed to colloquial, English and only a vague understanding of how American life is lived.
"Culture shock is a major problem for people when they arrive," says club assistant president Xuguang "Grant" Tao, a research associate in epidemiology in the School of Public Health. "They come needing to find housing and to get their gas and electricity turned on, to learn how and where to shop, and how to get around. It is totally different from China, and with the language problem it can make things very difficult."
Members of the club often meet new arrivals at the airport, and shepherd them through the process of getting acclimated to life in Baltimore. The opportunity to get together to celebrate the new year is a chance to remember home while cementing new friendships made overseas.
"The ox is said to represent wealth and hard work," says Qian of the coming year, "Our hope is in the coming year we will be able to promote more cultural exchanges between Chinese and American students, and host more activities with our American friends."
To learn more about the CSSA and its activities, visit the club's homepage at http://www.welch.jhu.edu/~cssajhm.
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