A Humble Holiday

By Brian Kuhl

[Published in the periodical Beijing Review (February 2, 2017, Issue 5–6), in edited form. | See print version here and online version here.]

My first Spring Festival in China, ten years ago, was spent in Hainan, where I had lived the previous year—my first in China. I had arrived in Hainan with no great knowledge of the country or its customs, able to speak only a few common words. The agricultural university where I taught was itself basically a rural village, which was both fascinating and frustrating; I faced a steep learning curve and a long period of culture shock.

My students there were from nearly every province, and they told me things were very different on the mainland. Our location was remote, they said, and even many customs were not the same. I felt a bit like an official in ancient times, out of favor with the court and exiled to a corner of the kingdom far from the center of culture. When the year ended, I moved to a university in Zhejiang to experience a more typical Chinese lifestyle; now I was returning to Hainan for the first time.

“For most, it was their first Spring Festival away from home.”

The main reason, I admit, was for the climate. In Zhejiang, most buildings—including my apartment—were unheated, and I had trouble staying warm as winter came on. But I also thought it would be nice to see my former students, some of whom were staying on campus for Spring Festival since Hainan was too far from their home to make the trip. When I arrived, they welcomed me back like an elder brother and helped me get settled in the campus guesthouse.

They were eager to practice their English, and I enjoyed their company, so we often got together. One day, for example, several students invited me to make dumplings for lunch. Another day, some of us traveled to the Dongpo Academy just up the coast. Su Dongpo (Su Shi), was a famous official and polymath in the Song dynasty, and the Academy was built where he was sent when he—yes—fell out of favor with the court. It seemed only fitting to visit where another had lived in exile on the island.

The days were just what I had hoped for: sunny and bright, warm enough to wear shorts as January turned to February. I fell into a routine that included a morning run, lots of reading with good coffee, a midday nap, strolling in the countryside taking photos, and writing. It was a dream. But without the students, it would have been a bit lonely.

One afternoon, a group of us went for a walk out among the fields behind campus where local farmers grew crops, using water buffalo to work the land. I saw a less guarded side to my students as they joked along the way and teased each other. Our walk ended late, back at the center of campus, so we decided to go for dinner. We got a private room with a large round table. As the dishes began to arrive, the boy sitting with his back to the door turned around each time it opened and another dish was set down on the lazy Susan. Someone said he needn’t turn around like that: he knew what dishes they ordered and they would appear before him within seconds. “He just wants to watch the pretty waitresses!” another quipped.

When Spring Festival arrived, several students invited me to celebrate it with them in their dorm, where they would cook dinner. I arrived about 6 p.m., with Longjing and Anji tea I had brought with me as a gift. The students politely would not let me help, so I sat as we chatted and they prepared our many dishes. Music played from a battery-powered radio, the only possible source because the room’s electricity limit was already reached by the hot plate and rice cooker; turning on the computer would blow a fuse.

After dinner, with the cooking appliances safely off and the computer switched on, we watched part of a movie until 8 p.m., when the CCTV Spring Festival Gala came on. One girl gamely attempted to translate all of it for me in real time, including the fast-paced crosstalk sketches. As we watched, the students began calling home. One by one, they got on the dorm phone (cheaper than their mobile phones) as they sent their families New Year’s greetings, laughing and crying at the sound of their voices. For most, it was their first Spring Festival away from home.

Later we visited more students in another building where one gave me fruit as a gift. I shared it with them before returning to my room so they could go light fireworks. Courteous as ever, they walked me back to the guesthouse. As they left, one girl excitedly said she might stay up all night. I, on the other hand, turned in, kept awake for a while by loud booms and firecrackers until past midnight, when they slowly died down and I drifted to sleep.

Our holiday that year was simple—nothing flashy or ostentatious. Perhaps that’s what made it so special. We had nothing to distract ourselves from the age-old custom of sharing a meal. I’m still in touch with many of those students and count them among my good friends. That year we were all exiles in a sense, one American and a dozen or so Chinese, forging a bond simply by keeping each other company.