My Chinese New Year’s Dinner

Two nights before Chinese New Year’s Eve, I got into a lengthy conversation with a taxi driver about US politics − why we didn’t like Bush, the difference Obama would make, how it felt to have a black president, when the economic crisis would end, etc. I couldn’t go into great depth on any of these issues, just enough to get across what I wanted to, even if it was sometimes roundabout and syntactically challenged. It didn’t matter. Soon we were talking like old friends.

He was the friendliest and most loquacious taxi driver I ever had in China. As we approached my place, he asked whether I had plans for CNY’s eve, and when I said I didn’t he surprised me. “Come and have dinner with my family and me,” he said enthusiastically. I was startled as my mind quickly painted the scene: me sitting at the table with a family of total strangers for whom this is perhaps the most important day of the year; my being unable to follow the conversation quickly enough to make a meaningful contribution; my obvious presence as the only foreigner in the room making them all uncomfortable, etc.

My immediate thought was that he was just being polite, making an offer he knew I’d turn down. But another part of me felt (knew) he really meant it, that he actually would have let me into his home and greeted me as a guest. I know how important hospitality is to people here. Yet it was still hard for me to grasp that someone would go this far in demonstrating his hospitality, altering the entire mood of his family’s Spring Festival. I politely declined, although in my heart I was dying to say yes.

All my Chinese friends said the taxi driver was sincere, that I really could have walked in and they’d have treated me as a special guest, and I would have been truly welcome. I felt that I missed an opportunity, I should have said yes. How often would I have this chance to celebrate a holiday with Chinese workers in their own living place, to experience a side of Beijing life that’s still mainly foreign to me? I thought about it a lot the next day. I didn’t know I’d soon be offered something of a second chance.

The following night I went to an expat friend’s jiaozi party and was chatting with the host’s housekeeper, a gregarious fellow from the Guangdong countryside. When he asked where’d I’d be on CNY eve, I said I still wasn’t sure. With the same enthusiasm as my taxi driver’s, he said he was giving a party for his waidiren friends, guys from the countryside who didn’t have the money to go back home for Spring Festival. This time I didn’t let the opportunity slip. Yes, I said; I’ll be there. All the same doubts as with the taxi driver − language issues, a sense of intruding, putting a damper on things by sticking out − were there, exactly the same. Except this time I said to hell with it, I’m going.

Xiao Wang shares a tiny apartment up in the most northern part of Chaoyang with three roommates. He let me in to a very narrow hallway that would also be our dining room. There was a tiny little collapsible table that supported a big slab of wood, about the size of a door, which would be our dinner table. Around it were seated seven guys, each sitting on those tiny plastic stands, maybe 8 inches high. The kind where you sit down and your knees are almost hitting your face. There was no other furniture. No stereo or decorations. There was a lot of food on the table, mainly Guangdong dishes – steamed fish, taro root, grilled chicken wings, toufu, fried rice and some things I couldn’t identify.

Xiao Wang showed me his tiny room, which housed a TV set and a bed, nothing else. Instead of closets, there were plastic bags pinned to the wall to hold clothes.

Dinner was amazing. The food was excellent and somehow the initial strangeness started to fade quickly. There were two guys from Fujian, one from Heilongjiang, one from Inner Mongolia, two from Guangdong and another from – well, I don’t remember. It was probably my best night for speaking Chinese since I got here, and also one of the most relaxed, purely happy nights of the past two years.

Dinner ended, and I wasn’t sure what would follow; I thought maybe cards or mahjong. Then one of the guests brought in a pile of newspaper coupons – those bright red glossy pages that are inserted into some of the weekend papers. He handed them out and most of the guests got to work. I watched in amazement as they folded up the pages to create paper birds, dogs, little boxes and other shapes I couldn’t quite make out. One of them made a paper frog that he placed on the table. He blew at it and it jumped into the air. One of them said to me later that at their homes, their parents didn’t always have enough money to buy gifts for the Spring Festival, and they made their own toys this way.

This was probably the most unforgettable moment of the evening, watching my new friends, who probably ranged in age from 24 to 30, sit there and play with the pieces of paper, fashioning their own creations, totally absorbed in their work. It struck me how little we really need to have a wonderful time, and how people somehow manage to make do with what’s in front of them without letting their lack of physical niceties dampen their spirits.

I had to keep holding myself in check because as they started, I reflexively heard that little Orientalist voice in my head saying, “Aren’t they child-like? Isn’t this charming?” I know these people aren’t always being adorable, that they have a hard life and that what might strike me as charming and innocent is simply the way they live their life, and that if they had a choice they might be doing something else. But it was impossible not to sit in that room and watch them all working on their treasures without being moved right to the core of my being. And being the sentimental idiot I am, I felt a surge of emotion.

There is no point to this post, no conclusion or climax, no happy ending or takeaway lessons. It is simply a snapshot of what was without question one of the most beautiful and precious nights of my life. One that I know, should I ever have to leave China, I will always look back on with a pang in my heart and a renewed sense of love for the people here, and a renewed faith in the fundamental beauty of the human spirit. For a worn-out atheist like me, there was a god this Chinese New Year’s Eve, and I’ll always be grateful for the twists and turns of fate that led me to this magical occasion. Sometimes we are just lucky.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 62 Comments

Ooops… that should be “everything to loose and nothing to win”

February 8, 2009 @ 4:54 pm | Comment

I openly and readily criticise China and frequently vent about the things I don’t like here . . . However, as with most things in life, and indeed in discussion and debate, these things take place, or should take place, in a context.

This thread was intended, as the author very clearly stated, as a nice story, a tale of a touching moment and an interesting tale too. The story,as I read it, was not even supposed to be a spiel praising the Chinese, but simply one recounting a nice tale, reminding us of things we may often forget about in life, about people, and about hospitality here. And again, it was stressed that this be regarded as a pleasant tale, taken for what it is, at the readers discretion, and not as some moral or ethical lssson, or some political point about any culture or social group.

I fail to understand how anyone could, (and I repeat: in the context of this thread) turn this into a pro/anti/pro-anti/anti-pro mudslinging match, especially in such a crass fashion.

Given the liberty to vent and debate opinions for and against all these issues in a million different threads on this site, I am unsure why some people choose this particular thread to be nothing short of catty.

An intelligent person who wants and yearns to make a point should take into account when he chooses to make a point.

As my mother would say: “for some people nothing is sacred”.

For now, right here, let’s keep it real. I suggest going back to the story and reading it again, instead of the remainder of this thread, and keeping a few little contexts and spaces in our lives and the experiences of others, ‘sacred’.

February 9, 2009 @ 8:46 pm | Comment


well said.

the reason why anyone can turn this into a mudslinging match in such a crass fashion is because hong xing and ferin are themselves crass, boorish, rude and, worse of all, utterly tedious in a deeply predictable manner.

the sad thing is that their behaviour would be horrifying to the great sages of chinese culture (which they appear to think they are defending from the onslaught of the honkys) who stressed moderation, thoughtfulness and well tempered argument – virtues which are of course utterly alien to them.


it is a shame that your blog at times does become fly paper for such dullards. i think that the bores simply appear to have more energy and time on their hands than those who wish to make a positive contribution and say something original and thought provoking. even though i rarely comment, i just want to say please keep up the work. i can assure you it is much appreciated.

February 9, 2009 @ 11:44 pm | Comment

Thanks Si and Random.

I talked about this with a friend who posts here from time to time, and we agreed – there’s no reason to let HX and the like ruin threads with irrelevant comments echoing their reflexive “two wrong make a right” response.

I’m going to be a lot less magnanimous. This week saw a new record in malicious comments, some of them staggeringly evil, and I’m not going to be nice to these guys anytime soon. If I have to start pre-approving comments before they show up I’ll do so, painful as that would be.

February 10, 2009 @ 1:02 am | Comment

By far your best post to date on this site, Richard. I enjoyed reading it very much, as it reminded me of countless similar experiences that I had throughout my five years in China. Many of your descriptions brought back for me vivid memories: “There was a tiny little collapsible table that supported a big slab of wood,” you write, “about the size of a door, which would be our dinner table. Around it were seated seven guys, each sitting on those tiny plastic stands, maybe 8 inches high. The kind where you sit down and your knees are almost hitting your face. There was no other furniture. No stereo or decorations.” I experienced this very scene so many times while I lived in China, and like you, I was always deeply moved them. Some of my experiences, similiar to this one of yours, I detailed in my book, because, as you say, they are indeed “beautiful” and “precious”, and are worth sharing.

I hope you will compose (and post) at least a few more snapshots like this one – which I find far superior in quality to your usual, more politicised commentary – a commentary that generally reflects a liberal neo-Enlightenment response to the complexities of today’s China. You might like to consider instead more pluralist assessments of China, which are fairer, though you have, over the last year or two it seems, been gradually developing a more nuanced understanding. From my arrogant perspective, that’s good to see!

February 10, 2009 @ 8:35 am | Comment

Hey Richard, I haven’t been reading your blog (since I thought you stopped writing), but upon my first visit in about half a year, I come upon this wonderful post. One of my friends in China, a foreign teacher, would tell me all these stories about how random Chinese people who stop and talk to him in the street and end up inviting him to all these events.

I’m actually really jealous that you are able to have these kinds of experiences. A lot of foreigners in China complain about getting stared at or ripped off, but as a Chinese American in China, I just get ignored and criticized for speaking weird putonghua.

Then again, during the Spring Festival, I get red envelopes from all my aunts and uncles, so I guess that somewhat makes up for it… but yeah, once again, great post and I hope to read more about these kinds of experiences in the future.

February 12, 2009 @ 3:12 am | Comment

Great Richard ! Thanks for you story

February 17, 2009 @ 12:43 am | Comment

“I will always look back on with a pang in my heart and a renewed sense of love for the people here, and a renewed faith in the fundamental beauty of the human spirit. ”

I am really touched by this beautifual story, Richard, you move us to tears.God bless you. 🙂

April 6, 2009 @ 11:09 pm | Comment

[…] strangers. And finally my third friend, this one a real friend who I knew well and who took me to the Chinese New Year dinner I wrote about six months ago. He was at home one morning not long ago when the police knocked on […]

August 1, 2009 @ 10:46 am | Pingback

[…] this site has been blocked in China since June, and that it criticizes and questions (and sometimes even praises) China on a fairly regular […]

October 2, 2009 @ 2:27 am | Pingback

Wow. Incredible, Richard! Having stayed with my best friend who lived in Shanghai, I understand what you mean about making do with so little. Really makes me wonder why in the U.S. so many feel they need so many things around them (myself at times included!). Empty things, that truly don’t make us happy. Yet being with people we care about, showing hospitality, caring for one another regardless of where they are from or how well they pronounce the language–that is true happiness.

I love your words:
“One that I know, should I ever have to leave China, I will always look back on with a pang in my heart and a renewed sense of love for the people here, and a renewed faith in the fundamental beauty of the human spirit.”

The beauty of the human spirit. Sounds like you truly experienced it that Chinese New Year.

Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece…

January 14, 2010 @ 12:23 am | Comment

[…] feel really make a difference (I hope) for the reader are never about current events, but about my personal experiences in China and the people I meet […]

May 19, 2010 @ 9:31 am | Pingback

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