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.