One of the truly crazy things about China – aside from the fact that about 10,000 barber shops seem to occupy nearly every inch of commercial real estate – is the concept of rules and laws.
That is, there are none. Or at least that’s how it often feels. Everything and anything is negotiable, from the check at a first-class restaurant to cost of a speeding ticket. It’s just a matter of money.
And while it is true that this concept of seemingly lawlessness does apply to a far greater percentage of the world than many realize, in China, somehow it’s different. Because here, if you want to locate a legitimate, non-pirated DVD, you simply can’t. Maybe in the biggest most internationalized cities you could – but not in places like Shijiazhuang. A city that’s virtually unknown to the majority of the world, yet home to over nine million Chinese residents.
Disembarking from my cross-country train and stepping out onto the plaza in front of the station, I quickly picked my friend Andy out of the approaching crowd. He was bundled head to toe in winter gear so I couldn’t see even one inch of his face, but his height – towering above everyone else around him – was an instant giveaway.
During the taxi ride to his nearby apartment, we discussed how it felt to be “back in China.” The China that didn’t receive a propaganda-oriented facelift in honor of the Beijing Olympics. The China where DVD’s in the big, 10-story central shopping mall go for no more than $1. The China where the equivalent of Ralph’s supermarket stocks cans of $5 imported BBQ Pringles right next to the locally manufactured $0.20 can of Barbie-Q Dingles. The China where around the corner from KFC is a shop called KC, whose menu is identical, whose sign is identical (minus one letter), and whose mascot is Santa Clause dressed up to look like The Colonel. The China where Andy, a three-year resident, has seen adult men defecating on the lawn in front of the government building, and where a family of four showers in the fountain at the center of a main-street roundabout.
The China where New Years is a display of absolute and utter chaos.
Why did I hurry away from the nice, warm, foreigner-friendly Yangshuo in favor of spending Chinese New Year in the colder, Northern concrete jungle of Shijiazhuang? Sure, I could’ve just dropped by after the holiday to spend one last week with Andy before flying home out of Beijing. But no. New Year had to be here.
Because as a truly Chinese city, entirely unaffected by the hand of tourism, Shijiazhuang would offer me a rare opportunity to experience Chinese New Year as only the Chinese once did, before the country had opened to the outside world. Virtually everyone I’d talked to recommended that if I wanted to see the real Chinese New Year I should stay out of the foreign-friendly cities, where newer laws ensure public safety by limiting what the locals are and aren’t allowed to do. But public safety is not what I was after. I was after an experience.
And I have to say: it was one CRAZY experience.
I find that an interesting exercise in trying to describe the myriad of sights and sounds I’ve taken in from various parts of the world are to see what single word pops into my head when looking back on a particular location or event. For example,
Los Angeles: Pretentious
Brazilian Carnaval: Hedonistic
Tel Aviv: Unexpected
Hong Kong: New York
Chinese New Year: WARZONE
For the past three years or so, Andy has been describing to me Chinese New Year’s in China. I always thought, “He must be overselling it. It can’t be that crazy/dangerous.”
But it is. You’ve never seen anything like it.
Bombs going off left and right, fireworks whizzing by in every direction, bottle rockets smashing car windows, red paper shrapnel fluttering down and piling inches thick on the pavement. From Andy’s 18th floor apartment, flashes of light can be seen emanating from every direction as the window panes rattle from explosions blocks away. And this isn’t just at night – it continues ’round the clock, for two solid weeks. On day one my adrenaline was through the roof – I simply couldn’t believe what was going on around me. By day two I couldn’t imagine ever enjoying another 4th-of-July celebration again, with its sterilized “observation only” mentality. By day three I was starting to feel a little tired. And by the end of the week, without a full night’s sleep in more than seven days, I’d come down with a runny nose and fever. Not because I was out all night having fun. But because from my bedroom on the 18th floor, the constant explosions wouldn’t let me doze off for even an hour at a time.
They sure do like their fireworks in China.
If you believe me to be exaggerating even in the slightest, please check out the newest video HERE.