Archive | March, 2011


8 Mar

About three weeks ago I heard the first one. I was in my living room on a Saturday morning, doing yoga. I was concentrating so hard on my downward facing dog that the BANG BANG POW that suddenly rocketed outside my window nearly knocked me over in fear. Like most bizarre sounds and sights in Beijing, I quickly forgot about it.

Lying in bed that night, I heard a whizzing start quietly, then grow in sharpness, and finally POW. These were giant fireworks, the kind you only see on the 4th of July in the U.S., going off outside my bedroom window. Bright red, gold, green flaming sparks were shooting off 40 feet from me and even closer to the apartment across the street. Was this possible? In China, of course it was.

During Chinese New Year, the government allows fireworks anywhere, anytime. For two weeks, the noise builds from late morning into the night.

Beijing is a congested metropolis of 16 million people. Ancient (flammable) temples nestle between apartment buildings, old courtyard homes next to skyscrapers. It’s not a smart place for fireworks. You might remember the infamous CCTV “pants” building that burned down last year in Beijing. (A mishandled firework sparked the flame). According to a recent NY Times article, there has been a high incidence of firework-related injury all over China. People were streaming into China’s hospitals – mostly with eye injuries – throughout the festival.

“In the U.S. we have to drive somewhere to see fireworks, and we usually have to leave early to get a good spot,” Devin was explaining to our Chinese colleague, Alex. We’d been out to dinner; now we were standing on the sidewalk watching a full-fledged firework show going off in front of us. It was the final night of Chinese New Year, the last night for a whole year that Chinese people would be allowed to shoot fireworks; they were taking advantage. There were fireworks being set off at every block. Once a show finished, all you had to do was turn 30 degrees to the left or right and you’d see more.

“When I see fireworks,” Alex said, “It reminds me of when I was a kid. You can’t understand the feeling Chinese people get when they see fireworks.”

No, I couldn’t. My hands were plugged in my ears and I was cringing in fear every time I heard another blast. Car alarms were going off, sparks were landing on the roofs of old wooden buildings, (or right over our heads, disintegrating only a few feet above).

“It makes me so happy!” Alex said, smiling up at the inflamed night sky. Kids, old people, couples, babies, even a group of cops, outside their squad-cars – all were staring up in awe.

The government tried to ban fireworks in 2006. “People were so mad,” Alex said. “People are so stressed out from work and life, they just – ”

“ – they just need to blow shit up!” Devin finished for him.

I find it strange that in a country where the government can control which websites you look at on the internet and how many children you can have, that they don’t control something as dangerous as this.

The government would much prefer a burning building to any form of public protest. They’ll sacrifice peoples’ safety to maintain control, which in some ways makes the Chinese people very powerful. They can’t have political freedom, but they can have wild reckless fun!

When I was a kid, fireworks made me cry. (Actually, everything made me cry when I was a kid.) When fireworks are a fact of life, kids don’t have the choice to be afraid. Whatever innate firework fear you have will be crushed within the first 24 hours of Chinese New Year. I was only subjected to fireworks a few short times a year, usually from a plot of grass several hundred meters away. For me, loud noises and flaming sparks trigger fear. For Chinese people, fear is something else.

My Chinese colleagues are appalled that I don’t eat rice every day for lunch, alarmed when I wear a short-sleeved shirt in the winter, (even though the heat in our office is sometimes unbearable). Chinese people “pa leng,” – they’re “afraid of the cold;” they don’t just dislike it, they’re fearful. One of my Chinese colleagues told me she thought western parents were too reckless with their babies. (She was referring to the pouches that some parents strap to their chests to hold infants). She viewed that as incredibly dangerous. Why then, I wanted to ask, is it okay to let two-year-olds ride with you through crowded streets on a motorbike?

Honking your car horn in America is usually a last resort, whereas blasting your horn in China is a polite reminder that there’s a car coming. Incessant honking in Beijing makes me irritable and mad – or maybe, it makes me afraid; for Chinese people, blasts of honking (and blasts of fireworks) are the soundtrack of their lives.

One word for fireworks in Chinese is 花火 (hua huo) which translates to “flower fire.” It’s a rather beautiful description, and conjures a harmless image, not a frightening one.

I watched Alex’s wistful eyes gaze at the illuminated sky. Then I jerked and covered my head as a giant spark went off ten feet to our left. Alex and I are great friends, both 22 both recent college grads, both at our first real job.

But here’s where we differ: Alex sees nothing wrong with setting fire to a pack of explosives ten feet from a 100-year-old wooden Buddhist temple.

I’m not sure if this explains an entire country’s concept of fear, but I’m pretty sure it represents something significant. I’m just a little afraid to explore what that is.