Friday, September 30 2022

All Lunar new year I stop to reflect on my time in China. Living alone in a country of nearly two billion people made me appreciate humanity. It made me think how different yet similar we can be. During my many stays there, I was an exchange student, an English teacher and, above all, an officer in the United States Navy. That’s right, I was one of the few US servicemen to work directly with the Chinese Navy on a direct exchange program.

My first Lunar New Year in China, celebrated this year on February 1, was in 2010. After a month of living in Beijing, I started to become invisible. The millions of people, crowded streets and crowded bike lanes made me feel like I was competing for space. Being someone who didn’t look like most people around me and speaking with an accent was incredibly isolating. Unsurprisingly, when Chinese New Year arrived, I had no plans. I resigned myself to heading to an expat section of Beijing for a drink in an Irish pub.

But before I could leave, my Chinese roommate invited me to a Chinese New Year celebration at his family home. I accepted the invitation without really knowing what to expect. All I knew was that China’s Lunar New Year celebration felt like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and July 4 rolled into one. It’s huge! Being invited to someone’s house for this was a big deal.

Being the foreign guest is not an easy job. Customs and courtesies are incredibly important and different in Chinese homes. I immediately started insisting on what to wear, what gifts to bring, and what to say. I freaked out and armed myself with a bottle of Chinese rice liquor called “Bai Jiu” and wore the nicest thing I ever packed, a suit and tie.

When I arrived at my roommate’s family, I knocked on the door and one of his young nephews answered. It was like a scene in a movie where the record scratches and all the music stops. I said I brought Bai Jiu and wore a costume, and that’s probably not strange to anyone unfamiliar with Chinese customs. At the time, I could speak the language, but what I call my “cultural fluency” was nothing more than what I read in my language classes. For context, bringing a bottle of Bai Jiu and wearing an American suit to a Chinese New Year gathering would be like showing up at your house for a casual dinner with a handful of Jack Daniels wearing a tuxedo! It’s not that the Chinese didn’t appreciate Bai Jiu or don’t wear American-style costumes, it’s just that in that setting it was a bit…aggressive.

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I made my way down the hall and introduced the Bai Jui to my roommate’s mother, the hostess. I said some greetings in Chinese and sat down on the couch between my roommate and his cousins. On Chinese New Year, there are hours and hours of television programs. All Chinese pop stars and celebrities perform, play games and give speeches. Some of the younger children who don’t watch much television during the school year have remained glued to the television. Many adults sang along to their favorite songs. The atmosphere was jovial.

I got lost in the shuffle once again. It was a small 1,000 square foot Beijing hutong with about 25 people. I was used to overcrowding now. The subway, the cafeteria, and even the common room in my dorm looked like this. Looking back, it was great preparation for service in the submarine force, but even on a submarine, I’ve never felt so cramped. Falling into stealth mode once again, I noticed an older woman in the kitchen with about six or seven pots and pans running at once. She looked to be in her 80s, but operated in her three-by-four-foot kitchen space like a nightclub DJ. She tossed and turned food without wasting time and seemed to never stop moving.

After a few hours of watching Chinese New Year TV, the call “dinner is ready!” came from the kitchen. We all lined up. Before I knew it, my plate was filled with dumplings, noodles, seafood, chicken, beef, pork and rice. We grabbed our chopsticks and started eating. In about 15 minutes, a meal that took several hours to prepare was devoured. We had all cleared our plates.

Grandma, the best chef I have ever met, stood in the kitchen watching everyone eat while enjoying a small bowl of rice and some tofu. She had the same expression of satisfaction that any grandmother would have watching her family having a meal. It was the look of unconditional love. Something I saw from my grandmother. She came up to me and asked me if I had enough to eat. I said “yes”, and she continued to pile eight more dumplings on my plate and patted my head with her hand.

At that moment, I started to feel seen and to be part of this huge family in this huge country. Just like my grandmother, feeding her family was what brought her the most joy. I remember this feeling every Chinese New Year. It reminds me that even though we have so many different cultures and people on this Earth, some things are still so fundamentally human. I try to think about that when I listen to someone with a different point of view or someone with a different background. Although there may be many differences on the surface, I try to search for that thread of humanity, because I know that after seeing this grandmother have the same expression on her face that my grandmother would have, there is something that connects us all.

So, Happy Lunar New Year! Welcome the Year of the Tiger! And here’s to start appreciating our differences rather than focusing on them.

Jordan Foley is an active duty naval officer stationed at NAS Pensacola. The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the DoD or its components.

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