I used to think there was only one New Year. Then I came to China and realized there were two. But now I’ve realized I’ve still got it wrong. There’s actually three different New Year’s celebrations: the Western New Year, Chinese New Year, and Nowruz.
As I walked back to my apartment this past Sunday, I came to the central courtyard and saw a liberal spread of dishes laid out on tables and groups of students mingling near the food. Someone had placed two speakers in one corner, which were playing traditional, Kazakh music. Next to them was a huge Kazakh flag with the outstretched wings of an eagle underneath the sun in a brilliant blue sky.
Apparently today was Nowruz, traditionally a Persian New Year celebration. Today it’s celebrated in Iran, Central Asia, and India. Each year on the first day of spring, these countries celebrate this holiday. Many of them will clean their houses to prepare for Nowruz, which is quite similar to the Chinese New Year tradition of thoroughly cleaning one’s house. Then, on the day of the holiday, they will have a large feast and visit friends and family who live nearby.
I didn’t know too many people at this celebration, but I certainly wouldn’t mind helping them with their feast. Before the eating began, two girls wearing full-length red dresses and one wearing a blue one performed a traditional dance for the crowd. Many of the movements were subtle hand gestures with some spinning and kneeling. I’m no connoisseur of dance, but I enjoyed the performance.
After the dancing, it was time to eat. All the students thronged to the tables to try the dishes. There were many different pastries: bread loaves, fried bread, and pastry crusts filled with chicken, onions, and herbs. I wish I hadn’t eaten lunch earlier. Other foods included an eggplant and cheese dish, a yogurt rice dish, and a Kazakh classic: beshbarmak (a platter of horse meat, onions, potatoes, and noodles). I figured I should sample every dish I could in order to judge which was the best. Besides, I would have to wait another whole year to enjoy such a feast.
Later, some of the students played games like tug-of-war and dumbbell lifting. I wanted to join the tug-of-war contest until I realized the teams were divided by country. The Americans were lacking, but there plenty of Africans and Middle Easterners to take over. Not surprisingly, the dominant team was the Kazakhs. They had burly, tall guys while the other teams were too short or too slim. No one else really had much of a chance.
After the tug-of-war contest, there was a short interlude of dancing. Actually, it was mainly two guys cavorting about as everyone else encircled them and clapped in sync with the music. I’m glad I wasn’t forced to dance. I don’t think anyone would be clapping to my jerky, spasmodic movements.
Next came the dumbbell lift. Basically, you had to hold a dumbbell in one hand and lift it above your head as many times as you can. Most guys barely lifted it 30 times, but one guy lifted it above his head 40 times. I thought he was going to pull his arm out of its socket. Thankfully he didn’t, but I don’t think he’ll be waving to anyone for a few days at least.
After the dumbbell lift, the festivities were nearly over. I was hoping to see some wrestling, but on second thought, throwing someone down on a concrete floor might not be the best decision. Besides, I had already feasted on pastries and horse meat and watched guys vigorously pull on a knotted rope to prove their manliness. What else would you really want for a proper New Year, Nowruz style?