New Beginnings – Year of the Ox

Tomorrow morning I will be flying back to Qingdao, a week before I start teaching again. But this time is different. I will not be alone. I will be flying back with my wife.

During Chinese New Year, a popular phrase people will say to each other is 恭喜你发财。Essentially they are wishing success and prosperity to their friends and family for the new year. In past years, I rarely thought much about its meaning, but this year it felt much more meaningful.

The past year and present one have made me feel blessed and grateful. On February 1, Bella and I went to the marriage registration office to legally become husband and wife. This place wasn’t a drab, imposing building that I expected for government buildings. Instead there were sliding glass doors at the entrance and pink flower petals above the marbled entryway.

Inside were two women sitting at a desk with sheafs of forms. We grabbed the necessary forms and sat down on plush, purple seats at a glass table with colorful shells and sand below the glass top. I didn’t want to guess what the Chinese characters meant on the form. So Bella helped me fill mine out correctly.

Next we walked to another room where couples were waiting to get their marriage license. We were the only cross-cultural couple (which didn’t surprise me too much). When our name was called, we entered a cubicle and sat across from a young, female worker.

There were more Chinese forms to sign, and we also had to dab our thumbs on a red inkpad and press them onto several papers. I preferred that method over signing our names in blood. Most of the forms said that if either of us were deceiving each other or the government about wanting to marry, then we would suffer the legal penalties for our actions.

At one point, there was another form we had to sign with our ink-stained thumbs. Then we had to read aloud the whole page. I stumbled my way through it. My Chinese reading had improved over the years, but clearly there was much more improvement needed. I was thankful the government officer wasn’t too exacting over my pronunciation of the Chinese words.

After we had finished our oral affirmations, we signed one more form. Shortly after, we were both given our marriage licenses, which looked almost like a passport. It was a red booklet with a stamp of the Forbidden City and five yellow stars hovering over it. We were now legally married.

It was almost unreal. I had joked with Bella before that since we wouldn’t have the official ceremony for a few more months, she could be my 半妻子 (half-wife) for now. But according to law, we were now husband and wife. We celebrated later for lunch at the Conrad Hilton. It wasn’t a place I would usually go to, but this was a special time to celebrate. And the lunch buffet didn’t let us down.

Ten days later, Chinese New Year had nearly arrived. Usually this was a time for families to reunite and celebrate together after a year of struggle and hard work. For some workers, this was the only time they could see their families each year. Unfortunately, with new strains of Covid starting to spread in Northeast China, the government strongly encouraged people not to travel. And if you were from a city that had the virus, it was nearly impossible to return home.

I had not come from a quarantined zone, but it didn’t matter. The officials from Bella’s hometown didn’t want to deal with us. And it certainly didn’t help that I was a foreigner. They even personally walked to Bella’s parents’ house to ask them to encourage us not to travel back home.

So this year would be the first time that Bella would not be with her family. I felt bad that she couldn’t go back and partly responsible. But since some of her friends were in the same situation, we decided to have a New Year’s Eve celebration at Bella’s apartment. We would have a hot pot feast. But first we had to find some vegetable and meat before they sold out.

That afternoon we walked to the local market. There were plenty of vegetables but not much meat left. One chicken vendor tried to sell us a whole chicken for 100 RMB ($15). Fortunately, the vegetables were more reasonable priced. Bella purchased two large bags stuffed with greens and root vegetables. I hoped we could add meat to the shopping list, but we were certainly off to a good start.

Back at the apartment, Bella began preparing the vegetables. I offered to help, but she refused (at least I made an attempt). David showed up a little while later with a burger and Coke from McDonald’s. It seems like he was hedging his bets with how good the hot pot would be. Or perhaps this was just the appetizer before the proper feast.

Tracy came later, along with a present for Bella, and then William’s family showed up. His wife and sister-in-law came along with his 1-year-old son. His child seemed happy to be there, but he didn’t know what to think about the white, hairy 老外 who had come for the New Year’s feast. Perhaps he just needed time to adjust.

Soon the kitchen was filled with more helpers. Even David came to prepare a squid for the steaming hot pot. Bella had left a whole chicken, along with some herbs and spices, in a pot for several hours. Its heavenly aroma permeated the house. I was getting hungry.

Those who weren’t in the kitchen began setting up two tables and placing bright red, plastic stools around them. Our drinks table was getting full. There was pineapple beer, rice wine, Sprite, and Coke. And there was tea and coffee for the caffeine addicts.

Finally, it was time for the feast to begin. We realized that there was no room for all the vegetables, meat balls, seafood, and meat. So we placed all those dishes along a short counter in front of the TV. At least the hot pot could fit on the main table.

David prayed a blessing over our time together, and the feast began. First we started with a bowl of broth, which was soul-enriching. Then we consumed the chicken and continued with unending meatballs and seafood balls. Next we moved to the potatoes and greens. There were many greens I had never seen before, but I could always count on one vegetable for a hot pot. And that was cabbage.

The longer it soaked in the hot pot, the more juices it absorbed from the broth. Other greens didn’t seem as absorbent, but cabbage never disappointed me. It was delectable as always.

As with most feasts, we all ate too much and still there was leftover food. Nearly all the meat was consumed, but not all the greens made it into the pot. They would have to be saved for a later time. Now it was time for an age-old tradition that hundreds of millions of households did every New Year. It was time to watch the 5-hour marathon called the Chinese New Year Gala.

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