I spent last Monday walking around in the rain, but since we’re officially into the Plum Rains, that’s pretty much how I’ve spent most days since this month began.
In a way, the glum weather is fitting. Spring in Hangzhou was a spectacular display of flowering trees and blue skies and all-around Good Feelings of Rebirth, and now everything has a sense of denouement: the senior 3s have completed gaokao and now anxiously await the results that will determine the quality of college they’ll attend; it’s my last week of teaching at HFLS; in 18 days, I’ll return to the States. Instead of feeling new and exciting, everything I’m doing lately has a “last,” a certain nostalgia, attached to it.
In that spirit, I experienced my last holiday in China, the Dragon Boat Festival. Daisy, her mom, and the 2 other students I tutor asked if they could take me out to Xixi Wetlands National Park for the annual dragon boat race (about halfway between my apartment and school, Xixi is the first national wetlands park in China).
Dill, Sean, Daisy, me.
The holiday itself commemorates the death of Qu Yuan, a noted poet who threw himself in the river when his beloved capital was overtaken by another warring state in the Zhou Dynasty. People customarily eat these little 3D triangles of sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves- zong zi– which can also contain meat or preserved eggs or sweet red beans. Daisy told me that according to folklore, zong zi were tossed into the river after Qu Yuan so that the fish would eat the rice rather than his body. The dragon boat race tradition has a similar origin: in the story, the boats are used to try to retrieve Qu Yuan’s body (in case the rice runs out?). No one ever finds him, which means the race perpetuates year after year.
The race we saw included 8 competing boats. Here’s the start and finish line, where we loitered under umbrellas until the first boat left.
Warm-up laps by the exhibition boats.
Further proof of China’s extremely low crime rates.
Daisy’s mom ran into one of her former students!
The race had a staggered start, so when the gun fired, we got a good look at each of the boats as they passed by.
The teams were multi-national, and one was comprised of all women. The drummer at the front kept the beat for the rowers, and when the boats came back in, the very last rower repeatedly stood and squatted to provide extra momentum.
Once all 8 boats had started the course, we waited. And waited. Until…
TV camera crew. This guy taped all of the boats as they left and then again as they crossed the finish line. He also helped to fish a rower out of the river after the race was over.
Once all the boats had come in, we had to wait while the official results were compiled. There were several exhibition dragon boats on parade to keep us entertained.
Maybe my favorite. Daisy told me that this team is “all old people who travel around China with the boat.” I could have guessed they weren’t competitive when I noticed one of the rowers had a cigarette hanging from his bottom lip.
The Chinese military boat.
The entertainment wasn’t limited to these exhibition boats. During the down time between the end of the race and the awards ceremony, we were treated to the musical stylings of these two singers. The woman is probably my favorite.
I’ll say this about the Chinese: they can and will nerd it up whenever they get the chance. I have never, ever felt uncool here because no one cares if you wear your matching padded PJs out to dinner or if you have a lopsided haircut or if you want to belt out 80s ballads while you walk backwards and clap your hands (<– an acceptable form of exercise, not an exaggeration). As cheesy as these floating singers were, they were completely selling it, and everyone- including me- was completely buying it. I've decided that everything is a lot more fun when you celebrate your inner nerd. Just one little nugget of truth that I'm taking home with me.
I was reminded of another lesson as I watched Daisy shirk her umbrella again and again to look closely at the random smatterings of day lilies as we traveled the paths around Xixi. So little, but so worthy of attention.
Of course, looking back on this photo also reminds me to stick my head into every picture that I possibly can.
Oh, China. I’ve learned so much from you.