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  • Writer's pictureMelo Acuna

Chinese lunar New Year from a Filipino's experience

Filipino expat recalls Chinese lunar New Year and the lucky jiaozi

MANILA – Late Saturday night as Chinese communities worldwide marked the advent of the Year of the Ox, long-time China resident Jaime FlorCruz said one of the best and worst time of every year for him was the Chinese lunar New Year.

He said the Chinese lunar New year remains the most important holiday in China, “the most festive time for family reunions, luscious feasts and gift-giving.”

“It was the equivalent of Christmas in the Philippines and Thanksgiving in the United States and for a political exile like me, the Chinese New Year was the worst time,” he said.

He found himself in China in 1971 until the early 1980s and was unable to go home and terribly felt lonely and homesick.

Jimmy, as called by friends and associates, recalled when he enrolled at Peking University to study History during the late 1970s, he made friends among Chinese schoolmates and acquaintances. He was invited to his friends’ homes for the celebration.

He said the most memorable Chinese New Year took place in 1980, when he was mid-way into his junior year at Peking University when he shared a room with Jiang Wenran, a fellow History major from Harbin. He credited Wenran for helping him with classwork which was conducted in Mandarin. He then helped his classmate with the English language.

He was invited to see Harbin should he have time for the Chinese lunar New Year.

“In my spare time, I had started to pick up freelance journalism assignments, which was a good chance to earn cash and satisfy my passion for reporting,” he added.

Jimmy recalled when Wenran left for Harbin, he was tasked to interview and write a profile of an American skiing coach who was helping train China’s national skiing team. It was commissioned by a U.S. skiing magazine.

“I reached the mountain city of Tonghua, in northeastern Jilin province after taking a long train ride to the snow-capped training ground of China’s best skiers, in the dead of winter in late January. He recalled the hills were covered with foot-high snow, “perfect for training but a curse to a Filipino reporter who had never seen so much snow, much less learn to ski.”

With a camera and a notebook on hand, he recalled following the coach and his trainees on foot, “dashing through the carpet of snow, taking notes and snapping pictures.” After three days of interviews, he thought of returning to Beijing but realized Harbin was just a few hours away.

His classmate didn’t have a phone at home as mobile phones were still decades away and had no way to alert him.

“I bought tickets for an evening trip on the eve of the Chinese New Year. I arrived in Harbin train station close to midnight and was starving and exhausted but could not find a taxi,” he said.

He said all he had was a piece of paper with his classmate’s address and he walked and asked for directions until he finally found the place.

“Wenran was totally surprised when he opened the door. We hugged and introduced me to his startled parents and two sisters who were in the middle of their traditional New Year’s eve dinner and they immediately sat me down in front of the dining table - which was laid out with plates of piping hot vegetable and meat dishes, bottles of liquor, bundles of fruit and of course, jiaozi (steamed dumplings)!” Jimmy recalled.

He explained dumplings are considered lucky food to ring in the lunar new year as they symbolize wealth as they resemble the shape of ingots, an ancient form of Chinese currency made of gold and silver.

It’s been said the more dumplings one eats, the more money he reaps.

“Wenran’s mother handed me a bowl brimming with dumplings. She told me that they follow one tradition, more common in northern China; when they prepared the dumplings, they slip one coin inside one of them and whoever gets to pick that dumpling will have an auspicious year,” he explained.

He said he consumed one dumpling after another garnishing them with vinegar and minced garlic.

“I’m not sure now it was totally set up or it was my sheer good luck but I did get the lucky dumpling,” he recalled.

It turned out 1980 was his “break-out year.”

“Not long after that auspicious dinner at my home away from home, I got hired by Time Magazine as a Beijing reporter,” the famous Jaime FlorCruz recalls. He later on became CNN Beijing Bureau chief. (Melo M. Acuña)

A college student leader who accidentally remained in China from 1971 to the early 1980s where he later became CNN Beijing Bureau chief. (Photos/Melo M. Acuna)

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