Unfortunately I didn’t think to take a picture of the first time I slept in a kang, but I did snap the unintentionally festive-looking linens with the decorated wall heater.
It was funny being back in Beijing just a year after I left it, after landing at 4am I sat in the same airport Starbucks I had been in just over a year earlier. The only difference on this, my fourth time travelling to China, was that my luggage arrived at the same time and on the same plane as I did.
My arrival in February was strategic. The day I arrived was one day before the Lunar New Year’s Eve, or Spring Festival and I was expecting big celebrations. I took a bus out to the nearby city of Langfang, to meet the Xu family that I lived with for four months in 2011. Though we had lost contact soon after I returned back to New Zealand, we had reconnected in 2014 thanks to China’s messaging app/social media; WeChat.
Without a doubt my host-family was the best part of 2011, and as we sat down to a simple family meal of fried vegetables and steamed rice I felt like I’d left one home just to touch down in another.
The next morning we drive out to the farm where my paternal host-grandparents live. The countryside is dry and smells like dust and maize. The dog doesn’t remember me but the grandparents do. I was at my host grandfathers 80th birthday and there is a photo of us all on the wall. A cousin has brought his fiancé for her first festival with the family, she may be new and from the city but she’s already Mrs. Xu’s confident sous-chef.
It grows dark and I wait for the party. There’s going to be a party, right?
As it happens, the New Year is a lot more like a New Zealand Christmas than a New Years Eve. The New Year’s Gala plays on TV from late afternoon to past midnight, and almost every Chinese family watches traditional and modern Chinese dance, comedy and singing. The men drink liquor and tease their wives, my sister talks to me about the celebrities on the Gala ( “You don’t KNOW him?!”). The atmosphere feels familiar, like when there’s nothing left to do on Christmas but wait for the turkey to cook.
Soon the women of the family, myself and my host-sister excluded, bring out the feast. Aside from some typical seafood and vegetable dishes, we eat dumplings upon dumplings all night. My sister rolls her eyes;
“We’re going to be eating these for days!”
I don’t mind. I fall asleep before midnight on the heated brick kang bed. At intervals I am woken by firecrackers and the dog barking.
My sister was not wrong, we ate dumplings for breakfast and lunch the next day, and they were present at dinner as well.
Even though dumplings are not as omnipresent in my Dunedin meals, there’s still a sense of familiarity with these ones. They’re handmade, the wrappers are thick and the filling is generous and generously saline. Scalding and drenched in vinegar each one is its own time capsule. It’s hard to convince myself it’s been five years since my first Xu dumpling.