For the eve of Spring Festival, I treated myself to a day of all-American products and services, including Pizza Hut for lunch and Starbuck’s for coffee, desert, and some pleasure reading. At Pizza Hut I ordered 2 large pizzas so that I’d have leftovers. At Starbuck’s I finished a newly purchased book over 2 cappuccinos and a blueberry cheesecake; Lounged in a comfortable oversized chair, I wiled away the daylight hours with Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald serenading my leisure time.
After coffee and just before Starbuck’s closed at 6 p.m., I grabbed my used book and leftover pizza and headed for home, blissfully content with my indulgence of imported Americana. Perhaps it was due to the coming snowstorm, but the weather was slightly less frigid than previous days so I decided to walk. I knew that the walk was more than a mile and probably close to 2 km, but I felt inspired from the book I had just finished and warm from the coffee and holiday spirit and so I was hopeful that I’d be comfortable and frostbite-free all the way home.
The walk home was amazing. What struck me as entirely strange was the traffic I saw when I crossed one of the main thoroughfares. The absence of traffic, that is. It was easy for me to walk across the road, instead of making the usual dash-for-life to the other side. Same with the pedestrian traffic. As I continued to walk along the sidewalk of another one of the 6 lane roads, I looked forward and behind me and could count the total number of people on 2 hands. This particular road cuts through a major shopping district so it is normally a sardine can of people. Not tonight. It was China not crowded and that alone astounded me.
There was also the sound of fireworks everywhere—from above, to the left and right of me, in front of and behind me. Occasionally it was a “bang” or “spat-spat-spat.” Occasionally there was a “booooom” and the reverberation would rattle windows. During the day most of the fireworks were the noisemakers but now that the sun had set, large colorful explosions lit up the smoky night sky. Actually I only heard most of the fireworks. I couldn’t see them directly because of all the tall buildings on both sides of the street. There was more open space when I walked through a major intersection and there I would catch some of the explosive colorful display.
I turned onto the street of my apartment building to complete the last kilometer of my walk and then the fireworks seemed to increase in frequency and intensity. The few people on the street were walking swiftly and I felt an urgency that is often experienced when people countdown an old year and prepare for that symbolic first moment of the New Year. I couldn’t wait to get home and see the fireworks. From my 20th floor apartment the view would be exceptional.
I was home by 6:30. I turned on the TV to station CCTV1 and waited for the big Spring Festival TV Show that happens on CCTV1 every year. Then I got online, facing the wall-sized window in the study of my apartment. As I typed to a pen pal in Dalian, I watched the sky flash with an increasing number of fireworks throughout the evening. It seemed that each hour, on the hour, the fireworks would especially increase. After 10 minutes or so, they’d reduce slightly but never stop completely. From near or far, there was always someone lighting something from the top of a skyscraper, an apartment rooftop, or from the ground.
It was at about 11:20 p.m. that the fireworks really kicked in. I thought I had seen the best of it when almost simultaneously there was this tremendous and universal increase of fireworks everywhere. I was on the phone with my sister and giving her the play-by-play when the actual display increased in frequency and scope. I could no longer count the total number of fireworks. From my apartment window, I have about a 90-degree view of the south side of the city, since the other apartment building is just to my left and blocks the remaining 90 degrees. From one side of my window view to the other, and for as far as I could see before the smog drowns the cityscape, there were fireworks. At any one time there were a countless number of the most beautiful, colorful and imaginative fireworks I have ever seen, all lighting the night sky with frenzied enthusiasm. Huge, street block-sized fireworks and small single rockets of flashing light and color.
There might have been literally hundreds of fireworks exploding at any one time, but what also amazed me was the duration of the show. The fireworks continued like this for well more than an hour. I ran across the hall of my apartment building to view the north side of the city and it was more of the same: all across the horizon there was nothing but fireworks.
And such a civic transformation! Dirty new buildings and tired-looking factories were now almost pretty or festive with holiday color. The labyrinth of black snow-covered streets I usually walk became an inviting mystery. Caught up in the moment, I felt inspired by the jovial spirit that fueled this display and then wondered if I was foolish to feel like this. I was alone in my apartment, so should I feel lonely? Was this fantastic visual display rooted in a cultural norm that excluded me? At that time, just being in the city and enjoying the spectacle, I felt like I was a part of something bigger than myself. I felt connected to the city of Shenyang—to all of her people—in a way the more sensible and cynical me would call embarrassing. So was I alone in this spirit, divorced from and unable to relate to Shenyang and its people? I felt as if we were celebrating together.
Watching the fireworks show made me realize how important and unanimous this celebration is to the Chinese people. Shenyang is a city of about 7 million people but is only China’s 5th largest city. This fireworks show happens with equal participation throughout the larger cities and across the entire country. That’s a lot of fireworks. Yet beneath the fireworks—in the hearts of the people—the Spring Festival holiday and celebration are not exclusive and rooted in religious belief, as are some of the biggest holidays in the USA. This holiday and its celebration are inclusive to all 1.4 billion Chinese people—all 56 Chinese ethnicities, 23 provinces, 5 autonomous regions and 4 municipalities.
Add to that list of folks the many people in other Asian countries who observe this holiday and share the sentiment that inspired me, and you have one big, happy family celebrating the symbolic birth of a New Year and the renewed hope for good fortune. There were a lot of fireworks, but underneath the fireworks there were a lot more people with the same hope for the future. In that hope, I was indeed celebrating with Shenyang and everyone else. If symbolized by something as individual and personal as the birth of a child, or as public and flamboyant a spectacle as a New Year fireworks celebration, hope is eternally inspiring.
In the hearts of all people there lies a hope that is as bright and colorful and inspiring as the Spring Festival fireworks display. Watching the fireworks, I felt like I was a part of something much bigger than myself because I am. As the Chinese consider China to be the older cultural brother of many of its neighboring Asian countries, so I consider myself to be a distant relative of this vast Chinese nation. Through the lingering smoke of the fireworks it was clear to me that this was a celebration of hope, and I was inspired because hope is not exclusive; political or geographic borders do not confine it. No single religion can claim all rights. Hope is inclusive to all human family members.
The Spring Festival fireworks were like no other. Like everything in China, the scale was intoxicating and/or a little overwhelming. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere in the world, but I have truly seen it. Fireworks as an allegory for the great potential of humanity. A flash of light like the life of a man—perpetual flashes. People using a local product to celebrate a universal principle.