Franka Lu is a Chinese journalist and entrepreneur. She works in China and Germany. In this TIME ONLINEseries reports
they are critical of life, culture and everyday life in China. For your professional
and to protect her private environment, she writes under a pseudonym.
The corona virus in China made for the most unusual spring festival I've ever seen. I read and listen from afar to empty streets in the cities, little fireworks, but a lot of fear everywhere, even anger. Travel restrictions hardly make it possible for people to go home to their families as usual. The spring festivals I remember now seem like a dream from a hundred years ago. That fills me with almost nostalgic feelings.
As a Chinese immigrant, I usually have a lot more opportunities to celebrate in Germany in winter than the Germans themselves: For Christmas and New Year, I also add the Chinese Spring Festival or the Chinese New Year, which begins between the end of January and mid-February (this time it fell on January 25th), lasts 15 days and ends with sweet rice balls and the Lantern Festival. The Germans, on the other hand, are grappling with their post-holiday depression from January 2, Easter still appears barely visible as light at the end of a very long and cold tunnel. My holiday mood, on the other hand, lasts a month or two longer, because the Lantern Festival takes place from mid to late February.
The great hike
For a Chinese woman living abroad like me, the Chinese New Year celebrations are now more of a virtual thing anyway. Over the past few years, I have seen from afar on social media how China almost completely comes to a standstill in the two weeks of the Spring Festival, or how it turns into a huge, ever faster carousel: People travel home to where theirs is Families live. The eleven months of the year, which are filled to the brim with work and competition, turn into a month filled with alcohol and equally intense family competition. The flood of travelers then pours all over the country in all directions, for a short time it is the largest human migration movement worldwide: Three billion trips to the family reunion were counted during the Spring Festival 2019, on land, water or in the air they were scarce 1.4 billion Chinese on the move.
For Europeans, the idea of such a huge number of travelers may sound abstract, but for me it is linked to the memory of an intense physical experience when I was still living in China. It always started at least a month earlier when I was fighting for plane, train and bus tickets to be home in time – in competition with millions of Chinese travelers who are by no means less eager to travel. Then the same competition, the fight for a taxi to be at the airport or train station in time; Queue for at least two to three security checks, with subtle or not so subtle elbow use or strategic positioning to prevent others from pushing forward; Knobs and Ruffle because I didn't move forward fast enough; occasional argument and struggle for the seat on the train, even though I had the ticket with the reservation and the one who was sitting there did not … I still have the smell of all the transistors: the mixture of strong body exhalations, cheap plastic bags and crumbly Luggage leather, cleaning agents on marble or concrete floors, the tension of people like the smell of charcoal in the air.
The Spring Festival celebrations really only started when, for example, the train slowly started to move. Relief and happiness. The passengers immediately opened their bags on the train, and the scent of all kinds of food soon wafted through the wagons. The less luxurious the trip, the more food and drink was shared between the passengers. People asked each other about their professions, families, family status and income, made appropriate sympathetic noises or gave unsolicited tips on how to deal with private problems. As a young woman, it was all moving and unsettling for me at the same time.
Over the years, during the spring festival trips, I have not only been offered delicious food, but also visits to strangers and even a few potential husbands. The encounter that impressed me the most, however, took place in a long-distance coach. A young woman in the seat next to me, no sooner had she awakened from a long sleep, put her elbow on my shoulder and started brushing her hair. I kept quiet and let myself be used as her dressing table without resistance throughout the process. She seemed to me to be a migrant worker. Maybe she was lonely and I was just shy. We didn't say a word.
Since I was able to afford plane and express train tickets, intimate encounters of this kind have not occurred. The trips to the Spring Festival have become less challenging and much more orderly. The good mobile phone connections along the route have ensured in recent years that instead of conversations with fellow travelers, video and game noises, telephone calls and chats were increasingly heard on social media. What hasn't changed until the end is the ubiquitous smell of food. I was terrified of a German friend during one of my last spring festival trips to date when I unpacked the package I bought at the Shanghai express train station with seasoned duck feet. This is the last remnant of national pride that I haven't gotten rid of so far.