Spring Festival in China, a Personal Story

Is it the Chinese Year of the Goat, Sheep or Ram? The Chinese word 羊 (Yáng) is somewhat generic, referring to goats or sheep of either gender, so you can take your pick. And by the way, “Spring Festival,” I’ve been informed, is the more accurate name for the holiday. A festival sounds more fun to me than a “New Year,” but I’ll use both terms.

Happy New Year of the Goat, February 19, 2015 to February 7, 2016

Had I Known…

Here are some morsels from my 2005 Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) experience in the People’s Republic of China. Had I known what I was in for, I’d never have had the guts to go to China in the first place. What a supreme blessing my ignorance was.

Mine is a true story of cross-cultural misunderstanding and extreme misadventure that led to profound change. Chinese friends and the gracious intervention of a Spirit greater than my own all played their part. My life has never been the same since. (The entire story is in my book Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon, a Memoir of China.) So here are some little bits, from then and from more recently.

Old China

The Year of the Monkey was giving way to the Year of the Rooster and I was in an out-of the-way village called Zhangcun, about a two hour drive from Nanchang, the capital city of Jiangxi Province. (In a few days’ time, I’d unexpectedly be in the hospital in that city.)

Little gals in a poor Chinese village adorned in their new Spring Festival clothes!

Little gals in a remote Chinese village adorned in their new Spring Festival clothes!

Yeming, one of my university students and my friend, had invited me to spend part of the holiday with his family. He’d met me at the train station in Jingdezhen, where I arrived after traveling 19 hours from spending time with another friend’s family in Fujian province.

Yeming and I still needed to travel two more hours. The last stretch of the journey involved narrow dirt (mud) roads, through red-soiled countryside, and a barge-type ferry, the kind with a motor that cut out a bit too much for comfort. Apparently, no foreigner had ever visited the village of Zhangcun before, and I here I was, a Caucasian from Canada. Needless to say, I was “looked at” a lot.

Jiangxi, China, a village home at Spring Festival

I spent Chinese New Year at this home in Jiangxi Province, China (2005)

I was glad to finally arrive at the Zhang family home. The red banners were cheery and inviting in the midst of a drab winter day.

Upon entering the home, I made a discovery that sorely challenged the attitude of acceptance I was trying to maintain in this foreign land. There was NO plumbing. The family had no toilet! In a closet type room was a plastic pail designated for common use. How was I going to survive this?

Poor Yeming. What could he say? He finally fell back on, “This is the countryside, Ramona.” It was like “enough said, thank you very much.” Countryside was a word I got to understand better over time. I took it as a euphemism for undeveloped. Maybe for “Third World” too? I went to China wanting a new experience. Well, I got it. I was in “old China”; I was experiencing the real thing.

Old World China, Jiangxi Province

Zhangcun village scene

Yeming’s parents were concerned that I be comfortable but I could tell they weren’t all that comfortable with me. It must have been awkward having a foreigner in their home who was their son’s teacher from a big university. I couldn’t speak the language and didn’t have a clue what was going on much of the time. I didn’t want to offend them with any cultural faux pas, except I didn’t know what those might be. I’d aim to be as “agreeable” as possible, I decided.

Trying to Make Sense of it All

What I really wanted was to be a part of family activities but I didn’t want to push. Cultural differences, in general, and Yeming’s father, in particular, perplexed me. There was so much that I just didn’t get. For instance, when I made a request of Yeming to be able to join in the holiday decorating, he said he’d have to ask his father. (I’d already been through this scenario.) When I heard the same response, “I’m sorry but my father says you need to go back upstairs,” I almost started to cry. Does Mr. Zhang not like me? He doesn’t even know me! I thought.

There was a heater set up for my use on the second floor. I truly appreciated that, given how blinkin’ cold it was, a damp 3 degrees Celsius, both indoors and out. In case you don’t know–and why would you?–south of the Huai River and Qin Mountains there is no central heating in China, no matter how freezing it gets.

During most of the several hours I spent alone, Yeming was busy with family matters. I had his laptop to use. With no internet access, I listened to Chinese and Western music saved on his hard drive. I also did a great deal of journal writing, which helped me to reframe hurt feelings. It’s nothing personal. There’s no reason for Mr. Zhang to dislike me. We come from different worlds, etc.

For sure I did not spend the whole time alone, just enough to unsettle me and have me figure I’d never come back to this place. Also, enough for me to decide I’d leave the day after New Year’s day.

Firecrackers, Food and Wine

Door gods and New Year's rhyming couplet banners, Chinese village home

Door gods and New Year’s rhyming couplet banners, a village home

One thing I experienced was the craziness of firecrackers (as distinct from fireworks) of small-town Chinese-New-Year China. Now that was something! Giant rolls of little “gunpowder sticks” were brought out, reminiscent of rolls of machine gun bullets.

[A photo towards the end of this blog post reveals one of these rolls of “gunpowder sticks.”] The ground was too wet, so Yeming and his father unfurled the firecrackers around the entire balcony area of the 2nd and 3rd floors. I thought I was watching a chain-reaction of dynamite sticks being ignited! The house didn’t blow up, but oh my, what a smoky, stinky, deafening production, what with everyone else in town doing the same thing!

Traditional Spring Festival Feast

Traditional Spring Festival feast and the bottle of wine

New Year’s dinner was like a Chinese style Christmas feast. I’m sure Yeming’s mom served every special symbolic dish and then some. Some of the dishes were: a whole fish “for abundance,” long noodles “for longevity,” Chinese mushrooms “for wishes to come true” and Buddhist vegetarian stew “for cleansing.” I had no problem with any of these. I did have a problem with the chicken head I managed to pull out of a serving dish with my chopsticks. I did not eat it, nor could I bring myself to even give it a second look.

Before we sat down to eat, Mr. Zhang presented me with a gift. Yeming explained, “My father has bought this bottle of wine for you to drink.” He bought me a gift? 

I don’t drink wine, but I wanted to be polite in the face of this unexpected kindness from a man whose behaviour had confused me. I asked, “Everyone else will have some, right?”

“Oh no, my parents don’t drink wine. It’s only for you. My father wants you to drink it.”

“Yeming, no way. I’m not drinking a whole bottle by myself. If I have to drink it then you’re drinking it too.” Neither of us wanted any but drink it we did. It tasted like rusty nail water. The alcohol content must have been low as the buzz wore off pretty fast. I have no idea what Mr. Zhang thought.

“Not a Leg to Stand On”

As soon as we finished eating, we got ready to leave for a party across the river. The crossing’s scary in day time; what’s it like at night?  I wondered. The answer: Scarier!  The good ole engine conked out plenty.

The party was fun. No food, no drink, just music. I danced more than I had in years with about two dozen guys who were members of Yeming’s extended family. I felt I was beginning to fit in and it felt great. I was more than just a foreigner; I was a person they were getting to know. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t speak to any of them except Yeming. The next morning I’d be leaving. With mixed feelings that night, I referred in my journal  to “the next leg of my journey.”

The Crash

This was ironic as the next day I literally had no legs to stand on. Yeming and his cousin Haiming were seeing me to the train station in a taxi van. We didn’t make it to the station. A bus smashed head-on into us instead. Sitting in the front passenger seat without a seat belt, I somehow did not go through the windshield. The driver died. Seated behind me, Yeming suffered a broken collar bone and his cousin, a broken pelvis.

The Saving Grace

Relatively unprotected, I survived a head-on collision with no head injury. I also survived the rescue with jaws-of-life crow bars and the equally crude handling by well-meaning people who had no training whatsoever. The two hospitals I was taken to were eye-opening to say the least. Strange occurrences made for indelible memories.

In the second hospital, three people I barely knew took care of me: food, washing, bed pan and all. For three nights they slept on a cold hospital floor to look after my every need. They were Yeming’s sister Yanhong, his cousin Haiming and his father. Even in the midst of a robbery, police in my room and suspects hauled in for me to identify, Mr. Zhang, a man I didn’t know what to make of, looked after me with the tenderest of care.

China was a place already opening my heart. Mr.Zhang, my friend’s father, helped open it a whole lot wider. He and his family helped me learn the most precious language in the world; I figure it’s the one that can heal any rift anywhere. Speaking the wordless language requires an opening of the mind, a softening of the heart and the willingness to be seen for who we truly are, behind all the barriers. I call it the language of the heart. And the saving grace? It can be summed up in one word, love.

Yeming is standing behind his parents. 2nd from left, Haiming suffered a broken pelvis. Mr. Zhang and on his left his nephew, Jinming, cared for me in hospital.

Yeming is standing behind his parents. Haiming, 2nd from left, suffered a broken pelvis. Mr. Zhang and his nephew Jinming (2nd from right), cared for me in hospital.


Postscript, 10 Years Later

Mr. Zhang and his year old granddaughter Mengtian

Mr. Zhang and his year old granddaughter Mengtian

In the fall of 2014, I arrived in Nanchang, PRC from Vancouver, Canada. It was my first time in upwards of ten years to revisit this southern area of China. [In 2008 I spent four months in north-eastern China.]

Picking me up at the airport were my friend Yeming and his cousin Jinming, who’d cared for me in the hospital. I had not seen them for going on 10 years! I could hardly stop smiling. 🙂

Almost a decade later, I with Yeming, his daughter Mengtian and his wife Xiaodi.

Almost a decade later, I with Yeming, his daughter Mengtian and his wife Xiaodi.

Revisiting the Zhang family was a wonderful experience. They welcomed me as a cherished member of their family, and I am Yeming’s little girl’s honorary grandmother, the Canadian one.

For their open-heartedness and generosity, I am happy and grateful. For their goodness and love (maybe all the same difference), I am smiling.


Till next time…

Heart of Friendship




By | 2017-05-28T18:37:21+00:00 February 22nd, 2015|China & Chinese Culture, Language of the Heart, Spirit Matters|34 Comments

About the Author:

Ramona McKean is creating a "Bridge of Light" (aka “a Bridge of the Heart”) to promote cross-cultural appreciation and awareness. An author and speaker, she lives in Victoria, BC, Canada.


  1. Jacqueline Gum February 23, 2015 at 6:11 am - Reply

    Wow…that is some memorable New year’s experience! But how sad the accident…and I can imagine how grateful you still are to have survived such an incident in third world conditions! But mostly, I love that you have remained friends…how special to be a god mother to that little one:)

    • Ramona February 23, 2015 at 11:20 am - Reply

      Yes, it sure was memorable, Jacqueline. The good, the bad, the ugly and the wonderful–all of it was amazing! I have no regrets.

  2. Lenie February 23, 2015 at 6:17 am - Reply

    Ramona, what an amazing story. When you hear about China today, it’s all about economic development and prosperity but that doesn’t seem to be the case everywhere. However, Zhangcun probably has a whole lot less air pollution (although there may have been pollution of another kind, what with no inside plumbing) than the bigger cities and the family where you stayed certainly seemed to be doing well. Love the way they serve food, each food having a meaning.
    It was wonderful to read about the care provided by this family who were in reality mostly strangers to you yet. Being seriously injured that far from home must have been traumatic to say the least. Their care would have made it less so.

    • Ramona February 23, 2015 at 11:25 am - Reply

      Lenie, it was a thoroughly traumatic experience. It took me about two years to recover physically and eight emotionally. The loving support of that family helped save my life. What an incredible bonding it was.

      With such a gigantic population, development in rural China is a slow process. It was wonderful to see big improvements when I returned to countryside Jiangxi in October of last year. Much more indoor plumbing and the environment was radically cleaner too. Actually, I saw huge improvements everywhere I went, and I travelled in seven provinces. 🙂

  3. Ken Dowell February 23, 2015 at 9:05 am - Reply

    This is a really interesting story to read Ramona. I’m sure few westerners get a look like this at China. It is interesting the signals you pick up from people when you don’t know the language.

    • Ramona February 23, 2015 at 11:29 am - Reply

      Thank you. An intimate experience of China is what I’ve had the three times I’ve been there. You’re right, Ken. “Reading” people can be especially tricky without a common language. Being from such a different culture adds to the mix too.

  4. A.K.Andrew February 23, 2015 at 11:53 am - Reply

    What an amazing trip Ramona , and thanks goodness you were relatively OK after the crash. I envy your experience of having the opportunity to see the real China, though I would need to be a fly on the wall I fear.

    • Ramona February 23, 2015 at 12:23 pm - Reply

      Thank you, A.K. Andrew. Seeing the real China has been wonderful. I feel blessed to have made many wonderful Chinese friends who have invited me into their homes and their hearts.

  5. Patricia Weber February 23, 2015 at 2:33 pm - Reply

    What a travel experience Ramona. Actually, it’s a life experience for Spring Festival in China isn’t it? This year – it’s the year of the sheep is my understanding. But you are not one bit sheepish in this post. I most appreciate the higher moments and that worst moment (no not being without plumbing) of the accident. I’d say God is everywhere and thank goodness you were saved. Thanks for talking about your travels.

    • Ramona February 23, 2015 at 9:39 pm - Reply

      You know, Patricia, after the accident I told myself that my life would be better for the accident than if it had never happened at all. And that is exactly how it’s turned out–my life is much better. A voice took me to China and a voice spoke to me in the wreckage. Without it, I’d have never discovered the bigger purpose for my life. As strange as it may sound, the accident was a blessing, and I am grateful. xo

  6. Donna Janke February 23, 2015 at 2:36 pm - Reply

    What a great story. It was interesting to read about your experience in the Chinese countryside. I can imagine myself feeling some of the same feeling you had initially.What a wonderful connection you made with the Zhang family – people obviously with lots of heart.

    • Ramona February 23, 2015 at 9:43 pm - Reply

      You’re right, Donna. The Zhang family are “salt of the earth” good people with big hearts. 🙂

  7. Clarke February 23, 2015 at 3:11 pm - Reply

    Thank you for sharing your story Ramona. It’s an incredible journey you are on. Happy new year!

    • Ramona February 23, 2015 at 9:45 pm - Reply

      Thank you, Clarke. Indeed, it’s an incredible journey and what makes it great are the wonderful friends I make along the way. Many blessings to you, my friend!

  8. Mahal Hudson February 23, 2015 at 4:02 pm - Reply

    Thank you for sharing your “cross-cultural misunderstanding and extreme misadventure that led to profound change.” You showed compassion and inspiration with your story. Coming from the third world country-Philippines, we always hope that we are viewed as capable and thriving despite our economic predicaments. Your story is truly an awakening for me as well to gain a different perspective in difficult situations. I found gratitude in your story.

    • Ramona February 23, 2015 at 9:47 pm - Reply

      My dear Mahal, your comments are beautiful. Thank you so much. xo

  9. William Rusho February 25, 2015 at 11:37 am - Reply

    I am glad you survived your accident. It sounded scary, and I can only assume that fright was intensified by being in an unfamiliar place.

    I am glad to see that compassion and caring is a valued commodity. It is nice to see the kindness in others around the world.

    • Ramona February 25, 2015 at 12:29 pm - Reply

      It is so strange, the fear factor. I had it when I saw the bus approach, then again when I arrived at the first hospital, a wee impoverished place in a small town. I arrived in a van that rescuers had plopped me into. (They didn’t know nor did I that I had 7 broken ribs, 2 broken legs and a crushed right knee.) I could hardly believe my eyes. Some men approached with a board. That was the stretcher and they carried me up and down 2-3 flights of stairs. I clung for dear life and prayed a lot! That was absolutely the scariest thing of all.

      The compassion and care of Chinese people, some I’d never seen before nor since, is what saved me. Somehow I felt “safe” and secure in their kindness, That is what helped keep the fear at bay.

  10. Andy February 25, 2015 at 12:06 pm - Reply

    I hope that low-end wine taught you an important lesson, Ramona: ALWAYS bring some Brador with you when visiting China. 😉

    BTW, I myself went through the 2005-2006 winter without any central heating. At the time I was living in New Orleans in an apartment building that had been damaged by Hurricane Katrina the previous August and that was still in a state of disrepair because my landlord’s insurance hadn’t come through yet. I had a space heater to keep warm, and that was it; making matters worse, water would drip into my apartment when it rained. It was tough: Third World, indeed.

    • Ramona February 25, 2015 at 12:32 pm - Reply

      Hi Andy,
      I don’t know about Brador. Googling it, I see it is a beer. The meaning you are referring to? Ya, 3rd world can well be in the so-called 1st world. Not fun. Thank you for the “advice” 😉 and thanks for writing.

      • Andy February 25, 2015 at 6:35 pm - Reply

        FYI: Brador is not just “a beer”, but a Canadian beer – just the thing to drink on a chilly Vancouver night, eh? – that’s why I suggested it.

        • Ramona February 26, 2015 at 8:46 am - Reply

          Ha ha! When I googled it, I noticed it was a Canadian beer. 😉 As great as it is, I think I’ll go for a little bit more warmth-inducing rum hot toddy. Or maybe a hot goji berry, fresh squeezed lemon drink with grated ginger! (The rum sounds more interesting, eh? Hmm…don’t think we make any of that in Canada but I could be mistaken.)

  11. Beth Niebuhr February 26, 2015 at 8:42 am - Reply

    What an interesting experience – Chinese New Year in China! I lived in San Francisco for 10 years many years ago and loved their New Year celebration. Also, for a couple of years we lived next to a family who were Chinese – American citizens but considered themselves Chinese. They told us about some Chinese customs and that was fun.

    • Ramona February 26, 2015 at 8:49 am - Reply

      Yup, a most “interesting” experience! 🙂 The dancing and “Kǎlā OK” (karaoke) were the most fun.

  12. Tim February 26, 2015 at 4:12 pm - Reply

    The paragraph entitled “Crash” took me very much by surprise Ramona. It is incredible the compassion and generosity that is showered on people in times of crisis; really makes you feel hope for mankind in general. It must make you feel very special to be an honorary grandmother to the little one.

    • Ramona February 26, 2015 at 7:41 pm - Reply

      Thank you, Tim, for your response. I agree that crisis can have a humanizing effect. Thank goodness for that.

  13. Kire Sdyor February 28, 2015 at 1:47 am - Reply

    Ramona, I live in a U.S. city ranked 60th for the most Chinese-born residents. Every year I am disappointed that we don’t have a parade or firecrackers for the New Year celebration. Sounds like your story is one of great awakenings after tragedy. All I can say is Wow!

    • Ramona March 1, 2015 at 2:14 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Kire! I say “wow!” too. A huge transformational time was ushered in with that accident, for sure. 🙂

  14. Pamela Chollet February 28, 2015 at 10:01 am - Reply

    Ramona your blog post was an emotional roller coaster ride. I went from, “No plumbing, why is she staying in their house” to ” rusty nail water? Why is she drinking it, their gift” to “Jaws of life, thank God she had them in her life”. It’s amazing the strength, beauty and elegance of the human spirit when the source is pure love; it has no constraints, form or boundaries.

    • Ramona March 1, 2015 at 2:22 pm - Reply

      Pamela, what a thoughtful and beautiful response! In the long (about 2 years) rehab process to learn to walk again, and properly, love from many others is what sustained me, especially from family and also from so many of my Chinese friends. “Strength, beauty and elegance of the human spirit” is indeed a beautiful way to express what love can release. Thank you for writing. xo

  15. Mina Joshi February 28, 2015 at 10:55 am - Reply

    I loved reading about your time in China. Something similar to your experience in China’s countryside happened to me when I visited my in laws village in India. I too didn’t know how I would survive in a home with no plumbing.

    So glad to read that you were well looked after when you had your accident and it seems that it probably helped form a life long bond with your Chinese friends.

    • Ramona March 1, 2015 at 2:24 pm - Reply

      You are so right about the bonding, Mina. xo

  16. Tommy Lin March 12, 2015 at 8:54 pm - Reply

    I`m touched by the kind of person Ramona is, so sensitive and understanding.
    As a Chinese living in the mainland China, I should say: things here are not so good or bad as some people maybe imagine. I traveled in US for more than a month last year and realized, in fact, there is good and bad everywhere. We are all human beings, ordinary people who want to be loved and be safe. We want to live meaningful lives. So we are actually not so different, no matter what country we live in. Our Spring Festival is similar to West’s Christmas for love of family and friends.

    China is changing, developing so rapidly that even we have trouble to get used to it. But there`s one thing true: Life is getting better in China. More and more we are resembling developed states. I think it`s good for the rest of world, and of course to all of us.

    We in China are quite open to the world now. We offer a warm welcome to people who like to visit us!

    • Ramona March 12, 2015 at 10:33 pm - Reply

      Hi Tommy,
      Thank you for your comment about “the kind of person” I am. You are very kind.

      I must say: From my three visits in China–2004-2005, 2008 and 2014, the steady improvements I’ve seen are amazing! This last time, I noticed a much cleaner environment in both cities and countryside. In some places I deliberately set out to find garbage on the streets and could find none! There are many more public toilets now, plus many more signs in English for visitors. Almost everybody wears seat belts now, even bus drivers, and I feel much safer with the overall improved quality of driving.

      Yes, I believe you, China is open to the world. I always feel a warm welcome, just about everywhere I go in your country. 🙂 I want to come back again and again, visit more places and make even more new friends!

      I love receiving feedback, and feedback from Chinese people is extra special to me, so thank you, Tommy, for taking the time to write.

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