Ditan Gongyuan is the site of the Altar of the Earth, which is set in contraposition to the other parks and their altars, those of Heaven and Agriculture and the Sun and the Moon, and the temple fair there at Ditan is where everyone in Beijing goes on New Year’s Day. Last year we did not go, because we knew nothing, but this year we went, not because we understand the lunar calendar or worship the earth as such but because how could 15.244 million people all be simultaneously wrong?
And they weren’t wrong, not at all. This is not to say that there were no obstacles to enjoyment, however. The weather was very cold and a little windy. Parking required creativity, and also the temporary use of a sidewalk and two high curbs, as well as the ability to ignore the sound of certain whistles. We were obliged to buy two pinwheels, which make clickety sounds that did not seem so loud there in the throng but that now, at home, are woodpeckers pecking churlishly at the backs of our heads. The fair was of course breathtakingly crowded, and we lost Chloe once, the first time that’s happened in a place where it was solid bodies in all directions, all of them taller than hers—an immensely long 50 seconds. And we got robbed, the thief surely a professional, given that he managed, without us even noticing, to work open the zipper on the diaper bag and steal the one remaining good cookie, leaving behind the one remaining mediocre cookie sitting right beneath. But aside from all that: delightful.
There were many stands full of food, including the little honey-and-sesame stick deals that we love dearly, and by “we” I mean “I.” There were also many stands bright with decorative objects whose exact meaning and use we were not able to discern, but which were beautiful nonetheless. And of course there were stands and stands and stands selling handsome roosters in many colors and of many materials—plastic and feathers, wood and feathers, tin and feathers, pure feathers—to commemorate this year’s place in the local zodiac.
The long paths were roofed scantily by bare trees, but the trees were of course strung with red lanterns, thousands of them, and with thousands of colored parasols hung upside down, and with thousands of other colorful if less obvious things. And the 15.244 million people, they each looked up at Tom riding on my shoulders, and at Chloe riding on my wife’s, and smiled, and took a picture of us, because a foreigner made puffy by holiday food and then made tall by an otherwise thin foreign child made likewise puffy by a bright snowsuit is an amusing thing, as well it should be.
And on the massive altar, kites were being flown, and the parasols spun above us, and far off there was a parade of sorts, though by then we could no longer feel our fingers or faces and decided instead to head home to lunch and to naptime, thoroughly pleased, not only at having enjoyed ourselves appropriately, but also at having done Lunar New Year’s Eve properly last night.
By this I mean that we stayed home and ate dumplings (actually, no, it was lasagna, but for the purposes of this column let’s pretend) and watched television and occasionally got up from the couch to look out the window at the fireworks being shot off illicitly within the Third Ring Road. Yes, this is the true set of contemporary New Year traditions: fireworks, dumplings, television. The CCTV programming that most people watch consists mainly of comedy sketches, and opera, and dazzling musical spectacles involving synchronized dancing and lights. Regardless of genre, the programs are uniformly abysmal, and we have learned to our great pleasure that almost no one here actually likes them, but being able to criticize them with precision is an essential social skill at this time of year.
Such criticism is, however, still beyond our linguistic means, so instead of watching what CCTV had prepared for us (though we did do a quick round out of curiosity, and found that one sketch in particular was being aired on precisely 17 channels at once), we watched Kill Bill 2, a movie that made us happy, particularly because of that one scene when the flashback assassin had to feel around in the near-dark for the pregnancy-kit box, and also because of Carradine’s odd lisp, and Madsen’s eyelids, and Uma’s eyes as well, specifically the lines around them, which I do not believe she has shared with us before, but it seems to me only fair that she should.