I still can’t quite believe that I have turned forty. Some of you reading this will say, “Oye, you’re getting old!” and others will think, “What’s your problem…you are still young!” I suppose the reality of age is objective (I’m 40, and this is empirically undeniable), but how one experiences it is indeed relative. Yet, with all things relative, one should ask, “Relative to what?...”
Despite some personal challenges in my life right now, I am incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to celebrate such an important birthday in China! I feel very blessed. As it so happened, my birthday fell on the same day as the Chinese Lantern Festival, the last day of the Spring Festival. I was supposed to be on a train to Nanjing on that day, but I’m happy Providence had other plans. My new friend and colleague emailed me the day before, saying she was planning to head into Old Shanghai (where Yu Yuan is located) to see the lanterns at night and was wondering if I’d like to join her. Sure! What a fun way to celebrate my birthday. I now associated turning 40 with the coming of spring, with celebration of new life, with shaking off the hurts and disappointments of the (recent) past, and looking with anticipation to the promises of life to come.
I had no idea what to expect. As night fell on Shanghai, the people came out in droves, all walking around to celebrate the Lantern Festival with friends and family. The city was one big party. We grabbed a taxi and immediately hit serious traffic. Busses, cars, cabs, scooters, bikes, and pedestrians crowded the streets, seeking out restaurants, clubs, and street fairs. The driver got us as close to Old Town as he could, and then we participated in one of Shanghai’s favorite pastimes—strolling. There is so much unique local flavors in Shanghai that one simply must stroll around and drink it all in. We could hear firecrackers popping in rapid succession, and occasionally a little child screamed with glee as a colorful bottle rocket burst in the air. The side streets were filled with a smoky haze and the smell of black powder.
Eventually, we arrived at the outer walls of the Old Town. Excitement pulsed through the air. Old Town only looked old, but it felt vigorous, electric. Squeezing through the crowds, we purchased our tickets and entered into the brightest, most colorful birthday celebration I’ve ever had. Ok, they weren’t celebrating my birthday, but I was. And it was as if the town was one huge birthday cake. Every major street and minor side alley was full of people, and hanging overhead were hundreds and hundreds of large, brightly lit red and gold lanterns. In the middle of major squares, there were huge new year displays all lit up. It was like Disney’s Magic Kingdom, only this was authentic.
By this time we were quite hungry, so we found a restaurant upstairs in one of the old buildings, and we enjoyed a nice feast of some traditional Chinese dishes (nothing like what we get in Chinese restaurants in the States). We toasted the Lantern Festival and my birthday with some Chinese liquor, loosely translated as “Tipsy Spirit”, and let me tell ya, it’s appropriately named. As is most Chinese liquor, it is made from rice alcohol, and it is very strong. This particular libation was 104 proof (52% alcohol). Yikes. It’s no wonder they served it in little thimble sized glasses. Happy birthday to me!!
After dinner, we walked around Old Town some more, taking in the sites, and enjoying watching so many people filled with such joy. On one street, people were clustered in groups, staring up at the lanterns. “What’s going on?” I asked my friend. The lanterns have riddles written on them, and on this particular street, people were reading them and trying to figure them out. I had so much fun just watching different groups laugh, discuss, and joke with each other over the riddles. I had no idea what they were saying, but on some level, joy and laughter is universal.
We ended my birthday bash by heading into a recently renovated area of the former French Concession (used to be a French area during colonial times). Here, some traditional Shanghai buildings have been preserved and restored, and a large block has been turned into a trendy area with high-end shops, restaurants, and clubs. The area is called Xin Tiandi, and it is really cool. Apparently, a lot of expatriates like to hang out there, in addition to young people from Shanghai and trendy folks visiting Shanghai. After a quick walk around, we settled on a jazz club called Jazz, Wine, and Cigars. An American jazz group was playing, and we enjoyed some music with a nice cigar and a tall glass of Guinness. Ah, a most memorable birthday, indeed.
Click to see some pics (scroll down to “Lanterns and People”).