Me and Mr. Li: A Reflection on Chinese New Year

February 10, 2022
BY BRANDON COHEN For four years of my early life, I was what they called a “third culture kid.” For those who have yet to live abroad, a “third culture kid,” or “TCK,” is a kid who has the opportunity to grow up in a completely different place than their parents. My mom was born in Long Island, New York, and my dad’s from Kansas City, Kansas, and I’m American going back at least two generations. The TCK aspect came in when my dad moved our family to Beijing, China at the end of fifth grade. This had all sorts of cultural and social implications for me; nothing like you’d see in the Karate Kid (something to which I was frequently compared when I returned to Los Angeles after four years). Instead, I was introduced to an international school, the Western Academy of Beijing, which boasted a student body from over 70 countries. I was suddenly friends with kids from all over the world, and this meant an influx of new cultures to learn about. I had friends from Australia and New Zealand, with whom I’d celebrate ANZAC Day, and friends from South Africa, with whom I’d celebrate Freedom Day. However, one of the key privileges we all had was enriching ourselves in the local culture, and taking part in festivities related to the holidays. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to revisit a memory. Another privilege, albeit an odd one, of living in China was that my dad’s company paid for our own personal car and driver. From the moment we arrived at the airport in Beijing, we were blessed with a beaming, wonderful man who introduced himself to us as Mr. Li. For three of the four years we were there, Mr. Li was always the first face I saw after school, and always had our Buick minivan stocked with popular local snacks and energy drinks, ice cold in a cooler in the trunk for us on hot days.
L to R: myself, our housekeeper (“ayi”), my dad, my sister, Mr. Jiancheng Li. 2012
Mr. Li’s job was simply to get us from one place to another, and he did it with style, waiting for us and smoking with other drivers in parking lots while we did whatever us “expats” (short for expatriates, a slang term for people living abroad) did. In his free time, he would sit in the car listening to Chinese-to-English translation tapes, training himself to speak better conversational English so he could talk to us. Mr. Li took me to and from some of my first concerts and gigs, many of which were heavy metal-related, and would grin ear-to-ear as my 6’4” Norwegian buddies blasted death metal through his car radio. I remember him driving me to the Water Cube, the former Olympic water sports arena-turned-water park, and laughing when I emerged from the exit sopping wet. Almost once a week, he’d show up early with a bag full of fresh produce and groceries he’d picked up at a local market and paid for out of his own pocket, wanting to make sure we had enough to eat. He was a truly lovely man, whom we lost far too early to a heart attack at the approximate time of my sister’s Bat Mitzvah, which we’d flown back home to Los Angeles to have. All of my memories of Mr. Li are bright and happy, filled with sunshine and good times. But one of the most fun evenings we had with Mr. Li was during Chinese New Year, a time in which he really should have been home with his family. But there he was, ever so happy to be spending time with us. I think that may have been the first time he accepted our invitation for him to come inside, as this was an almost unthinkable concept to him. We had a lovely dinner, where we laughed and celebrated the Chinese New Year. The key elements of Chinese New Year have always been food, family, and good fortune going into the new year, and we took part in all of it. The single thing I miss most about living in China is the food. I crave it daily, especially when Chinese New Year rolls around. I can basically smell the hot pot, the plates on plates of dumplings and vegetables, the slow-cooked pork, chicken and duck that falls off the bone when you bite into it; I can feel the crunch of the caramelized sugar crisp on the fatty ends of the meat. In the background, the streets explode with the cacophony of fireworks, many of which are simply designed to make noise, no light show involved. Nevertheless, the skies are alight with every color of the rainbow, followed immediately by billows of smoke. You could hear music and cheering in the distance, as every individual family had their own celebration.
Fireworks in the streets of Beijing. 2014
This brings me to my specific memory with Mr. Li. Unlike America, where simply having a firework in your possession could land you in jail, in China they’re sold on the street corner in a giant yellow-and-red hut resembling a circus big top. You’d walk up to the kiosk, and be greeted by hundreds, if not thousands of firework options. They had handheld roman candles that you’d simply point at the sky and shoot like Harry Potter, and sparklers and windmills that you could watch come to life in your own hands. And then, they had the big boys. Perforated cardboard boxes with multicolored logos splattered across them advertising the “BIGGEST BOOM” or “5 minute show!” in Mandarin, of course. These boxes ranged in price from several hundred to several thousand RMB, which is extremely cheap given the quality of shows these boxes put on. Even with some of the smaller boxes, which we bought a smorgasbord of, the pyrotechnic shows could last upwards of 3-4 minutes. And the bigger boxes, which were more expensive so we went a little easier on, lasted 5-10 minutes, shooting rockets upwards of 100 feet upwards and exploding into kaleidoscopic patterns before our very eyes. We lit these with our parent’s help, and with a big group of friends, but Mr. Li was terrified of us getting hurt, and insisted on helping us meticulously light each box, one after another.
Mr. Li helping my sister (purple jacket) and a friend light a small box of fireworks. 2011
This Lunar New Year is extra special for me, as it’s the Year of the Tiger. The last one was in 2010, the year before we moved to Beijing. The one before that, was 1998, the year that I was born. I can’t help but feel that this means that this year means the precipice of big changes for me; as evidenced by the fact that I’m graduating from college in less than 100 days and transitioning to the real world. I think there’s something to be said about being Jewish and living in China, and something else to be said about being American and living in China. But I was blessed to be able to celebrate three separate New Years during my four years there. Every year my family would tune in to our local synagogue (Nashuva)’s livestream, which we would watch at night to accommodate the time difference. We are Kohanim, so we’d say the sacred blessings to the TV from the safety of our living room. We’d often travel for actual New Year’s, as flight tickets from Beijing to elsewhere in Asia are relatively cheap, and I was blessed again to spend New Year’s in several different countries, watching the clock count down from midnight in Bali, Bangkok, etc. And I was blessed a third time with being able to celebrate Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year, in Beijing, with both my blood family and the family we met along the way. I think Mr. Li felt this same blessing, and I think of him often, hoping he would be proud of the person I’ve turned into.
Fireworks reflect off the high rise window. 2014
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