Wednesday, March 6

Lantern Festival

On Lantern Festival day (a Sunday that marked the official end of the Chinese New Year season but that came a week after the girls had already started back to school), we spent four hours doing homework, maybe five.  The girls still weren’t done, but we went outside anyway.  It was dark by then.  After we got our coats and shoes on, we all ran to the terrace to catch the fireworks exploding at the foot of our building.  Then we raced outside so we wouldn’t miss any, stalled only by my last-second dash back in to grab matches for our sparklers. 

Just past our compound’s gate there was a fountain of crackling sparks rising from the concrete, its igniters huddled nearby, accompanied by the banging and rumbling of more fireworks, and their echoes, bouncing between the tops of the skyscrapers we live among.

When I was a kid in the US, sparklers blossomed, shooting out and raining down, like glittering dandelions.  And they were, generally, white.  Or golden, if you’re feeling nostalgic.  They came to you naked in their putty-coloredness, or grouped in oddly muted boxes, like 1940’s office supplies. 

The present-day Chinese sparkler packaging is more in keeping with its contents’ ultimate glory—the ones we’d bought were sold singly, each wrapped from tip to tip in shiny green-and-silver foil, a bit of pink tissue paper licking out from one end, a faux-flame.   We stopped to light them, then promptly discovered that the matches I’d run back to get were made for Tantalus—they scratched, they sparked, they smoked, they snapped, but they would not light.  

Having spent the whole afternoon at the dining table, squeezed between the guilt of torturing my kids and the panic that this time we actually would not get the work done, our apartment felt to me like the Death Star’s trash compactor, and I was not about to leap back inside it.  I struck and struck and struck again. Was it possible that, with the addition of the smoke from millions of fireworks, Shanghai’s air quality had become so poor that it lacked oxygen enough to keep a match-flame alive?

Eventually--maybe it was an errant spark, or perhaps it was the heat of my cursing after MTH thought it important to note that I was littering as I dropped the tiny BIODEGRADABLE wooden matchsticks on the streets of Shanghai (already covered in a thin layer of urine, sputum, and kale slime—also biodegradable, I guess)--but one finally did catch…and then immediately went out.

Some more cursing, and the next one stayed lit.  It was immediately snatched out of my hands by the quick-thinking MTH, making up for his infuriatingness by holding it out of our writhing children’s reach while he lit more from it, then handed them out.  Once lit, these sparklers burned more like Calla lilies than dandelions: all in one direction, only opening up at the last minute, shooting off and up instead of sprinkling out and around.  But what they lacked in volume these made up in kaleidoscopy, their sparks spouting first gold, then purple, then green and back again.

We headed for the river.  Before we got there, a glimmering orange orb rose silently above the trees at the entrance to the promenade, wafting in the smoky air.

Have you read Danny the Champion of the World?    Only if you have, after you found it for yourself in the library or on a forgotten shelf, at an age when selecting your own books still felt bold, and only if it was that book that taught you how wonderful, and different, a childhood could be imagined to be, only if you used that book to escape to a warm night where secret fun was planned by a dad for his kid and seen through, frictionlessly, can you imagine what it was like to see that floating lantern. 

We went on. The boardwalk was dotted with little clusters of people, each in different stages of the sky lantern rite: some writing their wishes on the lanterns’ tissue-paper sides; others shaking the lantern open; still others lighting the wickless candle at the base, then coaxing the fragile package upright without allowing the flame to lick its paper sides.   Then there were groups carefully holding those sides out, waiting for the heated air to rise and distend them.  Waiting to feel the lift, the tug, the sense—a trick of physics on our lonely brains—that a new life is born.    

Of course, sending these lanterns heavenward is littering (in the end), not particularly green (given the single-use product coated these days in flame retardant), and dangerous.  So I had, in a fit of insanity, banned us from participation. (Or so says MTH.  The actual decree-er is lost in the mists of time, but let me ask you this—who do you think is a more likely suspect, the one whose lifelong dream was to set off a fire-balloon, or the one who spent the sparkler-lighting crouched on the ground retrieving errant matchsticks?)

 The universe would not allow this affront, however, and the instant we arrived, a young woman pushed a folded lantern into my hands, telling us it was a gift from them to our family. 

Absolved by the requirements of courtesy, we set about lighting it.  At which point, of course, I had to chase them down again—I think it was them—and beg for a light.

Our lantern was green, and it got a tiny hole scorched into it as we struggled to get it upright, which made its initial progress more galumphing than majestic, and it nearly got hung up on the railing between the walkway and the river, but a last second tip by one of our helpers and a breeze coming off the water lifted it.  All around us, across the river and on our side, fireworks were exploding.  And there were the usual neon signs, entire buildings lit to look like waterfalls, laser searchlights sweeping the sky.  Our lantern sailed away down the river, a tiny glow in the Shanghai light show.  We hadn’t written a wish on it, but what could we possibly wish for?