My attempts to avoid minefield of CNY doomed to fail
Updated: 2012-02-09 10:36
At home in the UK, I dread Nov 5. It's not the fact that the shops are already pumping out Bing Crosby with exhausting pre-Christmas zeal. It's the fireworks.
I am palm-sweatingly, eyelid-twitchingly, completely and utterly terrified of fireworks.
For those who don't already know, Nov 5 is Guy Fawkes' Night, when British people celebrate a bunch of Catholics who failed to blow up the King and Parliament by performing a reconstruction of what it might have looked like had they succeeded.
It's considered thoroughly unpatriotic not to join in with the orgy of pyromania, but as soon as the bonfires start to blaze, I lose every ounce of stiff upper-lip Britishness. I go along with the cool kids to the council firework display - and end up whimpering in the tea hut.
I have always been cursed by this debilitating phobia, but experience has not improved matters. One year, I was dragged outside to watch my brother stick a firework into the ground. He lit it and in "standing well back", managed to kick the firework over. The 10-second fuse seemed to burn in slow motion. Then, like a homing missile, the firework trained itself on me.
All that was missing was the Benny Hill music. The rocket chased me round the garden and finally cornered me. I leapt onto a bench. It shot underneath - and mercifully fizzled out.
This Nov 5, I was in Beijing. Guy Fawkes' Night came and went without the slightest whiff of a whizz-bang. However, I knew my relief was only temporary.
That brings me to China and its Spring Festival celebrations. "It's like World War III," a colleague of mine shuddered. My blood pressure was rising by Jan 1.
So, on Jan 23, I boarded a cruise ship on the Yangtze River, docked next to a slipway and a deserted, corrugated iron food shack somewhere near Yichang, Hubei province. In other words, as far away from fireworks as possible. Even in the middle of nowhere there were explosions going off left, right and center, but at least I knew there was an expanse of water between myself and them - for four days, which I reasoned was long enough to get it out of their system.
A week later, I arrived in Xi'an, the capital of the Shaanxi province. I hadn't been walking down the road more than 10 minutes, when I spotted a group of men crouching around a box. All of a sudden they scattered - and the box exploded.
My life flashed before my eyes. I leapt backwards with the agility of a triple-jumper. It flashed into my mind that there might be fireworks still on the pavement around me, waiting to explode like mines. The result was that I began to hop up and down on the spot like a demented rabbit.
This was just the beginning. Morning, noon and night, the fireworks never stopped. They were still firing as I sat, huddled in my Beijing flat, more than two weeks after Chinese New Year.
Popping to the shops to buy water became a daily quest requiring nerves of steel. One night I walked past an ordinary-looking car, only to have it explode practically in my face. There were at least as many fireworks plonked behind that one car on a Beijing street as are let off across Britain on one Nov 5. My blood-curdling shriek harmonized with the wail of the rockets. I fled into the porch of a nearby restaurant.
I burst into tears. The restaurant employees were crying, too - with laughter.
This is the thing about fear of fireworks. It is one of the most stigmatized phobias around. There isn't even a scientific name for it along the lines of arachnophobia, as if language itself had labeled me a crybaby. To those restaurant staff members - and to my friends in the UK, who find my gibbering intensely amusing - the addition of some lily-livered laowai (foreigner) is a great comic touch to the festivities.
I beg of you, have pity on this pathetic "pyrophobic". You've had your fun, now put away the fireworks untill next year. By then, if luck allows, I will be back in the land of Guy Fawkes, which suddenly seems a haven of peace away from the chaos of Spring Festival.