A young American celebrates Spring Festival with his Sichuan family
  ·  2023-02-09  ·   Source: NO.5-6 FEBRUARY 9, 2023
Dylan Austin Walker and his girlfriend Zhou Xin buy fruit and vegetables using digital payment at an outdoor food market in Bazhong City, Sichuan Province, on January 18 (YIN KANG)

'Very tall," "a righteous man" "not your average American," "highly adaptable" and "a communist," Zhou Xin's family has many colorful ways to describe her boyfriend, Dylan Austin Walker, who hails from the U.S. state of Massachusetts.

To celebrate Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, on January 22 this year, Walker traveled to Zhou's hometown of Bazhong in Sichuan Province to mark the occasion together with his extended Chinese family. This was his third visit to his girlfriend's laojia—which literally translates as old home and refers to one's native place.

"Spring Festival is kind of like Christmas in the U.S. when family members reunite and share food together, but, for me, this Chinese holiday has a stronger atmosphere," Walker told Beijing Review in practically flawless standard Chinese.

Walker has been studying the Chinese language since he was a child. In 2016, he attended Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU) for his undergraduate and postgraduate studies and he currently works in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan Province in central China, which is roughly 950 km from the southwestern city of Bazhong.

Walker had previously partaken in Spring Festival celebrations at Chinese schools and overseas Chinese associations in the U.S., but experiencing the longstanding tradition in Bazhong was very different. "In the U.S., it's mainly about having dinner together and watching performances; it's hard to really experience the traditional customs," he explained. In addition, he feels that when it comes to celebrating festivals, China's bigger and smaller cities all have their own traditions, with the latter perhaps boasting a slightly more festive atmosphere.

Savoring the experience 

"The first two times, I arrived in Bazhong relatively late [right before Spring Festival], so I didn't get more involved in the preparations [in the lead-up to the holiday]," Walker said. This year, he got to experience a few local Chinese Spring Festival customs, for example, preparing smoked meat, a local holiday staple, in Zhou's aunt's village.

Zhou's family lives in downtown Bazhong and as smoking is the process of flavoring and cooking food by exposing it to smoke from burning or smoldering material, most often wood, the area has several regulations in place for doing so, e.g., requiring people to smoke their meat at designated areas. Zhou's aunt lives about a one-hour drive from the city center, where families have their own smokehouses or fire pits to cure their meat.

"We mainly joined in by cutting down the branches from the pine and cypress trees and adding them to the fire—to smoke the meat," Walker said.

The smoking process allows the pine and cypress scents to penetrate the meat, injecting it with local flavor; plus, it also preserves the meat, according to Zhou.

"It's one of my favorite Sichuan specialties, and I have it every time I come to Bazhong," Walker added.

Zhou's relatives also hosted a barbecue in Walker's honor, with the family sitting around the warm stove, eating and chatting away. After a while, the children started pulling Walker and Zhou away from their hearty meal to set off some fireworks together. The kids all gathered around Walker and bombarded him with their curiosity: "Why are you so tall?" (he is 185 cm), "Did you get a Ph.D.?" Walker patiently replied to all their questions.

"We all wish them a happy life," Zhou's cousin said about the transnational couple.

Dylan Austin Walker and his girlfriend Zhou Xin hold sparklers at a village in Bazhong City, Sichuan Province, on January 17 (YIN KANG)

Happy together 

Walker and Zhou first met in 2015 when Walker was a high school graduate making his way across China during a month-long trip. Zhou was a sophomore in college at that time and kindly helped Walker buy a ticket to enter Beijing's Summer Palace, an imperial garden from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). They kept in touch and sparks soon flew.

"Because of her, I became even more determined to come to China to pursue my studies," Walker said. That is how he ended up at BLCU.

"We've been together for more than seven years but were in two different countries or different cities in China for a long time because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was mainly his persistence that kept the relationship going," Zhou said.

"I think that given we were able to overcome these obstacles over the past few years, no matter what issues the future may hold, we'll be fine," Walker added.

Today, Zhou's family is very supportive of the couple, but at the very beginning, when Zhou's mother first heard her daughter was dating an American, she strongly disapproved of the relationship. Nevertheless, Walker managed to win her over. "After spending a considerable amount of time with him, we concluded Walker was a young man with a strong sense of righteousness," she said.

"As long as Zhou is happy and they are happy together, we support them," Zhou's family members all reiterated.

Zhou has traveled to the U.S. on two occasions and has met Walker's family there. Now, they all stay in touch via a group chat on social media.

Last year, Walker proposed to Zhou and they plan to get their marriage certificate this year. Although marriages between Chinese and foreign citizens in China require a stack of paperwork, Walker has already acquainted himself with all the related procedures.

"I feel Walker is gradually becoming part of the family," Zhou said. She further added he is rather special compared with other expats, mainly because of his extensive interest in China's development and culture.

At first, Walker couldn't understand the local Sichuan dialect, but now he can cope with the accent. "He even got used to the spicy food," Zhou laughed.

"I hope that in the future, I can also come to Bazhong at other times to see more different things." Walker said.

The development of China-U.S. relations is another one of this couple's focuses. As the two countries' relationship hasn't exactly been very smooth in recent years, Walker hopes that ordinary people in both countries can do their part to improve the bilateral engagement through people-to-people exchanges. He himself has been introducing the real China to his family members and friends in the U.S., and also presents the daily life of Americans to his circle of connections in China.

"Only this way can we promote exchanges, mutual understanding, respect and trust between the people of both countries," Walker concluded.

(Print Edition Title: Love Knows No Bounds) 

(Reporting from Bazhong, Sichuan Province) 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

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