One of the things I’d been looking forward to most this year was celebrating Chinese New Year in China. Even in Dallas, there’s a huge Chinese population giving rise to some great Chinese New Year traditions in the city. I pictured Chinese New Year in Shanghai to be even crazier, with wild festivals, parades, and fireworks. Basically, the ending of Mulan.
However, the weird thing is, during Chinese New Year, the cities empty out! The month of February was like living in zombie land. All my favorite restaurants were closed and I didn’t even have to push people to get on buses! That’s because, during Chinese New Year, tradition states that you must return home. And not just where your family is living now; you have to return to your ancestral home.
Luckily, I was invited with my teacher to accompany her home, meet the family, and celebrate the lunar New Year: Chinese style. Here are some of the things I learned from celebrating the holidays with my adopted Chinese family for the week:
1. You eat a lot of food
When my teacher told me there was going to be lots of good food, she wasn’t exaggerating. Chinese New Year was spent all day practically gorging myself. I sampled so many different meat dishes, coconut milk, BBQ, potatoes, lotus roots, noodles, spicy foods, cakes and candies, and fruits. And let’s not forget the rice. It was kind of like Thanksgiving in the terms of everyone gathers together and shovels it down. I must have gained quite a few pounds that day!
One of my favorite parts of the day was learning how to make baba, a type of Chinese cake. While my teacher ridiculed me for my unsightly rolls, I felt like I was contributing to the process and becoming more involved in the festivities. And they didn’t taste so bad either!
2. There’s no sleeping
I originally thought no sleeping would be a piece of cake for me. American parties are the same are they not? And I quite frequently find myself awake at the same time as your more nocturnal animals. Staying up until 12am would be no big deal.
Problem is, China has slightly different ideas about no sleeping. Like, wake up at the crack of dawn no sleeping. Not even joking, I got to “sleep in” and I was ushered downstairs to begin the festivities (which started off, of course, as a feast) at a sharp 6am. And I was the last one awake!
Sum it up to say, I was not expecting super early mornings. Isn’t this supposed to be vacation? Guess the Chinese have different ideas about how to bring in the New Year!
3. Firecrackers go off continually
Fireworks were another aspect of Chinese New Year that I didn’t think I’d have to adjust too. In my head, we’d just be lighting off dragon shaped fireworks like Mary and Pippin do in the Hobbit. However, perhaps I’ve been doing it wrong, but fireworks seem to be a night activity.
Not for Chinese New Year! If I hadn’t have been dragged out of bed at 6am, the sounds of fireworks continually going off might have woken me up. (Emphasis on the might, I sleep like a bear in hibernation.) Literally, fireworks were continually going off from the second I woke up until I went to sleep.
However, this is largely in part to the tradition of sweeping the grave.
4. Sweeping the grave
If you study Chinese culture, you learn a lot about how important respect for elders is in Chinese culture. While Western culture idolizes youth, Chinese culture places a great emphasis on ancestors and their wisdom.
Nothing really struck in this aspect as much as going with my teacher’s family to sweep the grave. For New Year’s, you have to go to your ancestor’s graves to pay your respect. For us, this involved a two hour car ride and hike through the countryside to find tombs. The grave sites were big and embellished. The tradition is to leave gifts for the ancestors for their new lives. Chinese accomplish this goal by burning fake money. The youth then bows to the graves three times each asking for their ancestor’s blessings. Fireworks are decorated around the grave and upon leaving, they are set off, creating the cacophony of sounds I heard all day.
The weird thing is, going to the graves with a big family felt so normal and not gloomy or depressing at all. Unlike Western culture, there was no reason to be solemn at the gravesites and you could still joke and laugh. It mainly just felt like the family was acknowledging who had come before them and what they had given them; not mourning their loss. I actually really like the thought of revisiting your ancestors year after year with your family and seeing what changes have happened. It really taught me that you can acknowledge the dead and your loved ones without constantly mourning your own personal loss.
5. Red decorations are everywhere
This was perhaps the one aspect of Chinese New Year that lived up to my expectations. Red is an auspicious color for the Chinese, and as such, red paper cut outs are hung everywhere to welcome in a prosperous New Year. I loved seeing all the decorations adorn my teacher’s house.
6. Chinese New Year, is first and foremost, a family holiday
Chinese New Year places such a great emphasis on the family, another aspect that reminded me of Thanksgiving. While my teacher was born under the one child policy, I met so many cousins, aunts, and uncles, that I barely noticed. During the New Year, not only did we share many meals together, we huddled around the stove together for warmth, played mahjong, watched the news, and just generally spent all our time together.
Before spending the holiday with a real Chinese family, I never really comprehended how important family was to the celebrations. More than anything else, Chinese New Year is time to spend relaxing and catching up with your family. Being around a family that welcomed me in, sharing jokes, falling asleep on each other, eating meals, and just generally enjoying each other’s company gave me a real sense of being home that I won’t soon forget.
Are you a fan of Chinese New Year? Have you ever celebrated a foreign holiday with a family? How did it measure up to your expectations?