“Welcome to China! Gan Bei!” “Laoshi , welcome to our home! Ganbei!” “Laoshi, over here! Ganbei!” “Drink more! Drink more!” Melody’s mother-in-law urged as she poured more wine into my glass while Melody’s father reached over to refill my other glass with baijiu to “ganbei!” (bottoms up!) yet again. It seemed as soon as I set my glass down, another member of Melody’s family raised their glass at me expectantly. I was lucky to get a few bites of food in before the Spring Festival toasts started again.
Spring Festival, also known as Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year, is the largest and most important holiday in China. Lasting fifteen days, it is a time of reflection on the passing year and of paying respects to those who have passed. Spring Festival is a fun time of overwhelming colors and sounds, a time for gift giving, warm wishes and forgiveness. It is also a time that brings families together to celebrate and continue generations-old traditions meant to drive out bad luck in favor of good luck and financial prosperity.
Spring Festival tends to fall between January 21 and February 20 depending on the Lunar calendar. This year of the dog started on Friday, February 16, 2018. The holiday is celebrated in many different parts of the world including Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, Cambodia, Australia and various Asian communities in the West. The two schools I work at gave us the entire month of February off, which was a much-needed break after my strenuous (but awesome!) trip to Tibet.
In the days leading up to the holiday, I made sure to stock up on groceries as the stores closed for the new year (some for up to two weeks!). It’s also an important tradition in China to get your hair cut before the new year, “lest your uncle die,” so my fellow American teacher friend, Carol, and I had fun getting our hair cut and dyed before she left to visit her family in Guangdong (Read her awesome blog here!). Other new year’s traditions include buying a new outfit, cleaning the house top to bottom to sweep away bad luck and make room for incoming good luck, and hanging symbolic paper cuttings and red banners with couplets on entrances to the home.
Much of these traditions stem from the story of the monstrous Nian/the origin story of the Chinese New Year. The tale goes, back in ancient times, a monster called the Nian would appear on the darkest night at the end of every year. It would attack viciously killing villagers and eating both children and livestock. The terrified villagers consulted a wise man who told them the monster was afraid of loud noises and the disliked the color red. He instructed the people to fill bamboo with gunpowder that was lit to create small explosions – a prelude to the modern string of firecrackers. The wise man also told everyone to wear red and decorate their houses with as much red as possible.
It ultimately worked! The monster was scared away, and from then on, everyone looked forward to the new year, with the Chinese word for year (年) being named after the nian and the color red symbolizing happiness, wealth and good luck.
The atmosphere in Lishui at this time was eerily calm. I was used to having to dodge people, buses, and cars left and right when driving my electronic motorbike, along with hearing random screams and other noises outside my window at all hours of the night. However, with most of the town leaving to visit relatives for the holiday (Spring Festival brings about the largest annual mass human migration in the world), the streets were virtually empty. The only major source of noise I had now was the big screen across the intersection outside my apartment playing the same new year’s songs on repeat.
At this time, I also had a visit for a few days from another lovely American teacher, Muriel, who traveled from Cangnan, a small town in nearby Wenzhou. Some of the places we visited included the Lishui museum, the temple-like astronomy building, and Nanming Lake. I was most excited about getting to introduce Muriel to her first Kbbq experience along with Lishui’s best hotpot restaurant. Deeelicious!
On Spring Festival Eve, my 4th grader coworker Melody was very sweet to invite me to visit her parent’s home. Lunar New Year’s Eve is as important to the Chinese as, say, Christmas eve or Dec 31st is to those in the West. On this day, families typically eat dinner together then hunker down in front of their televisions to watch CCTY’s Spring Festival Gala performances at 8pm. The show can last up to five hours! Melody tells me usually only the old people and children really enjoy it. Melody’s ten year old daughter, Joy, is one of my top primary students and has a beautiful bubbly personality. Joy was dying to watch the show and was very adamant we had to be back in time for her to watch it.
It was fun to help Joy top dishes with sprigs of cilantro. Joy tried her best to serve bits of food onto my plate across the table with her chopsticks, sometimes hilariously having difficulty – her mom came to rescue her as sticky mochi caused her chopsticks to be stuck to my bowl. It’s common practice to put a bit of food in the bowls of those who outrank you, so I tried my best to remember to put some into the bowls of Melody and her mother in-law since I was sitting between them both.
As we live in Southern China, most of the dishes were more seafood-based than one would find in the North. For instance, during my first Chinese New Year’s Eve in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province back in 2011, we spent a good portion of the evening making dumplings up the wazoo. This year, the highlight of our meal was lobster elegantly draped with noodles, fish, mollusks, and some Shanghainese hairy crabs – also called Mitten crabs- and no dumplings.
Each dish served has a deep cultural significance for the new year. Often, the items are served because they have homophones, similar sounding words, related to good auspicious messages or shapes. For example, the Chinese character for fish yu2 ( 鱼) , sounds like the word for prosperity yu4 (裕). Dumplings are served for wealth because they look like old times’ gold ingots, long noodles for a long and happy life, mustard greens also for longevity, oranges for luck, etc.
As Joy received red packets from her family members, Melody and I had a laugh watching the antics of our coworkers messaging digital red packets back and forth to each other on our Wechcat (the main social networking platform in China).
During Spring Festival, it is customary to hand out red “packets” or envelopes filled with money to younger children or unmarried family members. The practice has since extended to close friends, neighbors, and as bonuses in the workplace. With the advancement of technology, and the fact that nearly everyone in China has a smart phone, has made it super convenient to send red packets electronically.
Walking around after diner to view a water show at a nearby park was fun, but I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed in the lack of the crazy firework activity I experienced my first time teaching in China eight years ago…
My first Chinese New Year was both scary and exhilarating. When the year of the Rabbit arrived, February 2011, I was a bright-eyed 21 year old who was already half a year into teaching English at a university in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei Province.
That night, for Spring Festival Eve, I was invited to a coworker’s house to help celebrate. As the Spring Festival Gala played on TV, we stood around the dining room table making dumplings galore. Constant loud noises and booms could be heard from outside, and after dinner, we excitedly rushed out to the parking lot to light our own firecrackers.
The atmosphere was amazing and overwhelming. Firecrackers and fireworks both making sounds all over the city. Smoke was everywhere. At times, we had to duck and cover our heads with our jackets to avoid the sparks of failed firework launches. I was happy to light a string of firecrackers that were longer than I was tall.
Sadly, this year is the first year that the government in Lishui banned the private use of fireworks and firecrackers associated with New Year’s celebrations. Originally meant to help keep the nian monster away, frighten ghosts, and wake a sleeping heavenly dragon who would bring plentiful rain for crops, firecrackers and fireworks were now organized into large spectacles to usher in the new year…
On the first day of the new lunar year, I had lunch with my coordinator and fellow third grade teacher, William. There, I was able to meet his 80-year-old mother, wife, and some of his wife’s former students. I learned from William that during the first days of Spring Festival, older people like his mother will generally abstain from meat in favor of a vegetarian diet. Some of them will continue to maintain this diet throughout the fifteen days of the holiday. I wondered if this stemmed from any Buddhist roots, as I know Spring Festival also falls on Maitreya Buddha’s birthday and many Buddhists abstain from meat because of this.
The day after this, a fellow middle school teacher, Vivian, invited me to her home for dinner. Unbeknownst to me, it was her mother’s birthday, and I was so grateful I had brought them a gift. We had delicious food, including Peking duck, sticky rice balls, and sweet lishui-style donuts. Vivian’s cup was the last with liquid left after all the toasts, so it was deemed that she would make the most money this year. I spent most of the evening playing Kinect Sports with Vivian’s son and niece, along with playing with Vivian’s mother’s dog.
My final visit to a coworker’s family was actually sprung on me the morning of. The day after visiting Vivian’s family, I woke up to a call from my fourth-grade coworker, Raina, telling me to be ready in an hour…Our first stop was the city of Yunhe, famous for its wooden toys. Since Chinese New Year is a time to honor one’s elders and families visit the oldest and most senior members of their extended families, we were there to bring gifts and pay our respects to the grandparents who raised her. After stopping in and sampling some hard-boiled eggs and oranges, we then drove to Jingning to see the rest of Raina’s family.
Jingning is a gorgeous town, with beautiful green scenery and wooden bridges. There is no rail line here, so the only way to reach the town is by car or long-distance bus. Raina’s father owns a store in the mushroom market area of town, selling various dried mushrooms, medicinal remedies and dried snacks. We did many activities including meeting Raina’s extended family at lunch, visiting the new “Pheonix town” under construction by the local She minority to become a tourist site, riding a four-seater bike along a river path, and lots and lots of toasting and well-wishing throughout the family dinner.
Spring Festival is one of my favorite times to be in China! It was a lot of fun to spend it this year bouncing around new districts in Lishui and meeting my coworkers’ families and friends! With all the red decor and good-luck symbols everywhere, I have a feeling 2018 is going to be a great year. ^_^v
第舞季芳芳祝大家新年快乐，狗年大吉，2018发发发，狗年旺旺旺 🐕 🐕 🐕