Chinese National Holidays: Embracing Ambivalence?

Adding Oil:

Happy Chinese New Year! (or actually, Happy Spring Festival, which is the more precise English translation of 春节快乐!)

This is more so a Flashback post, as we didn’t do much authentic Chinese celebration here in the U.S. other than making dumplings and giving the red envelopes (or hongbao) with money to my nephews and niece. Hopefully next year JiaYou can comment on what CNY is like in NYC’s Chinatown!

This is a blurry pic of a spent fireworks shell that hit me in the shoulder as I was filming. Glad it didn’t hit me in the eye!

In the 7 years I spent in China, my CNY celebration experiences varied from the typical Western experience of hanging out at a youth hostel with other non-Chinese tourists while sightseeing around the country, to an extremely authentic experience visiting my wife’s hometown and being hit with a discharged firework shell (true story!), to getting out of China for a much needed break.

As an American of Asian descent, I wrote a previous post US National Holidays: Ambivalent Embrace? where I discussed how I am ambivalent about embracing certain US specific or Western holidays.

But when I lived in China, I had to decidedly embrace ambivalence. Even though I felt absolutely no connection to Chinese specific holidays, my Asian appearance made everyone assume that I was “one of them.”

When I went to holiday events like for Chinese New Year, or Mid Autumn Festival, or even Dragon Boat Festival, I actually felt peer pressure to not disappoint everyone and just conform to everyone’s expectations of the joy and warm feelings. At first, I didn’t know how to deal with my own cognitive dissonance, but as time went on, warm memories of holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving started to fade and to be replaced by new memories. So embracing my ambivalence worked out at the end.

(This actually is tied to the strange phenomenon that while growing up in the U.S., I felt I was more “Asian” and an outsider, and while living in China, I felt I was more “American” and an outsider. Other Asian Americans I met in China felt the same way.

At first, it irked me. I recall arguing with a vegetable vendor at an open air market in Shanghai’s Jingan Temple district (the equivalent of midtown Manhattan) that I really was an American

But perhaps that’s best left to a future Flashback post…)

Lastly, some thoughts about Chinese New Year in China from a Western perspective:

  1. It’s actually pretty dangerous! There are few regulations (though Shanghai enacted more controls, probably due to the human stampede that left 36 dead in 2015 on the Bund) and you can literally be walking down the street and suddenly a box full of fireworks starts launching next to you. During my first CNY in Shanghai, I saw fireworks streaming skyward within a few yards of my apartment window on the 11th floor. And kids often do it with little supervision.
  2. Despite having a full week off, it’s a headache to travel at the same time about 1.3 billion other people do. On the surface, the typical Western expat is thinking, “Wow, I have a government mandated 7 day holiday!” But in fact, it is the largest human migration on earth and you will feel the hit to your wallet too of increased prices. Many people will spend hours
  3. Traditional CNY is a rare insight into the best of Chinese family culture. But if you are lucky enough to have an traditional CNY with a close friend/relative/significant other, it’s an amazing cultural experience of eating (a lot!), visiting someone’s second cousin’s brother in-law’s house for tea, witnessing the weird hong bao “hot potato” ritual where you have to run after people to give them money before they escape,  and of course the 5 hour long government sponsored CCTV show that is actually pretty insightful if you understand a bit of current societal issues (and know some Mandarin).
  4. Ironically, First Tier cities are actually the best places to stay to have a quiet “staycation.” It may seem counterintuitive, but First Tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai will actually be much quieter because such a large percentage of the population are actually not from those cities. In fact, you can really get a sense of how many people are likely migrant workers from the hinterlands because of how empty everything is. So staying home and just chillaxing (and saving your travel money for when prices are cheaper) could be a better bet for those who can take their holidays later. Only caveat is that many restaurants close because their workers are off, so stock up on those groceries and Western TV shows with several seasons out (at about $1.50 per DVD, you get much more for your dollar than movies!)
  5. On the other extreme, consider travel outside of China. After several years of doing the CNY celebration inside China, it can get a bit stale, especially if you actually aren’t culturally Chinese. So Western expats will often try to go internationally for that nice, solid block of time. Admittedly, it will be a bit pricey since more Chinese are traveling abroad, but sometimes you just need to get out. JiaYou and I went to Thailand for CNY once, and it was a great experience!














Let us know what you think and share your experiences!