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!

 

JiaYou:

我喜欢中国的新年,大家贴春联、挂福字、迎新春、放烟花/放鞭炮、走亲访友、发红包以及吃大餐(由于雾霾太严重了,现在大城市烟花和鞭炮禁止燃放)。这些都是我们过年必不可少的活动。过年大家除了吃还是吃。

小时候觉得收红包是一件很快乐的事情,长大后就越是怕过年。因为见到的每一位亲戚都要发红包。有时发红包还不是最可怕的事情,最可怕的事情是被大家问东问西的然后拿来跟邻家的孩子做比较。

新年的庆祝各式各样,以下是我对新年的看法:

1)全国人口大迁徙,火车票一票难求。

大部分的农村人口在大城市工作,过年大家都赶回老家过年。尽管火车票提前60天开始销售,很多人还是会抢不到票。由于买不到票,最后很多人没办法就只好到黄牛那里买票,虽然价格翻了翻,但是回家过年的心还是喜悦的。当然,回程买票也是大家头疼的一件事情。

2)全国放假一周

全国人民都从大年除夕开始放假至新春初七开始上班,一般外地的上班族都会提前几天向公司请假,赶回老家和父母团圆过年。由于大多的人都赶回老家过年了,所以大城市就显得格外冷清,平日里繁华喧闹的城市突然间安静了许多。

3)到处放烟花和鞭炮

除了现在大城市禁放烟花爆竹,其它的地方都按照往年的习俗大年除夕夜开始燃放烟花鞭炮直至初一晚上。大人和小孩都会在大年除夕燃放烟花,大街小巷都是闪闪发光的烟火及欢笑声。我出生于烟花之乡,大部分漂亮的烟花我都在故乡免费的观看过了。

4)拜访亲戚

一般大年初二,大家就开始走亲访友了。一般习俗是在亲戚家吃一顿饭,客人离开时将红包给亲戚家最小的孩子,亲戚会在客人离开时将红包还给客人(此处红包叫回礼,亲戚会象征性的收一点,回访时会在原先的基础上再加上之前收的份额),大家就这样你来我往年复一年的延续下去。

Let us know what you think and share your experiences!