Spring Festival in China, Chinese New Year in U.S.

This post is part of the Chinese New Year Blog Hop 2016 hosted by Two Americans in China. A blog hop centers around a single topic and allows readers to discover new blogs.Check out the other blogs at the bottom of this post!

You might have heard a few things about Chinese New Year already. You’ve probably heard about the firecrackers and maybe even the money in red envelopes that older members of the family give to young children to celebrate the festival.

And as you would expect with a major family festival, it involves a big family meal and trips to see relatives.

But there are seven other things about the Spring Festival that are less widely-known, so with the new year upon us, I want to take a look at some of the aspects of the festival I learned about when I lived in Xi’an that you might not know about. You can always read all about the first Spring Festival (it just so happened to be my very first blog post).

I’ll also share how we celebrate 春节, Spring Festival, since we now live in the U.S.

1. The traditions differ all over China 

China gets coined as a homogenous society, and always lumped as one, massive “communist” enterprise, in the minds of most Americans, however, Chinese traditions differ on Chinese New Year (and the rest of the year for that matter).

Dumplings are more often eaten in the North and 年糕, rice cakes, consumed in the South. Beyond the Northern and Southern divide in traditions, from province to province, county to county, city to city, town to town, and village to village, you’ll find differences. They may not be staggering, but they will put a new twist on centuries-old traditions.

At my in-laws, dumplings were consumed on the eve of the New Year, and a coin was placed in one of the dumplings. Getting the dumpling with the coin signifies wealth and prosperity in the year to come.

We still eat dumplings here in the U.S., and ZJ normally whips up other Chinese dishes. When we lived at my parents’ place, we were surrounded by good Chinese dining options, in fact, last CNY, we invited a few friends and coworkers to Little Sheep Hot Pot, a chain straight out of China. We also cooked a CNY meal for my folks.

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This year’s feast composed of garlic black bean pompano fish with kidney beans, fragrant chicken, and dumplings.

2. People will sport new clothes 

It is traditional to buy new clothes before the New Year to wear during the festival, because it symbolises a new start for the new year. Ideally, everything you wear from head to toe should be a new purchase.

Chinese people also like to clean the whole house to prepare for the festival and welcome in the new year. Others will freshen up their appearance and get a new hair cut. Hair salons raise their prices dramatically before the new year to take advantage of this!

We’d bring my in-laws new jackets, socks, shoes, or undergarments, and not adorn them with new clothing from head to toe.

ZJ and I normally bought new 秋衣, thermals and wore fresh garments. ZJ did indulge in a hair cut before at least one Chinese New Year.

We no longer adhere to this tradition; we buy clothes for one another whenever the feeling, or need, strikes.

3. Train tickets can be hard to come by 

Shops, restaurants, and street vendors close up shop for what feels like an entire month! Places to feed yourself are far and few between, okay, for more like two weeks. The city of Xi’an shuts down; I know this is common in third- and fourth-tier cities. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is headed home for the New Year. The cities witness a mass exodus, as most people return to their ancestral home. I learned this in returning to Xi’an by way of Beijing during CNY 2011:

When I arrived at the airport, I went to the appropriate ticket counter. ZJ had purchased my ticket, because as is common during Spring Festival, tickets are impossible to come by. I had planned to take the train home, but there wasn’t a single ticket available for the day(s) I wished to travel. I purchased an outrageously expensive first-class ticket, because there were no economy class tickets available. This ticket, luckily, was fully-refundable. At the ticket counter, I was informed that my flight would not be leaving. They continued by saying they had no idea when it would leave. The flight couldn’t leave Xi’an due to engine failure. Very reassuring…

 Eventually, they informed all the passengers that we would be taken to a hotel. I ended up in a hotel room with a thirty-something Chinese woman, for whom I am very grateful for. She looked out for me. When we finally exited the hotel, sometime after 11:30 p.m., she made sure I was with her every step of the way, that we sat on the same van back to the airport, and when I frantically couldn’t find my passport (I KNOW!), she stayed behind looking with me, instructing the driver to call the hotel. Finally, it was recovered; it had fallen into an open pocket in the back of the seat in front of me. You cannot begin to imagine my sense of relief.

The plane took off some time around 2 a.m. I finally arrived, via the airport shuttle, at the Bell Tower; ZJ was waiting for me. 

Needless to say, don’t plan on visiting China during CNY unless of course, you’re visiting relatives. I’d caution against planning a trip around Golden Week as well. Golden Week is planned around Oct. 1, National Day, and as you guessed it, usually lasts a week.

We don’t concern ourselves so much with the 春节 migration in the U.S.; I’m still hypnotized into reading up on the Spring Festival goings on plastered all over the Web. In our efforts to gather ingredients for the two-person feast, we stopped in at Bismarck’s Asian grocery. For a small market, and taking into account other visits, the store was buzzing. Can’t say due to CNY or because it was the weekend. Either way, there were locals buying dumpling wrappers to make their own rendition, I presume, of dumplings.

4. The animal representing that year is everywhere

In the U.S., the Chinese animal signs are fairly well known, but if you come to China around the New Year, you will see the animal of the year to come wherever you look.

I remember when it was the year of the horse: there were horse toys on sale in all of the shops, and everybody was using four character phrases containing the character for horse. There were horses all over the television shows and parodies on social media.

This year, 2016, is the Year of the Monkey, and dozens of soft toy monkeys, and references to the Monkey King, a character from Journey to the West, are plastered everywhere. 

If your animal sign is the same as the one for the coming year, then it is traditional to wear red. A lot of people don’t want to dress fully in red, so they will just wear red socks or even red underpants. If you’re really traditional, you should wear red every day of the year, but I never saw anybody doing that. 

You won’t see too much monkeying around in the U.S. Interest in CNY has surged, and noticed it more so this year than in our last year stateside. Various Chinatowns hold events, and in New York’s Times Sqaure actor Liu Xiao Ling Tong, the original Mr. Monkey King, took to the streets, presenting a form of dance, flash mob-like, in Peking Opera style. Full disclosure: ZJ and I recently took up watching the 1986 TV adaptation of the Chinese classic Journey to the West on Youtube. It’s campy, but great fun. Highly recommended (there’s English subtitles if Chinese intimidates you).

5. Everybody stays up to watch the CCTV Spring Gala 

On Chinese New Year’s Eve, it’s traditional to stay up late to usher in the new year, and to keep everybody entertained, there is a major New Year Gala on Chinese Central Television.

When I ived in China, I was surprised to find that all across the country, people are glued to the same show: a mixture of traditional performances, comedy and singing. The best way to describe it is something like a variety show, and it’s one of the most-watched programs anywhere in the world. To get on it is a huge achievement, and when I watched with my in-laws, I was surprised to see non-Chinese on the program!

We don’t partake in watching the Spring Gala, but as I mentioned we’ve been enamored with the 1986 TV adaptation of the classic Journey to the West, coincidentally preparing for the Year of the Monkey.

6. Digital hongbao, lucky money red envelopes, are all the rage 

New year red envelopes with lucky money inside them, 红包, are usually given by parents or older relatives to young children. Older children who are earning their own money may give them to elderly relatives and to the older generation.

But what you might not know is that red envelopes have now gone digital! In the last year or two, sending lucky money using the messaging app WeChat has become trendy, with people scrambling to snatch them up. You don’t have to send money directly to one person, either. You can set up a chat group with all your friends, send a couple of yuan in total between several people, and everybody tries their luck. It has become a new form of online entertainment, and one that is highly addictive!

Major companies have also jumped on the bandwagon by offering thousands of red envelopes online to be snatched up in viral marketing campaigns, rather successfully I might add.

In the U.S., we don’t exchange hongbao, however, we did receive a nicely stuffed red envelope from my former boss (Thank you, Katherine!).

7. Eating fish is an important part of the New Year’s meal 

I already mentioned eating dumplings is important in northern China, but fish is also a crucial part of the New Year’s Eve meal, because fish in Mandarin is 鱼 (yú), and it sounds the same as the character 余(yú), which means surplus, and is used in the phrase 年年有余, may you have a surplus every year.

For this reason, fish has an important symbolic place in the New Year’s Eve banquet, and it can’t be left out.

As part of our CNY meal this year, we splurged on a pompano fish. In the year of the sheep, we had Little Sheep Hot Pot (I’m just realizing how appropriate that really was). ZJ made couplets we hung around the front door and one-character messages to adorn the doors of my parents’ house.

We couldn’t find the right kind of red paper in Bismarck to honor the year of the monkey. We splurged on the ingredients for a somewhat proper CNY two-person banquet. We had to send our best wishes via WeChat, QQ, and Weibo, instead of paying our respects in person.

It may not always prove easy to celebrate CNY in the U.S., but we have the most crucial component: each other.

 Wishing you all a happy and healthy new year: 新年快乐!

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26 thoughts on “Spring Festival in China, Chinese New Year in U.S.

  1. Susan Blumberg-Kason says:

    I always loved the oranges in Hong Kong at the Chinese New Year. Decorations using clementines and little kumquat trees. But I just found out today that oranges aren’t popular in Taiwan at Chinese New Year or in some other places in China. Fascinating!

    • maklu001 says:

      Wow, didn’t know oranges, clementines, or baby kumquat trees served as CNY decor. Yet another manifestation of how traditions really do differ all over China!

      • Susan Blumberg-Kason says:

        And I didn’t know that other parts of China didn’t celebrate with oranges, clementines and kumquats. They are everywhere in Hong Kong and even at the center where I volunteer in Chicago’s Chinatown. I passed out clementines and kumquats to my seniors class last year and they all marveled that I understood Chinese culture. Most are from Taishan and other places in Guangdong province. I never realized other places in China didn’t make a big deal about these fruits, even though I spent quite a few CNY in central China. Go figure!

  2. Amanda R. says:

    Traveling in China during a Golden Week has become impossible. We have resorted to traveling around SE Asia instead during long holidays. It’s great because we are visiting new places, but there is still so much of China to see!

    • maklu001 says:

      You’re right, traveling China is a never-ending cycle…there’s always more to see! Where have you traveled around in SE Asia? We’ve backpacked through Thailand and Laos.

  3. Leigh Anderson says:

    Funny how we both did a “CNY traditions you might not know about” but we picked almost different ones. Chinese traditions are certainly more varied than most people outside of the country realise.

  4. jekkabelle says:

    I think my kid would really love a Hongbao this year, but I don’t even have the envelopes. When we went to the Chinese grocery I offered to buy him some of the cakes (round chocolate ones with vanilla filling) that his ayi gave him a big box of last year, but I think that big box of them might well be the last he ever eats. I hadn’t known about the fish, but as a spinner, I made use of the animals are everywhere last year to get an excellent variety of sheep and goats.

    • maklu001 says:

      My former boss used a CNY Starbucks gift card envelope to present me with hongbao…definitely worth stopping in the coffee chain’s closest location to you to see if they still have any inventory left. I’m with your son as those cakes are not the finest Chinese pastries around, and a box box would also be my last. Did you go bananas buying monkey decor this year?

  5. CrazyChineseFamily says:

    This CNY was very interesting as all Chinese here in my hometown thought it was on Saturday… Guess their surprise when their beloved Spring Gala wasn’t showing up 😀
    In the end we just had to reschedule but it’s interesting how seperated please people can become from these traditions when living abroad for many years

    • maklu001 says:

      We celebrated on Saturday, too, mostly so we could have fully-cooked meals on Sunday (by using leftovers, repurposing huangmenji as a dish into a noodle soup). Did you end up watching the Gala? Living abroad can most certainly break down the need to adhere so strictly to tradition.

  6. AC says:

    I find it endlessly fascinating how different parts of the world have different holidays as their main “family” holiday. In the west, it’s often Christmas (or Thanksgiving in the US); in Asia, New Years! I once visited a friend in Tokyo over New Years and it was amazing how empty the city was, as everyone was off with their families.

    • maklu001 says:

      It’s quite fascinating. I’d say CNY more relates to Thanksgiving (I don’t celebrate Christmas, at least not in the traditional sense). Would love to visit Japan…some day!

  7. Katherine says:

    A little late to the party… but so glad to read about these traditions! We’re missing the weekly lessons on Chinese language and culture at the store.
    And thanks for the shout-out! ❤

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