An Amateur’s Guide to Chinese New Year

EDITED! I already realized I forgot to mention my other favorite part of Chinese New Year: the incredible dragon dances! See how much I still have to learn? Sheesh. Anyway, be mesmerized with me. 

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Two years ago we visited San Francisco for a weekend with our best friends that involved more good food than I can even talk about. (Wait, I will talk about it for a second. The salmon at Jackson Fillmore and this boozy, floaty dessert situation that I still have dreams about. The noodles at House of Nanking–I know it’s wrong that I crave American Chinese while I’m living here but sue me, because those noodles were ridiculous. Sorry. And of course getting totally schooled at Blue Bottle for asking for a vanilla latte. Excuse me, princess, we don’t do syrups here. TAKE ME BACK! And thank you, Mary Hiemstra, for being our food compass in SF forever.)

As I was saying, all I care about when I travel is the food. That’s not what I was saying, but that’s what I just remembered about myself when I wrote that paragraph.

As I was trying to say, we happened to visit San Francisco during Chinese New Year, and in fact, on the day of the biggest Chinese New Year parade outside of Asia. Although we had already committed to moving to Hong Kong at that point, until I saw the parade I literally, and I am justified in the use of the word here, didn’t even realize the holiday was happening. That is how thoroughly, massively, lopsidedly Western my brain and life and everything was in 2014.

Luckily we washed all kinds of naïveté right down with a prompt move to Asia six months later. And here I sit, on the threshold of Chinese New Year in 2016, still with only a vague clue of how to celebrate and all the traditions of the holiday, but I am going to tell you what I do know so far…

Above all families celebrate together with amazing feasts, and the city puts on a fabulous fireworks show above the harbor. Hong Kong does mean “fragrant harbor,” after all! In mainland China, this is often the only time families are able to travel, so plane tickets throughout Asia skyrocket, and it’s generally like traveling on the day before Thanksgiving, but for a lot of February. It’s vacation time!

When I have asked about the religious side of Chinese New Year, most answers vary. It’s a lot like Christmas in that it has roots in religion (buddhism and the Chinese zodiac), but the range of ways to celebrate is great, and no matter if they are hardcore feng shui devotees or more casual celebrants, it seems mainly people enjoy a fresh start, being together, and building up some hope for good things to come. That’s my American translation at least.

Want to wish someone a Happy Chinese New Year? Gong Hei Fat Choi! It’s different in Hong Kong because we speak Cantonese, so don’t try this in Beijing. But do try it here! You’ll find the English translation is spelled a million ways. Don’t freak out like I did.

Also, there is a lot of money changing hands in little red envelopes. These are called lai see (lie-see) packets, and the translation is basically, “Here’s some good luck!” Lots of banks and businesses give them out for free with their logos, especially the fancy country clubs, so then when you give a packet, it’s also a chance to say, “Yo. By the way, I belong.” If that sounds harsh then think of putting your salary on your Christmas wrapping paper–that’s what it feels like to me. (Yes, I’m stuck on this, but sometimes parts of another culture will just never click, and frankly these are mostly expat country clubs anyway.) You can also buy fabulous, stunning papercut packets like these ones that I love to collect and use to get crafty.

Generally, people at the (perceived and constructed!) top of a social structure give packets down the line. This can be uncomfortable for my West-coast brain. Married people give packets to single people. Adults give packets to children. Tenants give packets to their building staff and employees. On it goes. There is a lot to know about the timing of the packets, and of course, how much to include in a packet. From what Google and my Chinese friends have explained to me, it’s okay to give packets beginning on the first day of CNY, February 8 this year, and up until about two weeks after that. It’s bad luck to give anything early, so don’t do it! Never, never give bills that include (or add up to) the number 4. Four=homophone for death. And crumply bills? Tacky.

My favorite part of the holiday, however, is the absolutely gorgeous decorations. I will always, always, always choose Mexican folk art as my ultimate favorite, but Chinese New Year decor is climbing up the ranks. It’s gorgeous. Cherry blossom trees are trucked in and explode with blooms just in the knick of time, and mini mandarin orange trees pop up all over. Plus massive red lanterns dangle from nearly every roofline, and it’s all blinged out in gold. It’s very Isaac Mizhari in the sense that MORE IS MORE.

I try not to beat myself up for not knowing more about this holiday, and honestly everything about China, sooner, but I am grateful for the chance to learn about it now. There is a lot to learn in the world and you can’t know it all. One thing at a time. When immigrants arrive in America, half the country expects them to speak English and behave like all American dingbats, but I am happy to tell you that Hong Kong has been nicer to me than that. I’m working on my cultural literacy on behalf of all the new Americans who are figuring it out one awkward encounter at a time, less the resources and privilege that I’ve been given here.

Gung Hei Fat Choy, everybody!

cny kai and duncan 2015

Cultural appropriation or learning through play? Hmm.

P.S. If you want to learn more about cultural awareness in China, and by extension Hong Kong, I recommend this blog post by American-lawyer-in-Beijing Stan Abrams. In a nutshell: Don’t be an asshole, and you’ll be fine.

6 thoughts on “An Amateur’s Guide to Chinese New Year

  1. Tiffany

    Gung hey fat choi back at you, sweet friend!
    Agreed about the slow-going in learning Chinese culture even though we live here. Thank you for the grace you have given us all in this post. 🙂

  2. Maryann Shaw

    Do you know if couples give the envelopes to single people forever? Or do they cut them off at like 40 or something?

    1. Holly

      That is a good question! I will ask. I do know that Hong Kong is especially awful when it comes to single women. For example, when you register at immigration, the form options for marital status are: married, divorced, widowed, bachelor, or spinster. GREAT.

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