For many people on this side of the world, today is just another day of normalcy. Stores and shops open for another business day, traders prepare to start trading on wall street, and people mosey about their work waiting for the clock to strike ‘close’. However, for another billion or so people on the other side of the world who have spend the last week or so embarking back to the ‘家乡‘ (hometown), today marks a new year, a new beginning, and hopefully for many, new opportunities and new fortunes. Click here for a really cool interactive map about the mass migration that takes place during the Chinese New Year period.
Unfortunately for me, I haven’t been able to spend Chinese New Year in China since I was in elementary school because my parents didn’t want me missing so many days of school in those ‘crucial’ middle school and high school years. But every year, my dad would take time off every February and still go back to spend then New Years with my grandparents. I still remember the many trips we’ve taken to Costco before he left to buy those ginormous bottles of vitamins, boxes of chocolate, and new clothing for him to bring back to relatives and friends. I used to question why he always had to bring so much stuff home every year and he would simply say, it’s just what our culture does. It’s tradition. And we don’t mess with tradition. Although I didn’t really get it then, it’s a notion that I’m much more understanding of among other things now that I’m older. Leaving for college has really revealed a side of me that I didn’t really know I had– the side that’s actually super into knowing things about chinese culture and prideful of the background that I come from.
I remember back to when I was 9 dragging a bright red suitcase around O’hare International Airport of Chicago with my mom, my dad and my brother walking in front of me, navigating the way to our boarding gate. Aside from the businessmen and women bustling around with their briefcases clutched in one hand and garment bags swung over their shoulder’s with the other, there weren’t many other people in the airport in the middle of February, especially not travelling families like ours. Or at least that was the case until you reached the international terminal where the boarding gates were crammed with mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters flying home to the Far Eastern side of the world– Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul, Hong Kong, Manila, and Singapore to name a few for what is known as ‘reunion dinner’, or the first day of the Lunar New Year.
Although both my parents grew up in what the Chinese call the ”农村“ which is essentially the vocabulary for ‘rural village’, my mother’s family now lives in Xiamen (厦门), a large coastal city in Southern China while my father’s family still lives in the “农村” about 2.5 hours away by car. It actually used to be closer to 4 hours away when I was younger because the roads weaving through the mountains were in much poorer conditions back then. Nonetheless, we, like many other families, make the 30~ hour journey back home to our roots anyway because that is what Chinese New Year is all about– a time for families from near and far to get together and celebrate and wish each other an auspicious and peaceful new year.
New Year’s in China is also not the time to lackadaisically bring your B game when everyone else is on their A game. The mentality of the people is the redder the better and the more the better. Each household engages in a thorough spring cleaning before decking out their houses’ in red banners with auspicious sayings to bring good fortune. When I would walk into the courtyard of my grandparent’s village home, I would see bowls of stacked mandarins, red candies and small trinkets laid out as offerings before the portraits of my ancestors. In one corner of the courtyard, I would see all the aunties bustling around the kitchen, which has been exuding fragrances of savory and sweet since the early hours of the day, preparing for the ‘reunion dinner’ later in the night. And in another corner, you would see all the uncles continue cleaning and organizing the tables and chairs for everyone later. Every once in a while, the loud crackling of firecrackers welcoming another relative home would briefly startle everybody before they went back to what they were doing. Or if it was a family member arriving at our home, we would all gather at the front door and wait amidst the billowing smoke of the firecrackers to warmly welcome them home.
Together at the end of the night, we would all sit down together in front of tables piled high with delicious dishes of fish, dumplings, chicken, duck, noodles, and much more– each with their own significance to the new year– and enjoy the festive atmosphere of clanking chopsticks, loud laughter, and joyous conversation. Even though I always got ratted at by the uncles and aunties for not being able to speak hakka, it was just really nice being around family. As many of my first generation American friends know, our families in the US typically consist just of our parents, a sibling or two, a dog if we’re lucky, and maybe like a 7th aunt so I never really had any big family gatherings which is what makes New Years in China so special. But realistically, living an ‘American’ life, on an ‘American’ schedule, I don’t know when I’ll be able to do that again.
Even celebrating with my family here is difficult since our family in the US now finds itself even more fragmented than before with my mother in Naperville, my brother working in the city, my father in China for the new year, and me in Boston. Nevertheless, I would have to say that I must have done something well last Chinese New Year because this year I’ve been very blessed by the friends who have came into my life, agreed to put up with me, and decided to stay to become my family away from home and share these holiday celebrations with me. I’m more thankful than you all probably know and I wish all of our friendships the loudest laughs, the happiest memories, and the best still tolerable insults.
Happy Chinese New Year of the Sheep to all! And may your year be filled with prosperity, love, and beautiful memories.