Chinese New Year Through the Eyes of an Expatriate
By: Stephanie Morel
February 9, 2021
Happy Chinese New Year 2021 Ox Zodiac sign, with gold paper cut art and craft style on red background
Standing on an apartment rooftop in Shanghai, China, the smell of smoke and gunpowder fill the air. Successive explosions of firecracker strands ring out from down below echoing off the tall buildings in every direction. Looking up at the night sky, it is hazy, but bursts of light shine through the smoke and clouds when fireworks flare out in waterfall-like streams from the center. Looking up to see the light and colors, flakes start to fall. It is snowing. It never snows in Shanghai. But it is snowing tonight, and it is magical. We all wonder if this is related to the fireworks. It must be; the particles of paper and ash causing the clouds heavy with ice cold precipitation to fall on us bundled in our coats and hats watching from the flat roof. Whatever the cause, it is beautiful and the snow falling only adds to the ambiance of cheer, laughter, and awe. On this magical day, years ago, we were gathered as expatriate friends, watching fireworks to celebrate the most important holiday of our host country. It is Lunar New Year, Spring Festival or Chun Jie (春节), Chinese New Year or CNY as it is often abbreviated.
Growing up in China as an expatriate kid, an American living abroad, I didn’t know what to call the holiday. To me it was just vacation, a two week to month-long break from school when we got to travel. Spring Festival equaled trips to McDonald’s in Hong Kong and the taste of a real hamburger. It meant playing on the beach in Thailand and swimming in hotel pools. Apart from the traveling, there wasn’t much else traditional about our celebration. Only later, after returning to China as an adult, did I begin to understand the traditions and significance of Chinese New Year.
The Lunar New Year is celebrated throughout China and many other Asian countries to mark the end of winter and the beginning of spring according to the lunar calendar. On the Gregorian calendar, the first day of the Chinese New Year occurs between January 21 and February 20, depending on the year. Just like our Western New Year’s Eve, celebrations begin the evening before the first day of the lunar New Year. However, the Chinese New Year lasts much longer than our New Year’s Eve celebration. In mainland China, individuals will get seven days off of work. But, traditionally the end of the Spring Festival (the Chinese New Year holiday) is the Lantern Festival which is celebrated on the 15th day of the New Year (“Chinese New Year,” 2020).
New Year’s Eve reunion dinners with family are probably the most important part of the celebration. In modern China, family members often live apart, spread throughout China between provinces. For this reason, during the 40 days surrounding Spring Festival, China sees the world’s largest annual migration of people. It is estimated that under normal conditions (before Covid-19) around 3 billion trips are taken in mainland China during this Spring Festival period (“China Will Rack,” 2020).
Once all the family has gathered, a huge feast of favorite and traditional dishes will be prepared together and eaten. Some of the most common items on the menu include fish, pork, dumplings, noodles, hot pot, spring rolls, sweet sticky rice balls, and new year’s cakes. Almost every dish symbolizes prosperity or luck. The fish is a homophone for “surplus” and the dumplings look like gold nuggets. The hot pot and sticky rice balls point to the coming together as a family, and the noodles symbolize long life. Children and young unmarried adults look forward to hong bao (红包), which are gifts of red envelopes with money inside given by older relatives and friends. The bills in the red envelopes should be crisp and new and usually in even amounts such as eight because the Chinese word for eight (ba, 八) sounds like the word for “wealth” or six (liu, 六) which sounds like the word “smooth” (“Red Envelopes,” 2020). People will traditionally visit friends or relatives during days following New Year. They bring gifts of candies, nuts, and fruit, typically oranges and mandarins, the names of which in Chinese sound like “success” and contain part of the word “luck” (Arthen, 2017). Decorations for the holiday are often red and gold and include cut paper or poetry written in beautiful calligraphy on doors and windows with wishes of prosperity and fortune. It is considered lucky to wear red for the New Year as well.
This year, Chinese New Year falls on Friday, February 12, 2021. It marks the beginning of the Year of the Ox (also known as the cow or bull). Each year in the lunar calendar corresponds to an animal in the 12 year zodiac cycle. Last year was the Year of the Rat. We all know how that went! I don’t know about you, but these days I am all about getting a fresh start and having a reason to celebrate. If that sounds like you, go ahead and bust out your red clothes and decor, cook up some delicious dishes with your family, and light off some firecrackers (or maybe a sparkler), and welcome in the Year of the Ox. Whatever way you celebrate, may this New Year be prosperous and blessed!
Stephanie Morel, friend of current Baker College DEI Council member Nicole Boelk. Chinese expatriate as both a child and adult. Adoptive mom to two wonderful children born in Hong Kong and Kyrgyzstan. Stephanie says, “a big piece of my heart will always belong to China and the Chinese people.”