Happy New Year, everyone! The traditional Chinese calendar is a lunisolar calendar, and today is the first day of the New Year. (Note: for most purposes China now uses the Roman calendar like Western countries). Before this week I had only been in China for New Year’s once before, and I spent it in my apartment with a teammate. I had read many journal entries from students about how they celebrate the holiday; families, at least in northern China, have very similar traditions. Some of those traditions aren’t held to as strongly in the cities these days, but the most important customs still are.
This year, a friend invited me to celebrate with her family. She invited me way back in October or November, and I wasn’t 100% sure it would actually happen. I haven’t actually spent that much time with her, but it turned out to be a real invitation, and I had a great time with her family. When she invited me, I was envisioning that it was for the evening of New Years Eve. This past week I found out that we were actually leaving the evening before New Years Eve, when she and her dad got off from work, and I’d stay for two nights. Staying overnight with strangers is more intimidating than just going over for dinner! I didn’t know exactly what we would do or what the plan was for the two days. I wasn’t sure if I was going to a dinner where they would try to get me drunk or what other awkward and difficult things might come up. And the whole time I was there, I never really knew exactly what and exactly when things would happen. I am a planner, by nature, so I had to get over myself and go with the flow. It all worked out well, even through my confusion.
She and her parents were very hospitable and treated me like royalty. They kept telling me to sit and eat. From the moment I arrived, there were plates with peanuts, pistachios, sunflower seeds (all in their shells), almonds, raisins, traditional Beijing candy, apples, and clementines on the coffee table. Apples and oranges are traditional foods during this time. They have special meanings, I think, but they are also the seasonal fruits right now. I ate a lot of fruit and nuts during the two days. It was very hospitable and kind.
In the late afternoon of New Year’s Eve, we went to my friend’s grandparents’ house, a few minutes away from her home. This was her father’s parents, who get dibs on New Years Eve. They were going to spend the evening with her mother’s parents on New Year’s Day. Her parents and grandparents cooked a meal of 10 dishes, a number of perfection. Starting with the fish and going clockwise: a whole steamed fish, shrimp with cucumbers and bell peppers, slivered green beans with pork, squid (I think) with garlic shoots, pork knuckle/feet, pork ribs, stir fried cauliflower, cold sliced pork and beef (I’m not how to describe this, but it was really good), stir fried peas, cold chicken. It was a delicious meal! With 10 dishes, I could not like a couple—the squid and pork knuckle—and still have a very satisfying meal.
A whole fish is a very traditional dish for New Year’s Eve. People love homophones in Chinese (and there are lots of them, because there are fewer sounds than in English). To have fish is pronounced “you yu” and there are other words also pronounced “you yu” that mean to have abundance. Eating fish on New Years Eve is a hope for abundance in the coming year.
With my friend’s parents and grandparents, ready to enjoy our meal together. Although the grandparents grew up in Shandong province, where the etiquette surrounding meals is quite complex and the drinking culture is very strong, they have lived in Beijing for a very long time so it was a very comfortable meal. My first year in China I lived in Shandong, so that’s more of what I was envisioning (without knowing that the family has roots there) Grandpa said that he’s lived in Beijing so long even he doesn’t understand all the customs anymore!
We didn’t stay too long after dinner, because Grandpa and Grandma usually go to bed fairly early. On our way home, we stopped to set off fireworks. If you have ever seen me near sparklers, you know how I feel about fireworks. If you haven’t, just know that I do not like to hold sparklers. And they are legal in Michigan. I am pretty sure that nothing anyone was setting off last night would be legal in Michigan. In the United States, we leave big fireworks shows to professionals. Not so in China. Here anyone can buy fireworks, although only for 10 days in Beijing this year. For the last couple of days they could be set off 24 hours a day. My friends home is in the suburbs of Beijing, so the rules are not as strict as where I live (although I’m not sure in the end it makes that much difference). The fireworks started at about 6am on New Years Eve and there was a low level rumble for the whole day (it stopped for a minute or two once or twice). We set ours off early in the evening in part because there would be fewer people.
In that area, people were setting off the fireworks on a street outside of housing communities. It wasn’t a main throughway, but there was a car or two and bicyclist or two that drove down the street while we were out there. The above photo is pretty bad as far as photos goes, but it gives you an idea of the situation. The fireworks were in the road with the spectators on the street. Various groups of people were along the road, setting off their own fireworks. It was somewhat terrifying, and I’m sure being out there at midnight would be totally terrifying.
Once the fireworks were done, we headed back to the house. With fireworks in the background, we settled in to watch the annual CCTV gala on TV. It is a national show that lasts for four hours. Four hours of short dramas, musical acts, comedy sketches, a tribute to mothers, dance numbers, acrobats, and a patriotic piece at the end showing China’s leader doing many humanitarian things. I liked the dancing and acrobatic pieces the best because they were easier to understand!
At about 10:30pm, we started making jiaozi, or Chinese dumplings. They supposedly look like coins (or some coin of the past), so eating them as the new year is coming is supposed to make you more fortunate in the coming year (do you sense a theme?). We made the dumplings together, including the dough. Rolling the dough out into perfect little circles is not easy! This batch was a shrimp and a chive-like-vegetable. We ate them shortly before midnight. They were delicious, as dumplings usually are. We went to bed shortly after midnight, with the rumble of fireworks in the background. When I woke up around 6:30am, the fireworks rumble was starting again. And the final tradition I experienced was eating dumplings for breakfast. I think there is a reason for that too, probably to ensure more fortune.
It was a fun few days, and I was so thankful to be welcomed into a family to celebrate this holiday!