Saturday, April 7, 2012

Enter the Dragon: Chinese New Year

I started writing this post about 2 months ago and then the computer (more specifically the internet) froze and I lost every brilliant and witty thing I had to say about Chinese New Year.  So, I start again. But remember you’re getting second-rate material’ve been warned!
Chinese New Year (CNY) is a cultural phenomenon.  It takes the fireworks of the 4th of July, the food from Thanksgiving, and the presents and spirituality-ness of Christmas, puts it into a bag, shakes it up and out comes CNY.  Of course, we didn’t experience all of this first hand because we took the advice of 99.9% of our friends here and left the country.  So while we were on the beach in the Philippines, we think the Chinese, and many other Asians in the East, were celebrating CNY.
CNY, also known as Spring Festival, follows the lunar calendar and, consequently, doesn’t have a specific date each year.  For 2012, CNY was almost the earliest that it could be -- the third week of January.  Businesses, such as banks, typically closed for 3 days, but it was not uncommon for employees (like at my husband’s company) to have an entire week off.  The festival can last for a few weeks depending on how a family chooses to celebrate.  When adding in travel time, the festival can disrupt life for about 30 days.
Literally the largest human migration on Earth occurs during CNY.  For many, many migrant workers this is the only time they are able to travel back to their home provinces to see family.  For those workers with young children, it might be the first time they’ve seen their children in a year.  It is very normal for grandparents to raise their grandchildren while moms and dads are far away trying to find better jobs.  It is very expensive for a migrant worker to travel back to a home province.  Most use buses or the train and only the lucky will have seats on the train.  It is not uncommon for a trip to a home province to take a ½-day to 2 days.  Can you imagine standing that long?
It was heart breaking to read stories of the workers in The Shanghai Daily as they described how much of their salary was needed to get home and how difficult it was to get tickets.  Most workers would have to stand at the ticket office all day in hopes of purchasing a ticket.  I imagine that it was difficult to loose wages for a day.  A new system was put into place this year to help ease the burden of purchasing a ticket.  The system allowed people to purchase tickets online.  However, as the man who was interviewed by the newspaper said, “I don’t have a computer and if I did I don’t know how to use one.”  Also, considering that most of China is still cash-based, I don’t imagine that he would have had a debit or credit card to pay for the tickets any way.
There are many different customs regarding CNY.  Homes and apartments are cleaned in preparation for a “fresh start” to the new year.  Gifts are purchased for family members.  I read in the newspaper that some people spend two month’s salaries on getting gifts for family members, and that is on a migrant worker’s salary.  It is common to buy new clothes to wear for the celebrations.  Homes and door frames are decorated with couplets (banners) to bring fortune and good wishes to the home.  Families spend time making traditional meals and dishes to share.
Another custom is the giving and receiving of “hongbao”, which are red envelopes filled with money.  Just like in the US at Christmas when we tip our favorite hair dresser, leave a gift certificate with our most trusted babysitter and whip up something special for our children’s teachers, the Chinese give money, too.  As an expat it is not uncommon to give your driver and Ayi a hongbao.  The color red is important because it symbolizes good luck and it is important that the amount is an even number.  Odd numbers are bad luck and the number 4 is also considered unlucky.  The Chinese pronunciation of the number 4 is very close to the word for death, so it is often avoided.  (In fact, at our apartment building, there is no floor 4, 13, 14, or all unlucky numbers for both Westerners and Chinese are avoided!)  Adults in the community also commonly give red envelopes to children, sometimes relatives, but not always.  
Similarly to how US companies might have Christmas dinners, companies here celebrate with CNY dinners.  Because of Jamie’s work situation we were able to attend two dinners, one without the girls and one with the girls.  At the first meal we were treated to some traditional Chinese opera.  I kept looking at the performer skeptically and I thought to myself, “That woman is a man!”  Jamie didn’t believe me, but I was so right!  At one of my language lessons in December, my teacher showed me a video of a man singing falsetto Chinese Opera.  She told me that he is very famous in China.  I don’t think we saw the “famous” performer, but I don’t think the practice is too uncommon.  The woman next to me asked, “How did you know?”  I told her that his over-sized hands gave him away!  I don’t mind Chinese food, but at this particular dinner I was not terribly impressed with the slimy food put in front of us.  Instead, I was drooling over the food at the table next to us...where the vegetarians from India were seated.  We ended that night at a local pub where I ordered a burger and fries...sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do!
The next night was a bit more fun and the food was better.  Jamie had to head to the hotel early alone to practice for his big performance.  By the time our driver made it back to the girls and I, and then back to the hotel, we were late. Ugh! Of course, it didn’t help that everything started 10 minutes early! If you know the McClintock family (just our part of the McClintock family tree... the rest of the family is fine) we’re usually a few minutes behind; just trying to be fashionably late, you know.
Jamie giving a English!
We walked in the door just as Jamie was giving a speech and being escorted to the head table.  Now we stuck out for having the only blonde-haired girls at the table and for being late.  Jamie did a great job with his speech and then it was time for the performance.  Unlike the night before, there were no professional entertainers, only company employees.  So, Jamie and some co-workers started off the evening with a traditional dragon dance.  Dragons in Chinese culture are not “evil.” In fact, they are considered good luck and protective.  This year was especially fun because 2012 brings in the year of the dragon, so the dragon chased out the rabbit (last year’s zodiac animal) and brought in the new year.

Jamie and some of the other performers.
The Dragon chasing the rabbit to bring in the new year.
Look at those mad chopstick skills by LBean!
She was eating a soup with tofu noodles.

One of the groups from Jamie's work performing a
dancing skit; it was very cute!
The rest of the evening passed with a varying array of performances by employees and raffle drawings.  We heard a lot of Michael Jackson and just a touch of Lady Gaga.  The best performance of the night was the dance group from the school that Jamie’s company is sponsoring.  (You can read about our visit to the school last fall here: Leaving the Bubble.)  The girls did great and it truly was the highlight of the night.  Although, I think the dance group would say meeting our girls might have been a highlight for them (all that blonde hair) and taking pictures together.

Students from the Hope School performing.

Our girls posing with the dancers from the Hope School.

LBean & EBean's Version of a Dragon Dance:

1 comment:

  1. Very informative! It's actually nice to know that some things just don't change, no matter what country you are in! LOL. Love you!! :)