I have experienced 3 spring festivals here in Baoding since moving here as a student but this year’s is the first that I actually spent with a Chinese family. Since it’s the quietest time of the year I usually spend it in my room. Luckily, this year, together with another friend, I was invited to spend it with a Chinese family.
Spring festival is a very big deal here, like huuuuge! To put it into context most Chinese people work 24/7, especially those that run their own businesses, there is no such thing as a weekend in China. The restaurants, banks, shops etc are open everyday with the same working hours (no shorter hours on weekends). I don’t know how they do it, we get 2 days off every week back home and still whine about being tired. But when the spring festival arrives they get to shut down their businesses and rest for at least a week or 2 before the hustle starts again. However as I recently found out, they rest the Chinese way which still involves a lot of activity. This year spring festival fell on the 27th of January, it changes every year because it is decided by the lunar Chinese calendar but is usually between 21 January and 20 February (read more here) and lasts a total of 15 days, now that’s how you celebrate a new year!
New years eve: This is when they have the reunion dinner. This would be the equivalent of Christmas dinner or the American thanksgiving dinner though I think the emphasis on people getting home for this reunion dinner is greater in China. People travel across the country taking up to 35 hour train journeys to get home – some having to stand the entire trip! Almost impossible to get a train, plane or bus ticket during this time and the roads drown in traffic. Fortunately the family we went to hang with lives right here in Baoding. We joined them for the reunion dinner which as I found out has a type of set menu. It is a must to have fish, lots of meat dishes (mainly pork and chicken dishes), glutinous rice cake, a type of steamed bun made from maize flour and persimon fruit or noodles. There are all sorts of superstitious reasons behind each dish but that would require a whole other blog post. And undoubtedly because it’s a celebration there will be some white spirit/baijiu somewhere on the table.
I made the mistake of sitting next to my friends grandma, she would not let my bowl sit empty. She kept putting food in and insisting that I eat more even when I told her I was stuffed. Chinese people usually force you to eat a lot on regular occasions, their biggest fear is letting a guest leave hungry, but this time it was relentless. I think she spent more time feeding me than she spent eating. And even when it wasn’t meal time there were snacks in the living room that we were encouraged to eat. Lots of sweets, a variety of nuts and fruits, again all them have a reason for being there (read more here).
By the time we were done eating it was time to enjoy CCTVs Spring festival gala which is quite a spectacle. Its a variety show that runs for 4-5 hours ending past midnight. It is absolutely ridiculous and must be a nightmare to plan. They broadcast live performances from at least 4 different giant stages in 4 different cities and each performance could have hundreds of performers trained down to a T, in step, in sync, not missing a beat. The set designs are over the top, everything you can think of and more is done. At around midnight my friends parents and grandparents began making dumplings which are eaten on new years day. I didn’t join in on wrapping them though because my wrapping skills leave a lot to be desired.Dumplings are eaten on new years because they resemble silver or gold ingots used as currency during the Ming Dynasty and symbolize wealth.
On day 2 breakfast was basically an all you can eat dumplings event. We had a choice of pork or mutton dumplings, best eaten dipped in a mix of black vinegar and chilli sauce. After that we accompanied my friend to go bainian which is when they pay a New Year call to the houses of extended family and friends. His first task though was to kowtow and give new years wishes to his grandparents who in return gifted him with a red envelope containing 168RMB, yi liu ba in Chinese which sounds like 一路发 yi lu fa which means being prosperous all the way down the road.
Day 3 is usually when the extended family eats and drinks together. Day 1 and 2 are usually just for the nuclear family, though if one is married they usually visit their wife’s family on day 2. So on day 3 my friends cousins and their families came over to his grandparents house for dinner.
So naturally we feasted again, the white spirit flowed and answered tons of questions about Africa. Before and after dinner we hung out with my friends nieces who I found out are cleverer than most kids their age. We talked about their self confessed bad drawing skills and how peculiar they though my hair was. They then gave me a crash course in how to write which just became a process of looking at random doodles. We had a good time but before long they had to leave and of course we took pictures before they left.We only spent 3 days with my friend however spring festival lasts 15 days, ending on the lantern festival (Yuanxiao) when sweet glutinous rice balls with various fillings are eaten. This is also the last day we hear the firecrackers and fireworks exploding every 2 minutes which are believed to ward off evil spirits. The loudest days are new years eve, new years day and the lantern festival. All in all it was a great 3 days spent eating, brushing up on our mandarin and learning new words.
Happy new year! 🙂 鸡年快乐！