This week, all of China and much of the Asian world went home to their families, arms full with big fruit baskets and fixings for dumplings, to celebrate the lunar new year and the coming of the year of the ox. Since Chinese new year is a time for families to get together (some poorer people take much of their savings every year to make the trek back to their home towns to be with extended families) there is often little place for foreigners, which is why I was extremely fortunate to get the chance to spend a Chinese new year with friends and their families. I thought I would just write a short post and reflect on my Chinese new year experience.
Saturday the 25th was the day before 出席, or the day before
the night before "official" new year. On Saturday, I took a bus out to Qing Pu, a suburb of Shanghai, to eat dinner with my friend and her family. Her grandma, aunts, uncles, cousins, and nieces and nephews were all there, I believe over 10 people in all, and we shared a few dozen dishes together. They mostly spoke Shanghainese to each other, so I didn't have a great opportunity to talk with people, but they all made sure I had a lot of red wine (which, according to them, is Chinese New Year drink) and would periodically signal to me to "ganbei" or "cheers." The dinner included a lot of seafood, a particularly "lucky" dish, as well as an array of beef and pork dishes (normally, duck and chicken would also be traditional food, but this family stayed away from it because of fears of bird flu). The feast then ended with fresh fruit.
After dinner, we all went back to my friend's aunt's house to play Mahjiang.
My friend told me that in her family, most of her family members do nothing but work and play mahjiang. While I know that was quite the overstatement, they played (I watched, since it is a 4 person game) for nearly 4 hours. While Mahjiang is played with tiles, from what I could understand of the rules, it could easily be a variation of Rummy if played with cards, and watching her family get so excited over it made me think of my family playing cards. For most of the nights of Chinese New Year, this is what her family did, although I only watched it this one day.
The next day, chuxi (or "new year's eve" so to speak) I had dinner with an American friend and his wife, in laws, daughter, and other friends. It was a great mix of Americans and Chinese people; fortunately, his in laws made the food, so we got to have a great Chinese feast, complete with good wine and bourbon. My favorite dishes were the kaofu, a spongy type of beancurd particular to Shanghai, and babaofan, or 8 treasure rice. After that, we watched the Chinese New Years Eve special on TV. I was told that all Chinese people watch this on chuxi (although I later found out my other friend's family did not, they were playing Mahjiang), and one in our company works in Chinese television, so we watched in and out. To me, the highlight of the program was an international riverdance group, as well as a performance by some poor American exchange student they must have plucked off the street to speak pretty poor Chinese in a skit. As the evening went on, the performances and dances got more and more colorful (probably because their audience was getting more and more drunk), and outside, people were lighting fireworks (not illegal in Shanghai).At midnight, I felt like the entire city had come out of their houses to light fireworks, and the scene was spectacular. I wish I could explain what it was like to have literally hundreds of fireworks going off at the same time all around the city, so to better illustrate, I added a video I took at midnight that at least somewhat shows the magnitude of the midnight fireworks show. However, this scene lost its luster when it continued late into the night and then started up again at 7 in the morning, not giving me much time to sleep.
The next day, Monday, I went back to Qingpu to visit my friend and her family. For breakfasts and snacks, we had what was called "gao" or cakes made of sticky rice and then stuffed with red beans (see my friend next to them in the picture)
For dinner that night, it was just me, my friend, her mother, and her 85 year old grandmother, who (other than my Nana) is probably the cutest older woman I have ever met. We ate perch (the fish traditionally eaten at Chinese new year) in a fantastic soup with fish balls along with bamboo shoots, some pork, and other veggie dishes. Then, the next day, we went exploring around Qingpu, which seemed to me a fantastic community. We walked by street vendors, browsed through local shops, and passed by a local temple built in the Ming or Qing dynasty (we are still not clear). Then, for dinner, my friend's mom made 18 dishes for us and her extended family, including more perch, rice cooked in lotus leaves, eel, and chicken strips for my friend's 1 year old niece (although we all had a bit). After that, while much of the family went off to play Mahjiang, we went to sing at Karaoke, which is always a lot of fun and a great chance to practice Chinese.
Overall, I found that Chinese new year is actually a lot like Christmas in America; some go to worship ancestors, some go traveling, but everyone should be with family, and there is a huge emphasis on food. It seems the most traditional way to spend Chinese new year is with as many family members as possible, but some watch TV, some play games, some go to other countries. The traditions seem to vary, something I didn't expect. But while each family has it's own way of spending Chinese new year, it is a good chance to see family and eat a lot of food, something that many people in China don't often get to do. I was very lucky to be able to witness a part of it.
* For those who don't know, the character in the title, 牛, is the character for ox. It is pronounced "niu" and therefore sounds a lot like "new." It is a goofy and overdone play on words.