My First Chinese New Year’s in China

The Lunar New Year has always meant Chinese New Year to me. At home in Hawaii, my family celebrates it with red envelopes from relatives and family friends, visiting Chinatown to see a lion dance, nibbling on lucky candy and sticky pieces of brown gao, and special New Year’s jook and jai prepared by my grandma, Poohpooh. At Wash U, I went out with my friends to watch the fireworks on Mudd Field and join the other festivities put on by LNYF.

Jane and me. A lot of Chinese phones automatically add filters– you can see how it made our eyes much bigger!

This year, I spent my first Chinese New Year in China. Chinese New Year here is celebrated with the Spring Festival (春节) when nearly everyone across the country enjoys a week-long holiday to go home and celebrate with loved ones. I was celebrating with one of my friends from Wash U, Jane, who was home in Suzhou over New Year’s this year since she would be departing for Argentina in late February to study abroad. 

Among the week of traditions and festivities, New Year’s Eve (大年夜) is perhaps the biggest single day of the Spring Festival. We began the day at the Suzhou Sam’s Club, buying some snacks (including a set of ‘American’ caramel corn and cream flavored popcorn) and fruit. Some fruit was for us, but the neat cardboard box containing two cantaloupes was to be gifted to friends during New Years visits later in the week.

In the afternoon, we walked three-minutes from Jane’s family’s house to her grandparents’. The mahjong table was set up quickly with the arrival of enough players and after a few rounds of careful observation, I brushed off my rusty skills and joined in. With Jane observing at my side, making sure I didn’t do anything embarrassingly stupid and followed all the rules (which vary from region to region, so the kind I played every couple of years with my family wasn’t quite the same as theirs), I managed to win twice before Jane’s dad joined the game and subsequently won every single one of the next five rounds. Honestly, the man is a mahjong god!

Eventually, we all started gravitating towards the dining table around as dinnertime approached. The table was already laden with cold meat and vegetable dishes, of which some were purchased from specialty stores and some homemade. Hot dishes came out later, one by one, as Grandma finished preparing them and replaced cold dishes, which had been quickly depleted as the whole family set upon them. I had enjoyed the odd cold ginger chicken before, but this was my first time eating so many cold dishes and it was a little strange at first, although I still thoroughly enjoyed everything. Still, I’ll admit that the moment the piping hot soup, still bubbling and broiling, took its place in the center of the table sparked a deep-seated excitement in me. Ultimately, in cold weather, nothing beats hot food.

The first round of food

The soup, much like many of the other dishes in the meal, were full of symbolic ingredients, representing good wishes for health, success, good luck, and wealth for everyone in the new year. Omelet-like dumplings, wrapped in egg instead of the dumpling skin floated at the top of the broth, with peeled quail eggs, water chestnut meatballs, and slices of winter bamboo shoot settling around the carcass of a whole chicken in the large pot. I recognized the chicken stock as something my grandma prepared during New Year’s as well. “It means we won’t starve next year,” Poohpooh had explained over the years. A whole chicken, including the head and feet, symbolized prosperity in the coming year.

That night when we got home, Jane’s dad handed each of us a red envelope (红包) containing New Year’s money (压岁钱) and instructed us to put it under our pillows. Because it’s 压岁钱yasuiqian, he explained to me, you must put pressure (压ya) on it! The two of us returned to Jane’s room to place our red envelopes. Jane lifted up her pillow and added this new envelope to what appeared to be a growing pile of them. Sheepishly, she explained that they were her red envelopes from last year. She laughed. “I’m adding extra pressure!”

This was only New Year’s Eve, and the rest of the week of the Spring Festival went by in a whirl of family, friends, majiang, and food. Lots and lots of food. 

The red envelope on the left Janes dad gave me and my grandma gave me the Hello Kitty one on the right.