New Years by definition is a day of un-adulterated festivities which generally involves lies about what we'll do to change and how. It's a day we take for advantage of, with no care as to the significance of the day and do whatever we want because hey, it's the new year. However, in China, New Years is a whole other beast. The following is my reflections of New Years I had the pleasure to experience in China.
New Years Cometh...And Hath Arrived
It's 11:30pm on February 18th: the night before the New Year. The Year of the goat, or sheep, depending on who you ask. We are standing around outside around these shops selling flowers, which are meant to represent good luck, and for which people place inside their homes or in front of their businesses. We are standing around looking at the mass of people flocked at the different stands, all hope of an amazing Hunter S Thompsonesque night are quickly squashed. It was just a normal night, with lots of people talking, buying shit, and living their lives. Rain cometh down one minute, stops the next.
Then, just as suddenly as we had been standing there, we were back in the car, on our way to the open field we call the snack bar to celebrate the new year the proper way: fireworks, fireworks, and more fireworks!!!
Waking up that same morning (because it was about 2am when we returned home), having accomplished little sleep with all the excitement built inside, because really, who can sleep? And walking out towards the kitchen, I spotted the dining room table and how absolutely covered - with fruits of all sorts and candies - it was. It's a tradition for the new year. And it looked absolutely amazing. And delicious.
For the actual New Year day, one of the traditions is to have one meal be completely vegetables (no meat), and while I don't know why that is, it was fine by me. I mean to be honest, I've barely had meat compared to veggies my entire time here.
Despite the excitement brought on the night before, the actual day was pretty boring. We did nothing. Had lunch and dinner together, and that was it. But the actual day isn't what makes the holiday so special.
Gregorian vs. Lunar
For the uninitiated, the Gregorian calendar is the calendar a majority of the world uses. Created in 1592 and named after Pope Gregory, it became the definitive calendar for the most of the world to use. Honestly, I just assumed this one was the one everyone used by default, but that's what being a small town person does to you: makes you naive with the world.
Starting in 1949, the Chinese adopted the use of the gregorian calendar as well, perhaps in part to be a part of the rest of the world; but despite use of it, old traditions die hard and so when it comes to important holidays, like Spring festival or even birthdays, they stick to the date on the lunar calendar. This can be pretty confusing for people (foreigners) and I was totally confused at first, and kind of still am. That said, it's still very interesting and kind of cool.
The best way to describe it is to say the lunar calendar goes by the moon, and the gregorian by the sun. The dates between the two are constantly at odds; times between the two sometimes shorter or behind, and this year, the lunar calendar was nearly a month behind the gregorian, which is why Jan. 1st according to the lunar calendar happened on Feb. 19th on the Gregorian. When I think about how it was January 1st but February 19th, it made my head spin, but once you just accept it and don't fight it, it becomes less of a headache.
Spring Festival Phenomenon
Spring festival feels the equivalent to being in a war zone. Now I know that sounds ridiculous, but from the near month long celebration, my first impressions were that of a surrealistic experience living on the outskirts of a heavy war zone. The constant barrage of fireworks - some loud and heavy like a bomb, some fast and steady like a fully automatic weapon - was intense; and this was happening at all hours of the day and night. Whether it be 3am or 4pm, people shot off fireworks of all sorts with no thought or care for those sleeping or not.
To me, the weirdest part was how quickly I got used to the constant fireworks. I felt uncomfortable with that, since were this to be a real war zone, to know I could be comfortable with such intense noise somewhat unsettles me.
Despite all the fireworks, that was really just one part of the craziness. One important aspect to know about the festival is what some refer to as the great Chinese migration. They say this because during Spring festival nearly all businesses or about 95% (just my rough estimate whether it be accurate or not) of businesses were closed. And when they all closed, the people travelled to their hometowns, or relatives hometowns. So to be safe, it's recommended (sort of in a joking manner) that you don't go anywhere. Stay where you are, and don't be stuck in the sea of tuna fish smacking each other as they rush to get to their destination, hopefully in one piece.
I of course did no such travelling, whether that be sad or not. It was nice, relaxing, and full of fireworks, drinking, and hiding away from people giving out money.
That last part refers to the red envelopes. This is important. There are subtle differences in different parts of the country (well subtle differences)as to who can general do the passing out, but for the most part married people passing out money (generally from 5 元 to 100 元 or more if you are rich and like someone well enough)to children and single people. It's meant to help out with potential success in the new year, whether with school or finding a loved one or that job that will change your life for the better. In ZhongShan (中山市), where I currently residing in, it is only married people who pass out money to singles and children, but in some other cities, it's normal for older (my age) single people to also hand out money to children younger than them. I honestly can't say which cities have one rule or the other, as it's still confusing to me despite having successfully passed through the holiday. The key to doing it is when you go to a party where children are present, or in my case go to work and young students come in, you should have red envelopes readily available at all times, and be ready to hand them out. You don't just grab it and say thanks, you fight to not receive it, to be modest, say no no no, even though you know you will get it one way or another. And you don't, and this is worth repeating, you don't ever open the envelope in front of the person that gave it to you. I didn't need to learn the hard way since it's kind of disrespectful to do so. It's a tricky game, but if played right, you can potentially walk away with a lot of money. Sometimes it's good to be a kid.
This is the End...
All in all, the new years here was fun, fascinating, at times exhausting, at other times horrifying, but wholly exciting. Never in my life have I experienced such monumental celebration about something I find dull and simple as the new year. Yet here it's so much different, so much more than just the beginning of a new year. There's not really the bullshit 'I vow to do..." thing we pretend to do in the west. No, here the new year truly symbolises a new beginning. A chance to be better than before. Out with the old bad luck of the previous year, in with the new luck. With the year of the goat/sheep/ram (Wow this was a while ago), there's potentially some luck to be had. As long as you wear red that is.