Spending the Chinese New Year with Chinese families gave me an insight into how the holiday is really celebrated
Just under a month has passed since China’s Spring Festival was celebrated all across China and beyond. The Spring Festival, known commonly in Western countries simply as ‘Chinese New Year,’ marks the beginning of the next year based on the traditional Chinese lunar calendar. Although many people living outside the vicinity of a major Chinatown or Chinese household may have never come into contact with it, Spring Festival is one of the most important and widely celebrated holidays globally. This year’s celebrations to welcome in the year of the rooster, which happened on 28th of January but are broadly celebrated in the surrounding weeks, were no exception, and the festivities were lively as ever.
I was lucky enough to be able to spend this year’s New Year in China – living with Chinese friends and their families over the holiday period. As a person that had had little to no interaction with Chinese culture in my old-fashioned, non-multicultural English village before, I thought that this would be a potentially once-in-a-lifetime type of experience, so I threw myself into it straight away, and it proved to be one of the best things I had ever done.
My first stop was Shandong – a province just north of Shanghai, widely known for its beautiful mountainous regions and water cities. I stayed in Zibo, a city just east of the provincial capital of Jinan. Here, my friend, her friends, her family, and I would visit many temples to pray for good luck and health in the New Year, visit museums and mausoleums to show respect to ancestors, and on one day we even scaled Mount Tai, seeing not only many more places of historical worship, but also reaching the peak of what is one of the most famous and notoriously hard-to-climb mountains in China, as seen on the Chinese 5 yuan banknote.
This would prove to be a recurring theme I would notice with all of the families that I would end up staying with, but the first thing that occurred to me when I arrived in Zibo was the levels of hospitality I was shown. Not only was I treated with the upmost respect and care, I was treated as a member of the family. I distinctly remember my friend’s father saying, through our language barrier, ‘as long as you’re under our roof, you’re one of us.’ This resonated deeply with me – I thought of Western holidays, for example, Christmas. Would my family be so welcoming and warm over the biggest holiday of the year that they would let a stranger stay with them? Would they treat them like they were family, too? I doubt it.
Before I could even blink, my time in Shandong had passed, and I was off to my next stop. As sad as I was to leave, I was excited to see the differences in the ways in which people celebrated the Spring Festival across the country. No better way to do this was to travel to the opposite side of the country, moving my way all the way to Hainan, the southernmost provincial island of China. Here, the climate was a lot different than that of Shandong, and the traditional food was also nothing alike. I don’t know what I had expected from a borderline tropical region, but here, seafood and coconut rice were common traditional New Year dishes.
In Hainan, we spent a lot of the New Year period simply going to the beach and enjoying the sun, sand and sea together as a family (again, a family that I was warmly welcomed to be a part of). Together, we explored the island, doing a road trip along the coast from the family’s hometown down to Sanya, a tourism dominated area that is known for having beaches aplenty, as well as beautiful summery temples. In this time, we were able to watch a traditional Hainanese performance (very confusing for those of us still learning Mandarin, but musically beautiful), go on several river tours of mangrove forests and visit Haikou’s movie town- home to a handprint of Jackie Chan!
For this family, the most important elements of the New Year could be boiled down to food and fireworks. Throughout my stay, I consumed more than an offensive amount of crab, and had more than a week’s worth of sleepless nights from the constant lighting of fireworks outside. These were not experiences I had lived at home, but I was still most impressed by the way the family treated me like family, an experience I had lived. However, there was something so humbling about being welcomed into a family that wasn’t your own – a family that could barely communicate with you, understand your culture and knew nothing about the place that you had come from. Every single family member even gave me red packets- traditional envelopes that older members of family give to younger members as a gift during the Spring Festival.
On my way back to my school, I managed to squeeze in a stop at Nanning, the provincial capital of Guangxi. Just in the way the previous two places had been distinct and beautiful in their own ways, Guangxi was home to a host of charms all its own. Situated in the south of China, it is renowned for homing many of China’s major ethnic minorities. Here, I explored several museums that celebrate the province’s ethnic diversity. I also visited more temples to burn incense to welcome in luck for the year to come.
Now, sitting back in my university in a comfy and familiar city, I am sad that my time travelling has come to an end. More so than this, I am more grateful for this opportunity that I received than I can convey in English, let alone in Chinese. It honestly made me feel guilty that I couldn’t communicate more fluently with the families and friends I was able to stay with. At the most basic level, my homestays reinvigorated my interest and admiration in Chinese people and their culture, motivating me to study Mandarin harder, and perhaps one day, I shall be able to revisit these families and properly show them my thanks.
To those unsure if homestays, or travelling in China is for them, I would advise them to take the plunge and push yourself into unknown territory in the same way that I did. Learning about other people’s cultures by experiencing them for yourself is a pleasure for everyone involved, as not only do you get to experience something completely new, but the native people that you interact with feel respected and appreciate the effort you put into learning about them and what makes them who they are.