When you think of China, what are the first things you think about? Fortune cookies, panda bears, rice? Well one of the things I think about is Chinese New Year. Celebrated according to the lunar calendar, it’s China’s biggest festival, with people enjoying up to a week off work. People shut up shop in the big cities and go back home to small villages and towns to celebrate with their families.
Ever since I started learning Chinese, I’ve wanted to be in China for lunar new year, even though our university held new years meals, and some fireworks were set off at Lakeside in Nottingham, it just didn’t come close to videos I’ve seen of being in China.
This year, I finally got the chance to be in China for the holiday, I was in Chongqing and a new friend of mine invited me to her house for Chinese new years eve 除夕, which is the most important day. Usually on this day, the whole family gathers and eats a huge feast, with no less than 10 different dishes. Everyone in the family sits down together to make dumplings (one of my favourite Chinese foods) and will watch CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala on TV, four hours of almost torture for locals and foreigner as the performances aren’t very awe-inspiring and the songs are full of propaganda messages with titles like A Beautiful China Rises (美丽中国走起来) and Without the Communist Party, There is No New China (没有共产党就没有新中国). No matter how corny it is, I wanted to be watching it and complaining with everyone else before setting off fireworks at 12am to scare away the evil ‘nian’ monster who comes once a year.
But unfortunately I didn’t get to experience a ‘typical’ new year. I went to my friends house and there was no dumpling making, her auntie would be making dinner for my friend, her husband and son, her brother, her parents, two uncles, her grandma and me. I asked if she could manage by herself and my friend told me it was fine, her auntie could manage. I couldn’t hear any sizzling of oil in the pan, nor could I smell garlic, ginger or chilli, as is usual with Chinese cuisine.
Soon enough, dinner was ready, I went to the kitchen table and there were two hot plates on the table and two big metal bowls, one spicy, one not. My friend’s auntie brought various vegetables and fish to put in the bowls to be cooked and that was our 年夜饭 (big new years dinner). I was upset not to have any dumplings or tens of dishes to choose from. Because I’m not good at eating Chongqing spicy food, I was mostly eating from the non-spicy pot and it was basically just a hotpot.
We went to set off some fireworks with my friend’s son about 8pm on the basketball court, but most of them failed or were a safety hazard. We had the Spring Gala on the TV in the background, but it was muted as one of the uncles decided to bring his accordion so that I could translate the words on the bottom of it – nothing interesting, just ‘authentic Sonora product, distributed by Maxims co.’. So we listened to him playing the accordion for a while, he was really good but I missed a lot of the TV show.
Then, after a bowl of 汤圆, small hot dumplings with sesame inside, we all went to our individual homes. I thought we’d all stay together to see in the new year, but I was back at my place on my own just after 11pm. I didn’t have a TV so couldn’t watch any type of countdown, so just played on my phone, sending and receiving 红包s – interactive envelopes with money inside that you can actually spend.
From 11.45pm onwards, all I could hear was a constant banging, cracking and squealing of fireworks from surrounding neighbours. I was a bit let down and sad I wasn’t there with anyone setting off fireworks together, but I guess it was safer to watch them from the balcony.
So when people ask me “how was Chinese new year? It must have been amazing to have been there in China for it” well yes it was great to be here, but nothing special happened for me. I’d only met this friend once before, so not being very close to her made it a little awkward, along with how everyone was speaking Chongqing dialect which I can’t understand and the fact that I was coming down with a bad cold just topped it all off. Either way, good riddance to my unlucky year of the goat and I’m hoping the year of the monkey will be a good one.