personal note: I decided to share my book with friends and students in China because it is too expensive to order a copy from USA. Enjoy it and share it with people you care and love. Peace, Steve, usa September 18, 2019 firstname.lastname@example.org blog – https://getting2knowyou-china.com
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On December 30, this is the day everybody who is anybody in China has been waiting for to be reunited with their children, parents and grandparents and close relatives around a big table to enjoy the New Year Eve’s dinner to usher in a new year. Jake’s father decided to stay home while Jake and his mom and I joined a big party at a beautiful modern house owned by Jake’s two uncles who had returned from their work in the Philippines to celebrate the Spring Festival. In addition to Jake’s mother’s two brothers, the aunt from Taiwan and her two children (the oldest boy stayed in Taiwan with his father) were guests at the uncles’ house. First uncle was separated from his wife and he had his son with him. Second uncle had his wife and son with him. First aunt in Macau and her three children did not return this year for the reunion dinner. There were two or three close relatives at the dinner party. Jake’s mom and two other women managed the busy kitchen like professional chefs as they prepared for the big evening reunion dinner. First uncle did order some delicious platters of foods from a local restaurant in addition to all the foods cooked by the three women.
So why is the New Year meal so important to me? I grew up in a very poor family in Malaya and we did not have the money to buy meats and vegetables from the market in another town. My father wasted the family money on opium. My mother was an ordinary housewife born in mainland China. Brother was not educated and had a big family of his own. Two older sisters were married and lived far away from us. My sister (now living in UK) and I grew up in this poor environment. We literally depended on raising pigs and tapping rubber trees for our livelihood. We were at the mercy of the fluctuating markets in the real world and we did physical work in order to survive. We grew some of our own vegetables. As children sometimes we would ride our bicycles to the sea shore (about an hour away from our village) and the fishermen (they were men from our own village) would sell their catch to us villagers. Almost all the Chinese in my village came as immigrants from Fuqing and Fuzhou in Fujian Province in China. Today there are fishermen in Fuqing because it is near the ocean. And so some children continued to be fishermen in our village. It was a dangerous occupation. We heard a few died while fishing in a small sampan (a small wooden vessel) out in the unpredictable ocean waters. A few men died doing this. Most of the villagers at the time had no regular jobs because they had no education and no training of whatsoever. They did what our family did: raising pigs and tapping rubber trees. Most men worked on their own farms. There were a few teachers among us, one or two worked for the local government. Some had children working in big cities and they could support their parents and brothers and sisters at home in the village.
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So growing up poor, the New Year dinner was the most important meal to me. Because every family, however poor, would always buy enough meats and vegetables and all kinds of ingredients to cook some delicious meals this one time of the year. Why? Because we Chinese believe strongly that if you could start a new year with plenty, then the family would be guaranteed of abundant foods and a good life the rest of the year. Everything we do during the Spring Festival are symbolic gestures, like cleaning the house, wearing new clothes, having foods on the table, speaking kind words to others, decorating the house with bright red lanterns or couplets or paper cuts, and so if you do them, the family will enjoy a fruitful year of happiness, harmony, longevity, abundance, good future and good health. And that is why we Chinese continue to perform these various rituals at the beginning of every Lunar New Year: to guarantee the well-being, abundance of health and happiness the coming year. We learned this as a child and now as adults we continue our many traditional beliefs and customs and practices. Now you understand why the New Year Eve’s reunion dinner and everything we do during the Spring Festival means so much to me and all my Chinese friends.
So at Jake’s uncles’ house, as I sat at the table with all Jake’s happy relatives, I could not help thinking of my days in the village when my family struggled to put some foods on the table for the whole family. New Year meant plenty of foods for us children to eat, however poor we might be. The table at Jake’s uncles’ house now was full of bowls and plates of different kinds of foods and soups, more than enough for all of us at the party. A few had to stand and eat because the table was not big enough to have everybody sit around it. Maybe it wasn’t the size of the table as most of the chairs were too huge for the table. With smaller chairs and benches (common in old China) everyone could enjoy the bowls and platters of foods together. Or they could have set up the table in the living room, and not in the kitchen.
It does not matter where in China you live, two special dishes of foods or lucky foods will be served for everyone to enjoy: one is dumplings, the other is whole fish.
Both have strong symbolic significance for us Chinese because of its name (fish) and its appearance (dumpling). The word fish sounds like the word for abundance and surplus. And some Chinese would not eat the whole fish the first night but will leave half for the next day because they want the abundance to last for the coming year. So eating fish is believed to bring the families surplus of everything, from happiness to good health to wealth and good luck the coming year. And dumplings (jiaozi) are made with flour with different fillings but they are shaped like yuanbao (a kind of money used in ancient China) and eating them will bring wealth the coming year. Some families might hide different things inside the dumplings to express different
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blessings, like coins (for wealth), candies (for sweet life), peanuts (for health and longevity) and chestnuts (for vigor).
When children left the table, the adults had time to sit down to enjoy the feast by themselves. Of course all the children could not wait for 12 o’clock to strike so they could play with firecrackers and expensive fireworks that the first uncle had ordered (boxes of them piled up at one corner of the living room) for the grand evening of chasing away all the unwanted past, bad luck, and the evil spirits, welcoming a fresh new year of happiness and harmony and good health and good fortune for all in the house. In ancient times, the louder the firecrackers, the further you could chase away the evil past into oblivion. This is China, and I am sure that thinking is still very much alive today.
A number of activities were going on around me after the feast. It seemed to me Jake’s first uncle was the only one in the house giving out hongbaos to all the young people there, including Jake. For the young adults, many are using high tech apps like WeChat Red Envelope and Alipay Red Envelope to send some lucky money to friends. Parents and grandparents and older adults are more likely to give the traditional hongbaos to their children or those who are still single.
Second uncle had invited his friends over to play cards (gamble) in the living room ground floor. In the big living room upstairs with a big TV (and karaoke machine), children were searching with remote control for the right show to watch, mostly programs catering to children, flipping from one channel to another. While I sat there patiently for the CCTV New Year’s Gala (Chunwan in Chinese) to begin at 20:00. In front of me was a low table full of different tempting treats (dried fruits and a variety of candies, watermelon seeds, peanuts, different snacks) and soft drinks. It would seem I was the only one interested in the now very famous CCTV New Year’s Gala show…especially for the adults after the evening dinner. Off and on I had watched it a few times the sevenn years I lived and worked in China, especially when I was a houseguest because I did not have a TV in my apartment hooked up to Chinese TV channels.
The first broadcast of this special gala show was in 1983 and has become the most watched TV program for New Year entertainment in China…not to mention it has also gained popularity in some foreign countries in the world. So much so there were talks to make the Chinese Spring Festival an international event with all its pomp and ceremony with the dragon dance, lion dance and the foods and customs practiced by 1.39 billion Chinese in China. The annual gala show has become a ritual for many Chinese families to sit in front of the TV to watch different exciting eye-catching
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performances after the dinner. For weeks the mass media in mainland China had reported about the different auditions of many people across the country, people with talents in traditional opera and drama, martial arts, acrobatics, songs, dancing, sketch, cross-talk and magic games for a four-hour show. Most people preferred shows that kept pace with social trends in the country: especially the popular cross-talk, sketch and pop music.
The evening was not exactly smooth and calm because the children would constantly return to the TV and flip through the channels to watch their favorite shows. My enjoyment of the spring gala was interrupted many times.
The adults allowed children to play with the harmless sparklers and small firecrackers early while the actual “dangerous” fireworks would begin at midnight in the presence of the adults. By then the whole village was on fire, crackling with fireworks and firecrackers, lighting up the dark sky with a cacophony of loud deafening sounds and lightning-like flashes and splashes of rainbow-colored lights, the traditional Chinese way to usher in the New Year. This is China, modern China.
First uncle was most generous and lavish with fireworks and he had ordered boxes of them. Outside the house, inside an enclosed yard, there was scattered all over the concrete yard the next morning, a layer of multi-colored paper fragments and broken wrappers from the fireworks. And all this had happened despite words of caution by President Xi Jinping that all citizens should avoid the fireworks to prevent fire and further pollution of our fragile environment in China. I guess certain traditions die hard in China. This is China. Nobody would dare ignore Chairman Mao’s order when he was alive. Many Chinese traditional practices died when he was alive. Now with new prosperity under President Xi, the old practices are returning to life and people are not afraid to celebrate them like the old days or in their own ways. This is China.
Whereas when I was back in the United States living outside Seattle on the west coast, many of us would watch (with anxiety because of the tight security in New York’s Time Square) for the sparkling Waterford Crystal Times Square New Year’s Eve Ball to drop at midnight, the American way to welcome the new year. For years I would watch the rich and the famous and the elite dancing away in their Sunday-best clothes in some ballrooms somewhere in America, with millions of restless young people across the world attending free concerts of famous rock bands and singers, all waiting for the midnight clock to strike twelve, to be followed by warm hugs and kisses, some soft whispers and others shouts of Happy New Year to each other.
It is almost a secret to non-Americans that our American New Year is the saddest time
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of the beginning of a new year because by then, (based on years living on American soil) most if not many of my dear American friends and colleagues are almost bankrupt after spending lavishly (for many, thoughtlessly because they think they own the banks or print their own paper money) buying all kinds of junk and useless gifts just because they have to do so during the festive holiday season. Blame it on the row of holidays: from Halloween (October 31) to Thanksgiving (fourth Thursday in November) to Christmas (December 25) and now the New Year, all within a period of two months. My New Years in America are miserable because there is nothing special about it. Adults might attend a party or so, the younger ones usually stay home with nothing significant to do and on New Year’s Day we would eat some traditional foods. Here are the four regional foods of my American New Year: lentils of Italian-Americans, pickled herring of Scandinavian immigrants, pork and sauerkraut of the Midwest, and the ones most people would cook and eat…the greens and black-eyed peas of the South.
Whereas in China it is a feast for at least 15 days of the Spring Festival from New Year’s Eve to the Lantern Festival on January 15 of the lunar calendar. You could say the Chinese kitchen is the busiest place in the house during this festive season. The American one is absolutely meaningless and boring with many trying to make New Year’s resolutions (trying to lose weight or quit smoking has always been the top priority). The Chinese one is full of bright red decorations everywhere you go, full of life, excitement, joy, anticipation and reunions with parents and close relatives and friends. Jake’s friends came to visit him, over a cup of warm tea and snacks and chitchats. His parents also entertained their guests.
This is China.