I’m one of those people who counts down the days until Christmas, not because of the gifts, but because it’s just one more stop before the holiday season comes to a close.
January 2nd is no longer the day I can do my “It’s over!” victory dance. I have now accumulated, yet another, holiday celebration. However, if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right.
Chaotic, exciting, invigorating, and demanding are all words used to describe the celebration of Spring Festival, otherwise known as Chinese New Year.
While I easily become bored with celebrating the holidays, I genuinely enjoy sitting around a table full of home cooked food or setting off fireworks with people who will no longer be strangers after Spring Festival.
With two out of two successful Spring Festivals, I feel I now have enough experience under my belt to give some pointers on how to do the new year right.
So, let’s get to it! I am proud to bring to you my survival guide for the Year of the Horse!
1.) Get There
For my first Chinese New Year we decided to go to Harbin. A friend from back home lives there with his wife and invited us to join them.
Being the daring travelers that we are, we decided to go by train. Just kidding, I’m not daring at all. Which inevitably explains why I hated every second of taking a 27-hour train ride in the midst of the busiest holiday of the year.
This train was loaded. For some reason there was an unlimited amount of standing tickets. This means you and 200 other passengers can occupy the walkway of the carrier and no one can get mad at you.
By using the barter system (a.k.a offering people booze, an intrinsic element of modern Chinese culture), we found our way to a sleeper where we could relax a bit more. I’m really sugar-coating this. When I say, “relax” I actually just mean not standing for 27 hours.
After two cups of instant noodles, drinking warm beer, standing in long lines for disgusting bathrooms, numerous fights with my boyfriend, and “sleeping” between the space of the other cots, we arrived at our freezing destination.
2.) Find a Family
For those who have been in China long enough to befriend a local, this should be no task. It’s likely you’ve already gotten your invite to celebrate this year’s festivities. Hooray! You’re now the token foreigner at a social event!
I’ve been fortunate enough to celebrate with two different families, both were equally enjoyable, as they were both so similar and really stuck to tradition.
This here is my adoptive Chinese grandmother. While she would typically be helping out in the kitchen preparing for the enormous feast ahead, she decided to offer me some shots and tell me I was pretty. For that, I love her.
While the meal is being prepared, you’ll join in with the other billions of Chinese nationals who are currently watching the CCTV celebration. It’s basically a four-hour annual TV show that forgot to take its Ritalin.
You’ll see an important looking man giving a serious speech, then the next second you’ll see adults wearing diapers and singing songs in English.
I’m a little more low-key than all that, so while I consistently tried to make my way to the kitchen to sneak some pre-dinner samples, I kept getting shooed away from kitchen, being told that I am a guest and I need to just relax.
3.) Don’t Show Up Empty-Handed.
I don’t care what anyone tells you. It’s just not polite. Bring something. Anything.
I live near a import market, so I try to bring a unique treat from there, in hopes the family that invited me over has never tried it. It allows me to share my native culture while my hosts share Chinese culture.
The World of Chinese really nails it with this article. Give it a read and make sure your gift-giving game is on point.
4.) Eat. It. All.
You can see in this picture that it looks like meat fest 2012. That’s because it was. I’ll say there were at least eight different kinds of previously living creatures on the menu while celebrating Spring Festival in Harbin.
What’s pictured are some fish, beef, shrimp, duck neck, chicken feet, thousand-year-old eggs, and sausage, just to name a few. These really were mostly just snacks.
I found it hard to indulge in 80% of these dishes being that I was still fairly new to China and my palate wasn’t quite ready for the transition.
I kept getting food put on my plate that I had no interest in eating. Thousand-year-old eggs? I’m good. Chicken feet? I’ll pass. I didn’t even have a dog to sneak it to under the table.
The food that later arrived included more vegetables, noodles, and parts of animals that I was used to eating.
Here is food from our second year around. This is a beef and lotus root dish. I practically ate the whole plate. We ate a lot of seafood that year in between shots of bāijiú with our friends dad.
The hosts of both families were so attentative. If my plate looked remotely empty for a half second, they were quick to tell me to, “chī ba!” which is basically just encouragement to eat more.
Even though I stuffed myself senseless, we weren’t even close to being finished.
5.) Spring Festival Fireworks
About this time of year you find yourself waking up at six in the morning to fireworks going off. This lasts throughout most of January.
Is it frustrating? Absolutely. Do you want to punch your neighbors in the face? Certainly. Can you? No.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
We walked downstairs and teamed up with the other families in the neighborhood setting off their fireworks.
This photo perfectly captures what everyone in China is doing just before the clock strikes 12. While it appears to be one giant celebration in Beijing, it’s really just individual households lighting up the sky.
Something about it feels so communal, yet so environmentally hazardous.
Where do I begin with jiâozi? I feel like it’s the glue that holds China together.
Known as “pot-stickers” in the west, these meat and vegetable-stuffed dumplings are a staple throughout most of Asia.
Similar to bāozi, you’ll want yours fresh. I prefer mine to be made by the wrinkly old hands of an experienced Chinese lady.
During the firework extravaganza of 2013, I noticed my friends mom sneak off to start the jiâozi process. She pre-made her dough, which consists only of flour and water.
Her and grandma had their routine down. The water comes to a boil as mom rolls out ping pong sized balls of dough into flat circles, grandma scoops in some ground beef and carrot filling, a family favorite.
While I made another attempt to help, they insisted I didn’t. They were excited to introduce me to a new tradition which I didn’t experience during the previous year.
The mom adds in a silver coin to just one of the dumplings, out of about four dozen. Tradition says that if you get the jiâozi with this coin in it, you should expect a fruitful year full of happiness and wealth.
Once all of the jiâozi are floating in the boiling water, they’re ready to be served.
Although everyone is completely full from dinner they had just a few hours previously and is more than ready for a nap, we eat.
It was the sweetest thing watching a woman in her fourties eagerly eat jiâozi in hopes of finding the coin. After each dumpling she sighed in disbelief that she just didn’t get it and quietly told herself, “Just one more.”
Between my boyfriend, my friend, his family, and myself, guess who got the coin?
That’s right, me!
Here is the coin I almost swallowed because I was so happy I got it:
Did the coin tradition prove itself to be true? Certainly. I will always and forever believe in “The Coin”. I can only hope to get it one more time during my stay in China.
Tell us about your Spring Festival experiences in comments below and have a great time celebrating the year of the horse! 春节快乐!