My first experience of Chinese New Year (CNY) was in Paris. In February 2016 my friend and I started taking Chinese lessons with a private tutor, who was about the same age as me. After our respective first lessons she invited us to celebrate CNY with her at her home in the suburbs. She was staying with a Franco-Russian family about an hour from where I lived, so we took the train out into the banlieue where she had prepared dumpling fillings and bought Chinese snacks. We were greeted by her, her host mum, two of her friends from Paris and an American friend from her year in Montpellier. She made the dumpling skins while I filled and folded them (badly, which made her laugh a lot), and my friend was tasked with writing the character 福 (“fú”), meaning happiness or good fortune, on pieces of red paper. We sat around a big table, eating dumplings and talking. Her host mum gave us vodka, and we spent the whole afternoon getting to know each other.
Fast forward one year, it was CNY again, and this time I was in China. I had heard from many people that it was nothing like our New Year’s Eve, but rather comparable with our Christmas time. For at least a week, people spend time with their family, eating, relaxing and playing board games. This also means that in the days leading up to it, metro stations are heaving as there is a great exodus from the city, with many people heading back to their hometowns.
I wasn’t expecting much from Chinese New Year, just as foreign students in the UK wouldn’t expect to experience a real British Christmas. You can take part in some traditions, but you wouldn’t expect much more. But some wonderful things happened to me when I got back to Shanghai from my Christmas holiday at home. Firstly, our course director invited those of us (and our friends) who were still in Shanghai to join her and her parents for Chinese New Year’s Eve. Nine of us, including two of my friends who aren’t on our course, went to her small apartment.
She and her mum had prepared two large do-it-yourself “hot pot”s on a table with electric plates built in. We sat around eating and laughing as we watched the 4-hour long Gala on TV. The Gala is made up of performances and sketches by the biggest Chinese celebrities of the year – given that it is a real honour to be invited to perform, they accept to do so without payment. Although it mostly takes place live in a studio in Beijing, they have mini shows in most provincial capitals, which they switch to throughout the evening. We somehow failed to get the subtitles to work so our course director spent most of the evening explaining what was going on. Some things did not make much sense, or maybe just did not translate well, but made us laugh all the same. At the end of the evening, her mum handed out red packets to all of us. Traditionally, unmarried people (young or old) receive red packets of money from their relatives or close family friends. Ours were filled with chocolate coins and we were absolutely delighted by such a sweet gesture.
I count myself doubly fortunate as I received a second invite for lunch the next day, this time with a different family. One night a couple of days before CNY, I waited nearly an hour in the cold for a taxi, because apparently most of the drivers had already gone home. As I waited I started talking to a Chinese girl who, it turned out, had done her Bachelor’s at my university, and had studied and worked in the States. She had called herself a taxi and, since she lived fairly close to campus, allowed me to share it with her. I took her contact details so that I could pay her back (most payments are made with phones here and we always transfer money to each other that way), and after doing so she invited me for lunch with another (Chinese) friend of hers who hadn’t gone home for the holidays. We feasted on many traditional dishes and some non-traditional (she prepared moules au vin blanc as she is a huge fan of French cuisine) and drank hot baijiu (白酒, Chinese rice wine). Her parents live a couple of hours outside of Shanghai in a small town, and they brought a lot of vegetables from their plot, as well as goat meat. I had so much fun talking to her and her friend who also speaks English, and trying my best to talk to her parents. They had to translate a lot, but despite my terrible Chinese we could communicate a little, and they were delighted that I liked the food and drink.
CNY is definitely a family time, but I was amazed at the generosity of these two families who welcomed me into their homes. Last year in Paris I thought that it was a rather un-traditional Chinese New Year experience, but I realise now that it was the perfect first taste: people coming together, sharing, and having a laugh. That’s essentially what it is all about, and I think Christmas ultimately is the same. I hope I can return the favour by welcoming people into my own home for Christmas one day.