Chinese New Year Through the Eyes of a Laowai

Chinese New Year Through the Eyes of a Laowai

People in our part of the world have been talking about the lunar new year for a long time. As a first-time expat to China, I had low expectations. After all, this is not “my” holiday. The new year celebration caught me off guard, and here I present to you a small window into my first Chinese New Year experience as a foreigner.

The Lead-Up

Most of us who grow up in the States know the feeling of anticipation that comes along with the Christmas season. A sense of excitement fills the air, everyone chats about the holiday and their plans, and preparation begins for meals, decorations, and gifts. Spending my first lunar new year in China, I was struck by the oddity that I could feel that same anticipation. Even though I speak very little Mandarin and had no background in this holiday, I could just tell that the excitement was building all around me.

People cleaned their homes thoroughly. Employees received bonuses. In addition to a bonus, we gave our ayi a fancy box of frozen fish, and she reciprocated with a huge box of butter cookies for the kids.

My husband’s company held their annual Chinese New Year party. All of the employee’s families were invited, and the planning team worked for weeks to arrange a location, a catered meal, prizes, and entertainment.

My daughter’s school invited all of the parents to watch a Chinese New Year performance. I was so proud when my girl spoke into the microphone in Mandarin – with good tones! The children did a dragon dance and lots of songs to celebrate the year of the goat.

The Decorations

Of course, decorations also added to the excitement. My daughter even came home with some window flowers and paper lanterns that she had made in school, and we used those to prepare our home.

Local malls set up lunar new year displays.
Local malls set up lunar new year displays.
People decorate trees and shrubs near their houses.
People decorated trees and shrubs near their houses.
This guy delivers flowers that already have new year baubles attached.
This guy delivered flowers that already had new year baubles attached.
Hotel lobbies welcome the lunar new year.
Hotel lobbies welcomed the lunar new year.
Folks hang red lanterns near their doorways and place greeting signs and paper cut-out flowers on windows and entryways.
Folks hung red lanterns near their doorways and place greeting signs and paper cut-out flowers on windows and entryways.
Apartment lobbies join in the festivity.
Apartment lobbies joined in the festivity.
Red lantern decorations hang from street lamps.
Red lantern decorations hung from street lamps.
Owners deck out their businesses to celebrate the new year.
Owners decked out their businesses to celebrate the new year.
And, of course, it wouldn't be a holiday without decorated Coca-Cola bottles.
And, of course, it wouldn’t be a holiday without decorated Coca-Cola bottles.

The Travel and Meal Prep

For 1-2 weeks before the lunar new year began, people started traveling in droves. Most people left the city to go back to their hometowns and spend the holiday with their extended families. Subways going to railway stations and airports were packed with people carrying luggage and boxes of alcohol, fruits, or nuts to take home with them. Schools let children out for almost one month at this time of the year.

CNY Travel

Small family shops closed down early, even a week in advance of New Year’s day, to factor in travel time.

Businesses Closed For CNY

In my husband’s family, the Christmas eve dinner is an event all to itself. The meal spread takes time to cook, but it looks and tastes amazing. Similarly, in China, the New Year’s eve meal maintains a special place in the holiday tradition.

People pack out a supermarket to buy food two days before the lunar new year.
People packed out a supermarket to buy food two days before the lunar new year.

Of course, the Chinese have traditional dishes that they cook and eat for the big meal. Since I know almost nothing about these dishes, I thought it would suffice to ask our ayi to make some jiaozi for us before she began her vacation. These dumplings taste so yummy dipped in a spicy chili paste and vinegar mixture.

Our ayi taught my daughter how to prepare the jiaozi.
Our ayi taught my daughter how to prepare the jiaozi.
The jiaozi waits to be boiled.
The jiaozi waits to be boiled.

I would love to someday share in a New Year’s eve meal that is truly Chinese. In the meantime, we ate our own concoction of American and Chinese foods to celebrate. I enjoyed our evening together as a family, but to be honest, I felt like we were missing something… it was like having Christmas alone, without grandpas and grandmas, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Maybe we can convince someone to visit us to celebrate next year.

Spahr New Year's Eve Meal

The Fireworks

The fireworks in China during the new year holiday are fantastic. Personally, I think that since China invented fireworks, they ought to be spectacular. A good friend put it this way: It’s like all of the 4th of July shows you’ve ever seen, and ever will see, rolled into one night.

Although the police were cracking down a bit more this year on people who might go overboard, fireworks here are basically a free-for-all. Many of our friends have told us stories of their balcony windows being shot out by stray fireworks, or of having to cover their children from fireworks that turn on them from the other side of the street.

One of my Chinese friends explained that people shoot off one set of fireworks to say good-bye to the previous year and another set of fireworks to say hello to the new year. Each night of the week also gives a different reason for fireworks, and the most popular is the fourth night, when fireworks are lit to welcome the money god. The amount of fireworks on the fourth night rivaled the amount the we witnessed on New Year’s eve.

Firework stands popped  up on every block the week before the new year.
Firework stands popped up on every block the week before the new year.
Notice the "No Smoking" sign on this one.
Notice the “No Smoking” sign on this one.

On New Year’s eve, our family went out and lit some sparklers, one fountain, and some ground spinners. On our walk outside, I noticed that our security guards had also prepared for the new year fireworks.

There are no firework restrictions in our neighborhood, so the guards have to be ready. I'm not sure this is enough preparation.
There are no firework restrictions in our tree-filled neighborhood, so the guards had to be ready for potential fires.

Around 11:40pm, the booms began to accelerate. We stood out on our bedroom balcony to see more clearly. The sights were beautiful, with bright blasts and golden fizzles. The flashes of light bounced off of city buildings  and lit up the sky in every direction.

Almost more incredible were the sounds. With pings and explosions ricocheting through the city, our neighborhood turned into an audio war zone. Our neighbors uncoiled a massive roll of firecrackers, which stretched from the beginning of our “cul-de-sac” to the post near their house that they attached the end of the firecrackers onto. They had this down to a science. A little before midnight they came out, laid everything out, and lit it up. Once the firecrackers started popping, they went into the house to save their eardrums. Josh and I stayed out to watch and hear the spectacle, and my ears rang for minutes afterward.

Fireworks 1 2015

Fireworks 2 2015

Fireworks 3 2015

It seemed that there was an entire fireworks show on every block, which made it challenging to take everything in at once. Our incredible children slept through the entire production.

The next morning, our neighbor went out again to unroll his coil of firecrackers, this time to welcome the new year. I was just loading the kids into the car when I noticed activity next door, so I pulled them all out and we watched from the sidewalk. Our neighbor was kind enough to smile at us as we all gawked at him and as I tried to explain to the kids what was happening.

Our neighbor used a coil of firecrackers similar to the rounds in this photo, except that his was bigger.
Our neighbor used a coil of firecrackers similar to the rounds in this photo, except that his was bigger.

As soon as the noise subsided, our neighbor came back out of his house and handed each of our kids a red envelope, which brings me to the next aspect of the lunar new year.

The Gifts

I could be wrong on this because I haven’t seen it in person, but my understanding is that on the morning of the new year, children wake up early with excitement to rouse their parents out of bed. The children bow in respect to their parents and ask for a hongbao, a red packet or envelope, which contains a gift of money.

Hongbao

My eldest daughter had been begging for a hongbao for weeks before the lunar new year. She learned about it from her Mandarin class at school, and she received an envelope from her teacher which contained chocolate coins.

Josh and I thought it would be a fun tradition to observe, so we surprised the kids with one hongbao each. My two-year-old had been crying about something, but when she ripped into the hongbao and pulled out the contents, her face lit up and she exclaimed, “MONey!”

I told one of my American friends about how generous and thoughtful it was for our neighbors to also give a hongbao to each of our children. We observed that in our culture, giving money is a cop-out gift, the kind of thing that you give to someone when you don’t want to take the time to be personal and creative with a gift. But here, at least at this time of year, a gift of money feels like something special. For us, it was also a great opportunity to work on the kids’ math skills and to teach about saving, giving, and spending our resources.

Many children also receive clothes, since wearing new clothes is a tradition on new year’s day. It reminded me of the American tradition of getting a new dress or suit for Christmas and Easter. It’s a big deal. However, the only new thing our kids received was toothbrushes (because they needed them!). They don’t know anything different, so they were actually quite excited about their little prizes.

New Year Hope

Everyone beings a new year with hope, with expectations for what this uncharted year could bring. One of the best questions asked of me in college was, “Why do you get out of bed in the morning?” The answer cannot be as simple as, “Because I have to go to class” or “Because I have to go to work”. You don’t HAVE to do those things. Some motiving factor underlies those decisions. Why do you work? Why do you go to class?

It’s worth asking: What do you live for?

So much of what we live for is merely trinkets, stuff that will rot or go with us to the grave. But I’ve been reminded lately that the hope of the nations, the one that won’t fade, is Jesus Christ. And He gives so much joy – like the blow out your eardrums with firecrackers, dance in the streets, eat huge meals with people you love – kind of celebratory joy.

I don’t know about you, but I spend far too little time celebrating my hope.

That being said, my prayer for the Year of the Goat is this:

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” – Romans 15:13

To all of my Asian friends, happy lunar new year!

Driving the Road Between the Ditches of Apathy and Fear

Driving the Road Between the Ditches of Apathy and Fear

My friend arrived into Shanghai last December, with her two daughters in tow, on the worst air quality day this city has ever seen. As she walked off the plane and into the airport, she thought, “What is that smell?” Soon, an unfamiliar taste filled her mouth and she began to feel small particles on her tongue. Instead of greeting her with flowers, her husband greeted her with facemasks.

Since my family relocated, I’ve swerved between the ditches of apathy and fear, specifically concerning food safety and air quality.

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I love the variety of food in this city. My family has tried at least one new dish or food per week. Some of the vegetables that I’ve eaten from the wet market taste straight out of the garden, not like the bland U.S. supermarket veggies. The fresh carrots have spoiled me already, and the tomatoes that make incredible pasta sauce took me by surprise. And they are cheap. Enough vegetables for my family for one week cost 60RMB, a little more than $10.

But the horror stories are everywhere. 30,000 tons of chicken feet, tainted by hydrogen peroxide, seized by the government last month. 53,000 children sickened in 2008 by powdered milk with the plastic melamine added – and that was Nestlé, a trusted brand. Children are annually checked for high amounts of lead in their bloodstreams, much of which comes from the dirt and gives people ample reason to wash their produce well. Even a well-known supermarket that caters to foreigners and upper middle-class locals is rumored to have sprayed their produce with Raid. And expats absolutely DO NOT consume the local milk or honey. The city water is clean… until it goes through the pipes to people’s residences. At that point, it could contain a mixture of bacteria and (more likely) heavy metals.

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As for the air quality, it has been clear and beautiful since we arrived. The consistent rain keeps the pollution at bay and we can open windows to bring in a nice breeze and the rich smell of flowering plants. My son has even noticed some planets shining in the clear night sky. Our compound hosts vibrant greenery and today, my son and I spotted this butterfly just outside our front door.

Then there is the rest of the story. In the winter, the weather patterns change and farmers burn their fields. Everyone has an app on their phones that monitors the official air quality. They check it every morning in the same way a person would check the weather in order to decide what to wear for the day but in this case, the question is, “Do I wear a facemask or not?” If the air quality index is 200+, most people send their kids to school with facemasks on. The day my friend arrived, Shanghai hit over 500. That same day in Beijing, the AQI was over 700, the point at which you can’t see your own hand fully extended in front of you.

Because of these issues, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to avoid both carelessness and paranoia.

You may live in a very different environment than I, and yet I have confidence that you have come across this dilemma at some point in your life.

Carelessness and paranoia, or more generally apathy and fear, are the attitude extremes. We are all given ample opportunities to respond to situations with one of these two attitudes.

Let me give you a sampling of some of these opportunities.

In raising our children.

In developing our marriages.

In building our careers.

In pursuing our studies.

In maintaining our health.

In addressing conflict.

In combatting injustice.

In stewarding our money.

Take a quick self-check.

Are you apathetic or fearful in raising your children?

Are you apathetic or fearful in developing your marriage?

Are you apathetic or fearful in building your career?

Are you apathetic or fearful in pursuing your studies?

Are you apathetic or fearful in maintaining your health?

Are you apathetic or fearful in addressing conflict?

Are you apathetic or fearful in combatting injustice?

Are you apathetic or fearful in stewarding your money?

Are you apathetic or fearful in some other area of your life?

Apathy.

The “I don’t care” attitude. Apathy lulls us to sleep like the tryptophan after a big Thanksgiving meal. All hell could break loose around us and yet we would be content to continue on as if we never knew. Better yet, we don’t even have to know that something should or could be different in this area of life. We can live in a false bubble. And if, by chance, that bubble should break, we can always blame the mess on someone else. After all, we never did anything. And the people we love are left questioning why we didn’t step in.

Fear.

The “Danger is lurking around every corner” attitude. Fear either paralyzes us or transforms us into living monsters. We are driven, compelled, or overwhelmed by fear. News, advertising, and even weather forecasts play on our fears, knowing that it will lure us into watching more, buying more, or tracking more. We begin to hover, control, panic, run, over-analyze, hoard, worry, or… the list goes on and on. We smother or wound people and then wonder why we have pushed them away.

Listen. Our apathy or our fear impacts people. It hurts people. To do life well, you and I must learn to spend our time driving the road between the ditches of apathy and fear.

The name of the road between apathy and fear is wisdom.

The portion of the Bible entitled “Proverbs”, aptly dubbed the “Book of Wisdom”, contains 31 chapters of one-sentence pithy sayings. Chapter 2 answers the question, “Where do I start to get wisdom?”

Proverbs 2:3-6

“…indeed, if you call out for insight

and cry aloud for understanding,

and if you look for it as for silver

and search for it as for hidden treasure,

then you will understand the fear [respect, awe] of the Lord

and find the knowledge of God.

For the Lord gives wisdom;

from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.

The Lord and wisdom are linked because when you are lacking something, you have to get it from somewhere outside of yourself. If you don’t have wisdom, you can’t work harder by yourself to produce it. If you desire to find wisdom, you will go to a person who can give it to you. It just so happens that the wisest, most just, fair, and right person is… God.

God does not respond to you with apathy. He cares about your life, He involves Himself in your world, and He loves you deeply even when you run away. He died in your place.

God does not respond to you with fear. He has confidence in His own power and strength, He sees all sides of every situation, and He brings justice to the oppressed. He crushed sin and death when He came to life from the dead.

In order to learn wisdom, you must come close to the God who shows neither apathy nor fear. When you understand, with all of your being, how He responds to you with love and justice, you will begin to live wisely also.

Practically speaking, if you lean toward apathy or fear, try reading one chapter of Proverbs a day. This crazy book covers everything from nagging wives to the value of children to how to take criticism to having integrity in business.

My personal October challenge is to read one chapter of Proverbs each day. Will you join me? Let’s do life well.

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If you are curious about our response to the environmental challenges in Shanghai, read on.

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We buy this water and have it delivered to our house. It’s not as high-end as buying a filter for your sink faucet but it’s a middle-of-the-road solution that is very common here. We take brush our teeth with the tap water and take showers and baths in it as well.

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Most foreigners drink shelf-stable UHT milk and cream. I tried the milk and immediately had to get the taste out of my mouth, so we’ve landed on this fresh milk imported from Japan.

Shanghai boasts several semi-organic food delivery websites that cater to foreigners. We buy our meat and milk from there. I will continue to get most of our fruits and vegetables at the local wet market. Many people I know in the States are also concerned about the additives that come along with their food and produce, so that aspect of food safety is not new.

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I use this spray and the drinking water to wash food that we will eat raw and unpeeled. We peel as much produce as possible. However, when my sweet vegetable lady hands my kids carrots that she just peeled with her antiquated rusty knife, I won’t blink an eye. People are just more important than worrying about contaminants.

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We invested in air purifiers for our home. They will likely run constantly in December and January. While we can, we will leave the windows wide open.

vogmask photo

We will be buying one of these vogmasks, or something similar, for each of our family members. They look a bit like gas masks, which is unnerving, but they are high quality and will protect our kids’ lungs.

In essence, we are actively planning for what we can while enjoying the really great aspects of this experience overseas. We will face challenges, but we will not be anxious about what we encounter, knowing that the God who brought us here will take care of us here.

Not-So-Delicate Delicacies

Not-So-Delicate Delicacies

Of course, one of the first items on our agenda after arriving in Shanghai was to scope out a supermarket. Carrefour, being the most familiar from our other trips here, became the store of choice. 

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Side note: Everyone who relocates with kids needs an “Ama” to come with them – someone who can freely play the tourist without feeling weird about it, makes the whole process feel like a vacation, takes tons of photos, and watches the kids on the side. Ama brings excitement to the transition.

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We loved Carrefour, we will go there frequently I’m sure, and below are photos that Ama took of some of the most unusual (to us!) items in the grocery department.

Fellow Americans, you may want to finish your meal before continuing. Enjoy!

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Two ladies walked by us, snickering and pointing, while Ama took this last photo. Yes, ladies, we are gawking at normal grocery store offerings. We will just laugh at ourselves along with you!

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So then we ate at a beef and noodle restaurant. No seafood or pork for us, at least not that day!