All About Chinese New Year

It’s almost Chinese New Year!

This year, the lunar new year falls on February 16th. 2018 is the year of the dog, according to the Chinese zodiac, which repeats every twelve years.

Even though China is beginning to incorporate more and more Western customs and holidays, Chinese New Year is still the most important celebration by far. This is a holiday centered around family – an opportunity to celebrate all of the great events of the past year, and wishing for good fortune in the year to come.

CELEBRATIONS

Chinese New Year is typically celebrated for fifteen days, from New Year’s Eve to the Lantern Festival.

Timeline of traditional Chinese New Year customs
Pre-New Year’s Preparations

  • Cleaning the House – A thorough cleaning of the house is done in preparation for the New Year. It represents a wish to put away old things, say farewell to the previous year, and welcome the New Year.
  • New Year Shopping – This is the time that people buy food, snacks, decorations, and clothes before New Year’s Eve. Right before Chinese New Year, like Christmas in the U.S., is prime shopping season.
  • Putting Up Spring Couplets – Spring couplets are paired phrases, typically of seven Chinese characters each, written on red paper in black ink, and pasted one each side of the door frame. The couplets are filled with best wishes, and is thought to keep evil away.
New Year’s Eve

  • Decorating – Most people decorate their houses on New Year’s Eve. Common decorations used include red lanterns, red couplets, New Year paintings, and red lanterns.
  • Reunion Dinner – The New Year’s Eve feast is the most important event, with all family members reuniting, often having to travel long distances. People from north and south China eat different foods on this special occasion, although a few symbolic dishes are usually included.
  • CCTV New Year Gala – It has become a China custom for many families to watch the CCTV New Year Gala on New Year’s Eve. The show starts at 8 pm and ends at midnight when the New Year arrives, featuring traditional, folk, and pop performances from China’s best singers, dancers, and acrobats
  • Red Envelopes – Red envelopes filled with money are usually given to kids after the reunion dinner, wishing them health, growth, and good studies in the coming year. Money in red envelopes is believed to bring good luck, as red is China’s lucky color.
  • Staying Up Late – This custom is called shǒu suì (守岁); to keep watch over the year. In the past, Chinese people stayed up all night, but now, most stay up only until the midnight firecrackers and fireworks die down.

 

New Year’s Day

  • Setting Off Firecrackers and Fireworks – The moment the New Year arrives, there is a cacophony of fireworks and firecrackers all around, even in rural China. You might want to use earplugs!
  • Putting on New Clothes and Extending New Year Greetings – On the first day of the New Year, it is traditional to put on new clothes, and say “gōng xǐ” (恭喜) to wish each other good luck and happiness in the New Year. It is customary for the younger generation to visit their elders, and wish them health and longevity. In more recent years, particularly among the younger generation, those who don’t have time to visit their friends or relatives send a New Year’s card, a WeChat red envelope or a text message instead.
  • Watching Lion and Dragon Dances – Lion dances and dragon dances might be seen too on New Year’s Day in parades.
New Year: Day 2-7
  • Visiting Friends and Family – This is the time people spend visiting with friends and family during the celebration.
New Year: Day 8
  • Returning to Work – 8 is the luckiest number in China, so most businesses prefer to reopen on day eight of the New Year.
New Year: Day 15

  • Lantern Festival – This marks the end of the Spring Festival celebrations. People send aloft glowing lanterns into the sky while others let floating lanterns go in the sea, on rivers, or set them adrift in lakes. This is also when tang yuan are eaten.

SYMBOLISM

The Chinese commonly incorporate symbolism and homophones into their traditions and superstitious beliefs. For example, the unlucky number in China is the number 4 (四 sì) because the word is a homophone with the word death (死 sǐ). There are a number of these examples associated with Chinese New Year.

Fish

Fish is a staple on dinner tables during Chinese New Year, usually cooked whole. The word for fish (鱼 yú) is a homonym for the word surplus (余 yú), and a common sentiment spoken during this holiday is “surplus/fish year after year” (年年有余/鱼 nián nián yǒu yú). It is also tradition to have fish left over, to symbolize the surplus, especially in the head and tail (hope that the year will start and end with surplus).

Dumplings
Homemade dumplings and dumpling skins

Chinese dumplings are made with dough, rolled into skins, and filled with a variety of meats and vegetables. They are typically boiled, steamed, or pan fried. The shape of the dumplings resemble ingots, an ancient Chinese currency used as early as the Han dynasty. They are eaten during the New Year as a symbol of prosperity and wealth.

Try this recipe for vegan Chinese-style dumplings!

Tang Yuan

Tang yuan are made from glutinous rice flour filled with sesame or red bean paste and served in the sweet broth that they are cooked in. Traditionally, they are eaten at the end of the celebrations, during the Lantern Festival. They symbolize family reunion, as their name is a homophone for reunion, and their round shape symbolizes togetherness.

Here is a vegan-friendly recipe if you want to attempt to make these delicious sticky balls on your own. They are also be purchased frozen at Asian markets, if you want to save time and effort.

Nian Gao

The literal translation of nian gao is “year cake (年糕),” and it is used to symbolize prosperity. Gāo can also mean tall (高), so nian gao also refers to ‘getting higher year on year’, and this symbolizes raising oneself taller (in wealth) in each coming year. Follow this  recipe to make this sticky sweet treat.

Fu

The word 福fú means good fortune in Chinese. The 福 sign upside down is translated to 福倒了 fú dào le, which also sounds like 福到了fú dào le (good fortune has arrived).

DNA Ancestry Testing – Am I Really Chinese?

Unlike my husband’s family, who has been in the U.S. (and North Carolina) for generations, my parents were the first people (that we know of) to immigrate to the United States from our family. I like to joke with my husband that I’m a “pure blood” (lame Harry Potter reference), unlike his mixed and somewhat far removed heritage in Europe.

My husband took a DNA test through 23 and Me about two years ago to figure out where his ancestors came from. The results indicated that he is 100% Northwestern European – 62% British/Irish, 10% French/German, and 5% Scandinavian.  At the time, I didn’t feel a need to do the test because I was confident that I wouldn’t get any surprising results, but I was still curious about what I might find out.

My husband bought the kit for me for our 3 year anniversary present, and I sent my sample in. 

My results from 23 and Me are shown below, as well as the analysis of a few other websites using different databases. WeGene is based in China and specializes in DNA analysis for people of Asian descent. DNA.LAND is operated through a collaboration of scientists from the New York Genome Center and Columbia University.

It was very interesting to compare the different interpretations of my DNA. My Chinese percentage ranges from 88% to 92%, although it is difficult to compare since the definition for “Chinese” varies from site to site. For example, 23 and Me and DNA.Land does not consider Mongolian descent as Chinese, whereas WeGene does.

23 and Me believes me to be more Korean than Japanese and WeGene believes the opposite. DNA.LAND has combined the two ethnic groups into one. Overall, my Korean/Japanese ancestry seems to be somewhere in the 3-5% range.

The rest of my ancestry seemed to vary quite a bit between the three sites – Mongolian, Southeast Asian, etc. It was very interesting to see from WeGene, the breakdown of the specific ethnic groups classified under Chinese as well.

23 and Me

WeGene

DNA.LAND

Although I didn’t get any crazy surprising results, it was very fascinating to see the breakdown of where my ancestors came from. Another perk of getting your DNA analysis done is that through these sites, it’s also possible to find and connect with people with whom you share DNA. I would definitely recommend getting the test done, even if you’re confident you know where your ancestors came from. You never know, you might get some surprising results!

Evolution of Chinese Food in America

There are over 45,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. That’s more than McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC combined. The majority of these restaurants offer very similar looking and tasting food, even though these restaurants are independently owned and operated.

I grew up in a household where my mother only cooked Chinese food. However, most of these dishes were nothing like the most popular dishes ordered at Chinese takeout restaurants. As Jennifer Lee explains in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,

“As a child, I never considered it strange that the food we ordered from Chinese restaurants didn’t quite resemble my mom’s home cooking. My mom used white rice, soy sauce, garlic, scallions, and a wok. But she never deep-fried chunks of meat, succulent and soft, then drenched them with rich, flavorful sauce. She cooked with ingredients that were pickled and dried and of strange shapes and never appeared on the takeout menu.”

The assimilation of Chinese immigrants into American culture is not exactly a happy story. It’s also a story that not many people are familiar with.

In the 19th century, the people in China faced an onslaught of hardships, including natural disasters, war, overpopulation, and the financial burdens brought on by Western Imperialism. When the news of gold in California reached China, the decision to travel halfway around the world was even more enticing. After the Chinese people arrived in San Francisco, Americans did not know what to make of them. They wore long braids, spoke a strange language, ate foods Westerners had never encountered, and had terrible table manners (they eat with sticks!). Chinese cuisine comprised of many animals that Americans deemed repulsive, and an image of a rat-eating Chinese man was featured in school textbooks in the late 1800s. Advertisements also used anti-Chinese sentiments as a means to sell their products.

As more Chinese people arrived looking for work, the negative perceptions of them increased. This led to countless lynchings, shootings, and arson, targeted at the ethnic group. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, which restricted Chinese immigration and prevented Chinese arrivals from becoming naturalized citizens. This is the only law passed in American history to exclude a group by race or ethnicity. As the doors were closed to Chinese immigration, and jobs in agriculture, mining, and manufacturing were taken back by the Americans, the Chinese already living in America had to find an alternative way to make a living. Their solution was opening up laundries and restaurants. The number of Chinese-owned restaurants and laundries flourished in the late 1800s, particularly on the west coast. Because cleaning and cooking were both considered women’s work,  American laborers did not feel threatened.

In the Chinese restaurants, the food served was not the same food that Chinese people ate themselves. They served food that was exotic but not scary. The most well-known dish was chop suey, which consists of meat, a thick sauce, and Asian vegetables (bean sprouts, water chestnuts, celery, cabbage). Many Americans believed this was a signature Chinese dish, but it was invented and served exclusively overseas. The name of the dish translates literally to “odds and ends” in Cantonese. There are a few theories about how the dish came about but no documented proof. Although the dish is becoming lesser known over time, being replaced by other Americanized Chinese dishes such as General Tso’s chicken, it paved the way and popularized American-friendly Chinese food.

Chop Suey

Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943), immigration from China was non-existent and the chop suey phase lasted for many decades. The borders finally reopened in 1943, but laws didn’t become more lenient until 1965. New styles of Chinese cuisine were introduced – Szechuan and Hunan. People living in these two regions of China typically enjoy dishes that are flavorful and very spicy. However, the people who were cooking these types of food were mostly from Taiwan and Hong Kong, known for their lighter and sweeter dishes. So the end result was a mashup of Taiwanese food, with inspiration from Szechuan and Hunan, using ingredients familiar to American palates that often didn’t exist in China. That is how the deep fried, sweet and spicy dishes we know and love originally found its way onto Chinese menus. None of these dishes were “authentic,” but new immigrants opening Chinese restaurants copied what seemed to be working and these similar tasting dishes with the same names materialized all over the United States.

In the early 2000s, other Asian ethnicities (Thai, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese) with more “authentic” menus flooded urban cities, giving adventurous eaters some alternatives to the well-loved Americanized Chinese food. In recent years, first and second generation Chinese-Americans have embraced their roots and opened up restaurants featuring true Chinese cuisine, such as hand pulled noodles, steamed buns, and whole fish. Fusion cuisine has also taken off, combining both Asian and European styles to create an entirely new category of dishes.

How Chinese food will evolve from this point on, no one knows. The possibilities are endless!

 

✿ Katie ✿

A Tour of China

Even though I was born in China, I moved to the U.S. at the age of four, and I have no memories of living there as a child. Aside from my parents and my brother, all of our family is still residing in China, so we don’t get to see them very often. I have been back to visit three times. The first two times, I went back with my parents and only visited the two provinces where my maternal (Hebei) and paternal (Hunan) grandparents lived to visit with family. For my most recent visit, I brought my husband back with me, and I had the opportunity to visit many of China’s popular tourist attractions for the first time with him.

We purchased the tour on Groupon, through a company called Affordable Asia. The cost included airfare, 5 star hotel rooms with breakfast, and the major tours in each city (Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai). I also used Ebates and got 6% cash back! Overall, it was a terrific deal, and I would highly recommend it.

BEIJING 

Our first stop was Beijing. On the first day, we visited Qianmen, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Summer Palace.

Qianmen (Front Gate)
Qianmen Archery Tower

Qianmen once guarded the the southern entrance into the Inner City.

Tiananmen Square

This was a very meaningful spot for me. The Tiananmen Square protests (Tiananmen Square Massacre) took place in April-June 1989. I was born only 20 days after the protests ended. My father was was one of the students who were present, and my mom talks about how she was afraid that I would be born fatherless. I hope to interview my dad about this and expand on this story in a future blog post.

Forbidden City

The Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty the to Qing dynasty. It contains 9999 rooms and was forbidden to the common people.

Summer Palace

The Summer Palace is composed of lakes, gardens, and palaces, and was the summer retreat for the emperor.

 

The next day, we saw the Great Wall, Ming’s Tombs, and the Olympic Park.

The Great Wall is one of the most well-known landmarks of China. It spans over 5000 miles and is still considered one of the most impressive architectural feats ever constructed.

Great Wall of China

I have never been to the Great Wall before and didn’t know what to expect. The first realization I made about the wall was that it is EXTREMELY STEEP. It was also extremely crowded, as most tourist locations in China are, so it was even more precarious to try to maintain balance while climbing up. For some reason, people liked to stop randomly in the middle of the wall, so that proved to be an additional challenge. Going back down wasn’t easy either. I had to use my knees to keep myself from propelling face first down the wall, and towards the end, my legs felt like jello. However, after seeing so many photos of this impressive structure, actually being at the Great Wall was pretty amazing and surreal.

The next stop was the Ming tombs. There are 13 Ming dynasty emperors buried in this area, a spot specifically chosen according to fengshui  风水 principles, surrounded by both mountains and water.

Dragon-headed Turtle Tablet Pavilion

A 7 kilometer road, known as the Spirit Way, leads into the complex. It is lined with stone animals and officials, which guard the tombs. At one end is the Dragon-headed Turtle Tablet Pavilion.

For our last stop of the day, we went to the Olympic Park, which is where the Water Cube and Bird’s Nest are located. I still am in awe of the opening ceremony that China organized in the Bird’s Nest in 2008. It really was unparalleled.

Hepingmen Restaurant

Our tour guide told us about one of the most famous Beijing roast duck restaurants, HePing Men. A group of us from the tour decided to go there for dinner that night. Everyone relied on me to converse with the waiters, since none of the workers there spoke English. We ended up with way too much food, but the roast duck was superb. We also gave the restaurant a huge headache when we told them that we wanted to split the bill. This is simply not done in China. Somebody always foots the entire bill, and fighting for it (including physical contact) is required in order to save face.

XI’AN

The next city on the itinerary was Xi’an, a city full of historical treasures. It is one of the oldest cities in China and was the former capital. The city marked the starting point of the Silk Road and is home to the Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. We visited the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the Terracotta Army that day.

Big Wild Goose Pagoda

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is a Buddhist pagoda originally built during the Tang dynasty. The pagoda has five stories and leans to the West.

One of the pagoda’s main functions was to hold sutras (scripts) and figurines of the Buddha that were brought to China from India by Buddhist monk and scholar, Xuanzang.

Pit One – Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Army was constructed for the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang and took over 700,000 workers to complete. The site was discovered in 1974, by farmers digging a well in the area. Four pits have currently been excavated, and excavation is still ongoing. Pit one is the largest pit and contains over 6000 figures.

Musicians Playing Traditional Chinese Instruments

That night, we went to go see the Tang Dynasty Show, one of the most popular attractions in Xi’an. The performance started out with musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments while we were served dinner. The two ladies wearing purple and red dresses are playing the erhu 二胡, which is actually the instrument that my mom played and performed in college.

Tang Dynasty Show

The show was primarily comprised of dancing, accompanied by a live orchestra, that told the story of the concubine Wu Zetian, and how she rose to power to become an empress. The combination of the music, dance, and costumes, made for a breathtaking performance. 

SHANGHAI

Shanghai was the last city on our group tour as well as the most populated city in China. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t great while we were there, but we were still able to enjoy much of what the city had to offer.

The Bund – Shanghai

The Bund runs along the Huangpu River and from it, you get a glimpse of the impressive modern skyscrapers in the Pudong district. It was formerly part of the Shanghai International Settlement and features 52 buildings of various architectural styles from all over the world.

While in Shanghai, we went shopping during the day, and at night, we went to a few bars as well as karaoke, with our new friends from the tour group. Then, it was time to say goodbye and fly into Changsha, Hunan to see my dad’s family.

HUNAN

We arrived in Changsha and was picked up by my uncle and my cousin-in-law, whom I had never met before. We drove back to my uncle’s condo and unpacked our things. For dinner that night, my aunt, cousin, and her husband took us to a restaurant that served street food local to Changsha. The Hunan province is well-known for its love of spice in its dishes. My husband loves eating spicy things, but my relatives in China were skeptical that an American could handle the Hunan level of spice.

Street Food – Changsha, Hunan

At the restaurant, my husband definitely had to step out of his comfort zone when my cousin ordered chicken feet, snails, and whole turtle, just to name a few, all of which contained lots of spicy peppers. His favorite were the spicy crawfish (called little lobsters in Chinese). My relatives were very impressed with my husband’s ability to handle the spiciness and keep up.

The next day, we drove with my uncle to the town of Zhangjiajie, which was a four hour drive from Changsha. After arriving there, my uncle told me that he was deathly afraid of heights and that my husband and I would be seeing the sights on our own.

Tianmen Mountain

On the day that we arrived, we rode a cable car for 30 minutes to the top of Tianmen Mountain. We climbed to various spots around the mountain and also walked on the glass bottom bridge.

Glass Walkway – Tianmen Mountain

It wasn’t nearly as nerve-wracking as I thought it would be. It was extremely crowded, though. I’m at least glad this didn’t happen when we were on the bridge.

Tianmen Cave – Tianmen Mountain

To come down the mountain, we rode escalators for what seemed like an eternity. Then, we had to walk down these 999 steps, going through the Tianmen cave, which formed naturally after a cliff collapsed in ancient times. My legs felt like jello again, for the second time this trip.

The next day, we went to Zhangjiajie National Park, the first national park of China, and covering over 50 square miles. What sets Zhangjiajie apart are the pillar-like formations throughout the entire park.

Zhangjiajie National Park

The park contains an abundance of flora and fauna due to its high humidity and subtropical climate. The pillar-like structures were formed by physical erosion due to the vegetation that grows on it and when ice on the peaks expanded during the winter.

Floating Mountains – Zhangjiajie National Park

These peaks were the inspiration to the floating peaks featured in the 2009 movie, Avatar. This particular column shown has been renamed “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain” in honor of the movie.

 

Overall, the trip was a magnificent success. It was an amazing opportunity to be able to visit the iconic landmarks of my homeland with my husband, as well as be able to visit with relatives I hadn’t seen in years.

 

✿ Katie ✿

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother – Review & Personal Reflection

The author, Amy Chua, and I have a lot in common. We are both Chinese-American women with respectable careers, married to American men, and born to parents who immigrated from China to America. Now that I am a parent, I am also able to relate that aspect of her life on a more personal level. Although I didn’t have tiger parents myself and don’t intend on strictly using the “Chinese” method of parenting for my children, I appreciate the way Amy Chua depicted the contrasting belief systems about parenting between Asian and Western cultures. This book depicts her parenting approach but also reveals how she was unexpectedly humbled by her daughters in the process.

Amy Chua with her husband, Jed, and her two daughters, Sophia and Lulu, and their two samoyeds, Coco and Pushkin

When Amy described her parents’ experience of coming to America for the first time, I was also reminded of my parents’ story.

“With only their student scholarships to live on, they couldn’t afford heat their first two winters, and wore blankets around to keep warm. My father got his Ph.D. in less than two years and became an assistant professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.”

I stayed with my grandparents in China for two years while my parents got settled, before my dad came back to bring me to America. My dad told me recently that is one of his biggest regrets, and he still wonders if leaving me impacted me and made me feel abandoned on a subconscious level. My mom had to waitress without a work permit in order to make ends meet, and my dad completely switched majors in order to get a better paying job for our family. Even though we were poor for a long time, my parents made sure I never went without, and I had no idea.

“We started off as outsiders together, and we discovered America together, becoming Americans in the process.”

I acclimated to living in the United States much faster than my parents did, due to my young age. But I still felt like an outsider along with my family for a very long time. We looked different, ate different foods, and spoke a different language at home. At times, I resented my family for not being more American, eating pizza once a week or having a family beach house instead of traveling to China to visit relatives. I was embarrassed that my parents had an accent and often made grammar mistakes when speaking English. What I didn’t realize was that their accent, and all the accents of first generation immigrants, symbolizes the adversity they had to endure, and the obstacles they overcame through sheer determination and hard work to get to where they are now.

“Do you know what a foreign accent is? It’s a sign of bravery. Those are people who crossed an ocean to come to this country.”

Only now, as an adult, have I come to realize how unique and precious my childhood was and how hard my parents worked to give me everything I could ever want.

When it comes to marriage, I had always assumed I would marry another Chinese man, mostly because my friends were predominantly Chinese. However, my husband appeared suddenly in my life at precisely the right moment, and we both knew right away that our fates were sealed. Amy Chua expounds on her feelings toward marrying a non-Chinese person below.

“A tiny part of me regrets that I didn’t marry another Chinese person and worries that I am letting down four thousand years of civilization. But most of me feels tremendous gratitude for the freedom and creative opportunity that America has given me. My daughters don’t feel like outsiders in America. I sometimes still do. But for me, that is less a burden than a privilege.”

I have to say that I have similar sentiments as Amy. Even though I have no regrets about marrying my husband, the fact that he is from a different culture and doesn’t speak Mandarin creates more of a challenge to preserve my Chinese culture in our family and with our children. However, he brings an equally diverse background to our little family, and we are able to incorporate the best parts of both of our cultures into our lives. He is also working diligently to learn Mandarin since we are planning for our children to be bilingual.

Although the book details many of Amy’s seemingly harsh methods for parenting her daughters, it also includes a great deal of humor. She is quick to poke fun at and point out the absurdity of some of her own ideas when it comes to her children.

“I wanted her [Sophie] to be well rounded and to have hobbies and activities. Not just any activity, like “crafts,’ which can lead nowhere—or even worse, playing the drums, which leads to drugs—but rather a hobby that was meaningful and highly difficult with the potential for depth and virtuosity.”

Despite the fact that Western and Chinese parenting contrast in many ways, it is indisputable that in both cases, parents love their children more than anything and strive to give their children the best life possible. Even though the journey may be different, the end goal is the same.

“Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.”

 

My husband and I on our wedding day, along with my dad, mom, and brother

 

 

✿ Katie ✿