02/06/2013 - 02/08/2013 70 °F
Undoubtedly, the Lunar New Year, which is also called spring festival, is the most important and celebrated holiday in China. It is similar to Christmas in the U.S., except that there are way more people celebrating the spring festival given the population of China. The official holiday is from Jan 1st to the 7th of the Lunar calender, a total of 7 days off work. It is important that people travel home and be with their loved ones, therefore it is the very peak of the travel season in China. The annual "Cui Yun" (spring travel) officially starts about a week before the New Years and ends a couple of weeks after the New Years. It was reported that 30 million people left Beijing for home during the spring festival this year, more than the population of many countries in the world. I suspect all major cities in China had a similar number of immigrant workers leaving for home for the New Year, Guangzhou is certainly one of them.
The community Zhexiong lives in started to feel more and more deserted as the New Year neared. The lights in the buildings became more and more sparse and the play ground finally became what I consider reasonably occupied. Streets outside became empty, and crowds and crowds of people suddenly seemed to have disappeared. No traffic jams, no horns, no loud music spilling out shops, no chaos. It was as if the city was gradually falling asleep: it actually felt peaceful! I would say Guangzhou is a much more pleasant city to live in during the New Year holiday. We drove out almost everyday, and could actually stay in our lane given the space that was available on the roads (those who have been in China and seen how Chinese drivers drive will know what I am talking about here). The buses were running, mostly empty.
Cooking was probably the most important aspect of the New Year when I was growing up. Back when I was a little girl, it was only during the New Year that kids would have abundance of various foods besides for sure get a set of brand new outfit. It always amazes me to think about how our lives have changed. The market today is filled with everything you can think of. Whenever we want, we can eat those food that used to be treats for the New Year. Even though the tradition has continued: people still stock up candy, nuts and various meats and fish for the new year; it is really for the atmosphere more than anything else. When I was growing up, my entire family on my father's side, all my aunts and uncles and their kids will gather at my grandparents' house. We would start deep frying, roasting, steaming a week before the New Year's Day. I remember the back room next to the kitchen, being used as a natural refrigerator in the cold winter months of Wuhan, filled with foods of all kinds that the entire family of almost 30 people ate for an entire week.
Since I moved to U.S. 14 years ago, I have not spent a single spring festival at home. It was a rare opportunity for me to be in China with my family during the holiday. Per my request, I asked my father to prepare some of the traditional foods, which you might not find palatable. It is worth mentioning that there is certainly a regional difference in terms of traditional foods. For example, dumplings are typical for the new year in northern parts of China where as I did not grow up with that tradition.
Another thing kids are excited about is to get red envelops of money during the Chinese New Year from family and friends. In Guangzhou, red envelops are particularly common and are not restricted to kids only. January 8th of the Lunar Year, when people are officially back to work, younger unmarried coworkers may ask married, older coworkers for red envelops. People with lower ranks may ask their supervisors for red envelops. When somebody asks for red envelops, they are supposed to say "gong xi fa cai", which translates to "wish you wealth". Often times, kids can get red envelops for just being kids, without such formality. The amount of money in the red envelop depends on the closeness of the relationship. People tend to carry different size envelops with different amounts of money, and decide which amount is appropriate seeing who the person is. The money you use in the red envelops should feel crisp, if not brand new from the bank.
Zhexiong prepared 100 red envelops of 5 yuan each, which is about $1. This is for anybody at work who might ask for one. He also prepared 10 envelops of 100 Yuan each, for those at work he would consider friends. My kids each got a red envelop of 300 yuan from him, which made the kids ecstatic. I, when meeting JiePing's (my good friend from college who is in Shenzhen) daughter, gave her a red envelop of 1000 yuan. I suppose I might have overdid it as Jieping called me that night saying it was way too much after opening the red envelop at home. I believe after being away for so long, I am probably becoming more and more socially awkward in the Chinese society.
P.S. Zhexiong reported to us that he used about half of the 100 5-yuan envelops he prepared when he went back to work. When he got to his bureau, there was a line of service people waiting at the gate to say "gong xi fa cai". Those were the cooks, cleaning lady, guards who at the bureau, but he does not personally know.