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Chinese New Year Like A Local
Published:2014-02-18 11:26:44

Chinese New Year Like A Local
By Kevin Reitz

If this is your first Chinese New Year, you are in for a crazy treat. The chaos of New Years Eve in China is unlike anything in the world. My first experience with fireworks, like other Americans, was a 4th of July display. They occur yearly, under controlled circumstances, in a large field, with airspace and people cleared for one mile. They obtain police permits and follow strict city ordinances, ensuring ambulances and fire trucks are nearby. In China however, these explosives can be purchased by anyone and ignited anywhere: on busy streets, in small alleys between 20-story apartment complexes, from rooftops. 

Pros know the way to go. We usually start the evening on the balcony of whoever lived on the highest floor closest to downtown. From that vantage, we could watch the steady flow of amateur explosions across the city and pre-game appropriately, imbibing anything but baijiu. Around 10pm, we made our way out into night when the frenzy escalates. By midnight, conversations could only be held by screaming at the person next to you, the dazzling array of light and sound continuing deep into the night. 

I am a bit older and wiser now. My Chinese in-laws are more reserved and do not get caught up in the fireworks spectacle. They do, however, drag me through a multi-day marathon of liquor and weird food. Here are the highlights, and a few tips to survive if you find yourself invited into a Chinese home for the holidays. 

When the rest of the city is lighting off fireworks, it feels unnecessary to throw more fuel onto the fire. In fact, it may take all your concentration to dodge the misfires and flaming shrapnel. But if you are hanging with a local family in their hometown, there is less general chaos, and you will get to light your own. This is your chance to drop a few hongbaos on some huapaos. Smart money is on roman candles and are sure to be a hit with your friends. The Big Red Box of Crazy is a must as well, since it can single-handedly produce a complete fireworks display. 

My in-laws have their entire eating schedule planned out a week in advance during chunjie. Each family hosts a lunch or a dinner, taking turns preparing huge feasts. Dishes full of food are stacked on top of each other. In our family, it takes five days to get through everyone. No one wants to be outdone, so each family buys extravagant food, each meal more impressive than the last. The first few meals might be a standard spread of duck, fish, shrimp, pork chops, and veggies. By the last night, we are eating rabbit skulls, unrecognizable meat products, and fertilized duck embryos. I have had to smuggle balut to my wife in the kitchen so she could make it disappear for me. 

For five days, I will be drunk at lunch, drunk at dinner, sometimes just barely sobering up between the two. It is exhausting. The drink of choice at the men’s table is obviously baijiu, but I can claim a handicap and just drink red wine, beer, or yellow wine. They let me off easy because, y’know, I’m not afraid to play the laowai card. Then there is the smoking. Whenever a man is going to light a cigarette, he passes one out to every guy sitting at the table first. Sometimes one dude will have collected five or six before he’s ready to smoke his first one. And when he does smoke that first one, he will pass one out to everyone from his own pack first. Then everyone lights up in unison. If you think the pollution is bad in China, you should not be anywhere near a Chinese dinner table during chunjie. 

Stay Warm 
I grew up in Chicago where the wind chill can make it far below zero. I have lived in the mountains of Colorado for 8 years where I built a fire for heat in the winter. I thought I could handle the cold, but I have never been colder than Chinese New Year in Xiaoshan. Many houses are just too big to fully heat. They have 5 floor houses where 3 people live and, rather than turn all the heaters, they just put on more clothes. They walk around all day in big coats and two layers of pants. I was ill-prepared my first time. The highlight of the day was a warm shower. This year, I will be wearing my winter wardrobe. The whole thing, all at once. 

The hongbao is a method of handing someone money in exchange for roughly the same amount of money at a later date. “Here is ¥200 cash to repay you for the ¥200 cash gift you gave me just now.” It saves the entire Chinese population from having to buy presents for their loved ones. The good news for the laowai is, no one expects you to pass any out. If you happen to receive one, just take it, give them a hearty xin nian kuai le, and open it later.



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