Chinese New Year: hate it or love it, it's going to change your life ... especially after you wed a local
When Jodi Hu's in-laws come to town five days before Chinese New Year, it's time to cook. "My husband's father is the kind that likes to start soaking the garlic two weeks in advance," she chuckles. "The meal is planned weeks beforehand and the cooking takes two days." The Spring Festival, and especially the dinner on New Year's Eve, is a time for Chinese families to come together and the Hu family is no exception. The only difference is that one member of the family, Jodi, is American. Her maiden name is Marotta, and she grew up in Long Island, NY.
Jodi first celebrated Chinese New Year with the Hu family in 1986. The Hu's are a large Shanghainese family (the matriarch has 12 sisters) and Jodi was a student at Fudan University who was dating their son. Since that first Spring Festival, Jodi has married that student at Fudan, been back and forth between America and China and finally settled down with her two kids in the Beijing suburb of Shunyi. She's become part of the Hu family and a full-blown participant in the New Year's festivities, which now occur at her house every other year. "We usually go to Carrefour for a huge shop before the rest of Beijing does," she says of their preparations. "I stay with the cart and become the base while my father-in-law and husband shop. This tactic works really well when the crowds are impossible."
Most long-term expats in Beijing seem less enthusiastic. "Chinese New Year is not my holiday," explains Julien Chol, an importer of anti-pollution masks. "It's just something that happens."
"I hate New Year's," says Checo Fernandez, a 26 year-old musician. "The fireworks start at eight in the morning and then it's a constant battlefield until three A.M. My dog spends the holiday huddled in the shower."
The difference between hating and loving the Spring Festival is a matter of connection. It's lack of attachment that makes the holiday so meaningless for many foreigners and the discovery of connection that can change it so completely for people like Jodi who have become part of a Chinese family.
Jonathan Ansfield, a 33 year-old correspondent for Newsweek, had his first Chinese New Years in 1998. "Going in I was more focused on the Super Bowl," says Ansfield (whose hometown team was competing that year). "I wandered around confused like a migrant worker who didn't have enough money to get home." He did case out the temple fairs and bought tang yuan, sweet glutinous rice balls that are normally brewed in soup, at the supermarket. "But I’d never seen them raw, so I didn’t realize that you had to cook them. They looked like sugar-powdered truffles, so I took them home and just tried to crack them with my teeth."
For Mr. Ansfield, this ambivalence changed as the years went on and he started living with his wife. A lonely, somewhat lost time turned into something comfortable. "Now there's a program to follow. We go home to my wife's family in Hebei on the afternoon of New Year's Eve and everybody sits around and watches the New Year's Gala." The CCTV New Year's Gala is an hours-long show of comedic skits that broadcasts every year in the hours leading up to midnight on New Year's Eve. "It's a tradition," Mr. Ansfield says. "Everyone talks about the different stars on the show. 'Who's going to come out for such and such skit?' 'What will Zhao Benshan do this year?' We use lines from the show on each other. Some of them stick and we end up using them for months after. People wrap dumplings in the background and trade stories. There are all these people that you don't keep up with on a daily basis, and this is the time that you get all this life-cycle type news. So and so got a new job, so and so is sick. It's these kinds of traditions that make the holiday feel warm."
The entrance into a Chinese family is not something that can happen all at once. All of Jodi Hu's Chinese New Years have been with her in-laws, but her participation in the family has changed. "The first couple years I guess the family didn't take me seriously," she says. "They were honored to have a foreign guest, but my Chinese wasn't very good and my boyfriend did a lot of translating."
For many, the novelty and division of having a waiguoren in the family never really goes away. Chris Parsons, the children's entertainer who goes by Mr. Magic, says that he enjoys Chinese New Year, he learns a lot and his wife's family is really polite to him, but there's still a divide. "It's not like they're holding an 11-foot stick to keep me a certain distance away," he says, waving his hands. He smiles a knowing smile, one that says you know what he means. "It's normal. There's just a kind of distance. They still buy KFC for me because they're afraid I won't like the food."
Holidays are often stressful for couples, explains Dr. Claudia Fedarco, a family counselor at the Beijing United Family Hospital, especially when the spouses come from different backgrounds. "There's often the expectation that every mealtime will be spent with relatives, but that's not what people want to do. Spending all your vacation doing things you don't want to do is not really resting, and that causes problems." This often changes when people have children, though. "Both parents want to see that the culture, even the culture that doesn't come from their side of the family, is passed on to the child and this causes them to embrace the holiday more whole-heartedly."
Dr. Fedarco's observations agree with Jodi Hu's experience. She says that the turning point in her relationship with Chinese New Year came in 1995 when she and her husband returned to Beijing with their son. "That's when I really became part of the family and part of the celebration," she says. She understands why Chinese people look forward to the holiday and these days she's thinking of her father-in-law's spring rolls: "Great sweet ones filled with red bean paste and salty ones made with pork and cabbage."
The rest of us are missing out.
by Michael Armstrong
####The Rat Pack
What the Year of the Rat has in store for YOU
As Beijing explodes with fireworks, a few of the city's mystical (and superstitious) few are looking ahead at what the new year has in store for us.
Years: 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008
Animal nature: Charming, opportunistic, self-promoting, critical
Famous Rats: Shakespeare, George Washington, Mozart, Plato
As a maniacal opportunist, you'll love your namesake year, which is full of career advancement, love affairs and investment opportunities right out of Donald Trump’s wettest dreams. Take that extra cash and buy a table at Lan for all the potential lovers and business partners you’ll impress this year.
Years: 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997
Animal nature: Alert, diligent, natural leader, stubborn, hates failure
Famous Oxen: Richard Nixon, Walt Disney, Charlie Chaplin, Van Gogh
Despite six favorable months in ’08, your diligence will go unnoticed if you don’t learn from the rat’s self-promotion prowess. It wouldn’t hurt to spend a few nights networking at the FC Club to keep your career on track.
Years: 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998
Animal Nature: Emotional, suspicious, short-tempered, risk-taking
Famous Tigers: Sun Yat-sen, Karl Marx, Marco Polo, Tony Leung
The rat year is about cold logic, and the Tiger's emotional hot-headedness will set you back. It's time to calm down and make long-term plans, so sharpen your strategy skills with the Go Club and make career connections at the FCC’s Headhunter Nights.
Years: 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999
Animal Nature: Articulate, ambitious, cooperative, sentimental
Famous Rabbits: Michelangelo, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie
This year won't satisfy your workplace ambitions, but your love life will thrive as long as you maintain a Rat’s detached-ness. This fast-paced year requires excellent health, so head down to Bally Fitness and sign up with a fitness trainer today.
Years: 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000
Animal Nature: Energetic, honest, intelligent, obstinate, hot-tempered
Famous Dragons: Deng Xiaoping, Joan of Arc, John Lennon
Trust your intelligence and energy, and you will reap all the rewards of the Rat Year. This year will see the Dragon’s social life explode, so expect lots of drinks at the Stone Boat, lunches at Aperitivo and Wii time at Wain Wain.
Years: 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001
Animal Nature: Romantic, stingy, self-reliant and self-absorbed
Famous Snake: Mao Zedong, Charles Darwin, Mahatma Gandhi
You’re bursting with creativity and charisma this year, but using up too much energy could leave you drained ... especially right after Chinese New Year. Avoid retail therapy and impulsive purchases–you’d do better to recharge with an invigorating spa treatment at Bodhi instead.
Years: 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002
Animal Nature: Popular, cheerful, intelligent, independent, selfish
Famous Horses: Ang Lee, Wen Jiabao, Sandra Day O'Connor
You exude raw sex appeal and love to travel, but this year you’ll face months of hardships and should save cash by drinking at Kai and spend late nights brooding over your worries listening to dubstep at White Rabbit. When does 2009 get here?
Years: 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003
Animal Nature: Compassionate, materialistic, shy, pessimistic
Famous: Zhang Ziyi, Mark Twain, Rudolph Valentino, Barbara Walters
Your finances are in good shape, and romantic opportunities abound. You’ll face pressure at work, but you’ll have to learn to leave toil for tomorrow and take care of your health. Head to Identity Fruit for some fresh squeezed, vitamin-packed juice.
Years: 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004
Animal Nature: Clever, well-liked, shrewd, judgemental
Famous: Yao Ming, Julius Caesar,Eleanor Roosevelt, Leonardo da Vinci
Things are looking fantastic for monkeys this year, and you face tons of networking opportunities, so be prepared to meet the crowds, martini in hand, at Q Bar. Just be sure to take some time to rest from your busy life!
Years: 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005
Animal Nature: Diligent, quick-witted, bold, pragmatic
Famous: Confucius, Catherine the Great, Rudyard Kipling
You may have to watch your temper, and your wallet, during this potentially challenging year. Your social life should be more fun, though, so get to Latinos’ free salsa lessons to burn off your stress and meet new people.
Years: 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006
Animal Nature: Faithful, trust-worthy, anxious, sharp-tongued
Famous: Winston Churchill, Bill Clinton, Jane Goodall, Socrates
Change is in the air for dogs this year, especially with your career. Someone close to you will need a shoulder to cry on, though, so be prepared to buy him or her a milkshake at Grandma’s Kitchen and lend a sympathetic ear.
Years: 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007
Animal Nature: Courageous, tolerant, educated, irascible, naive
Famous: Chiang Kai-shek, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Schweitzer
Hurray! This year brings major improvements as long as you can focus on the present and are cautious with money. Single swine should set time aside for their social lives and head out on more dates, but pay a visit to Eric Paris Salon first so you’re really looking your best.