Thursday, February 07, 2008

Xin Nian Quai le! (Happy New Year!)

Shenzhen is eerily quiet today as the city's many inhabitants have finally made their way back to their familial homes to ring in the new year with lots of food, television and hong bao giving. (These apples are sitting on our dining room table and say "Gongxi fa cai" which I says something to the effect of welcoming wealth in the New Year. They are big on that here, in case you haven't noticed!)

Here are some traditions many southern Chinese people practice at New Year:

On New Year's Eve the house is cleaned and polished thoroughly, all the bed linens and clothes are laundered and then the house is decorated with red and gold lanterns, elaborate coin braids, couplets (poems welcoming the new year that will bring wealth and happiness)are pasted on the door frames. Most of the decorations come in pairs to encourage balance and harmony.

Throughout the night fireworks displays fill the city skyline and firecrackers snapped in the streets. These are thought to frighten off bad spirits, but in big cities like Shenzhen, there are now ordinances against them so some people buy recordings of firecrackers to listen to throughout the night. (How postmodern is that?) Some people also leave their lights on all night to keep the spirits away.

Today is New Year's Day and everyone wears new red clothing, and often times new shoes (which are thought to stomp out bad luck)

It is considered bad luck to take out the garbage today (in case you throw away the wealth the new year will bring you) and some people consider it bad luck to wash your hair as well. (Not sure of the meaning behind this one.)

Today everyone goes to visit their extended families bringing gifts of fruit, seeds, chocolates (often in the shape of golden coins or funny boat shaped nuggets)and pastries to welcome sweetness and productivity in the New Year.

Part of this is also giving hong bao (or red envelopes full of cash) Married couples should give hong bao to their unmarried friends and family, the children of their married friends and sometimes to service people. There are also some rules about seniority and so on that I don't claim to understand completely.

As far as amounts go, the rules muddy completely. I'm still not sure if these envelopes are considered a symbolic gift of money or an actual gift of money and have had conflicting reports from my Chinese friends. But I made some executive decisions and take solace in the fact that as a foreigner I am not expected to participate and so any slight mistakes will be forgiven. I've prepared a big pile of them and am quite excited to give them out. I'll let you know how it goes!

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