Dear Family and Friends,
Happy Chinese and Lunar New Year!!!!!!!!
>> (Please note that this post was written in 2010. Obviously some of the time-sensitive info here is different for the current year.) <<
Today (February 13th) marks the eve of the first day of the Lunar New Year in 2010. Although it is celebrated by most Asians, different countries have different ways of celebrating it. In this note, I can tell you only about the Chinese ways. And in most cases, the traditions, beliefs, and practices I mention are the ones that just my own family has passed down and kept.
Also, instead of writing an essay this year, I decided to present this note as an array of tidbits on Chinese culture that are easily dipped into (although the note is best read beginning to end):
– The Chinese Zodiac cycles through 12 years, each one associated with an animal. Your year of birth determines your zodiac sign and personality.
– Today is the first day of the new year of the Tiger. Tigers are born in 2010, 1998, 1986, 1974, etc. and are known to be brave, competitive leaders who are charming and well-liked.
Food, Family, and Community
– Meals are always considered a joyous time for community and bonding. The Chinese value food and community mealtime so much that “Have you eaten yet?” is often the very first thing asked after a hello in any conversation. It’s the equivalent to the American “How are you?”. In very traditional villages, it’s a sin to let anyone—even strangers—eat alone.
– In Chinese restaurants, especially “dim sum” restaurants over a weekend, community and family values are very evident:
– The restaurant is often an extraordinarily huge open space in which everyone can see everyone. It’s as if we lose our sense of self and become part of the community. (Compare this to booths and divided sections in an American restaurant.)
– Each table is always round, stressing the importance of sitting in a circle.
– Tables with families often have all three generations present (the elderlies, the adults, and the children), illustrating the importance of family togetherness. In contrast, people of the same age often go to restaurants together in America.
– Dishes are served “family-style,” meaning they’re placed in the middle for everyone to share. The Chinese also serve others before they serve themselves.
– “Dim sum” translates to “to your heart’s content”—maybe because patrons point, pick, and choose dishes to their heart’s content.
– But while gathering together for a meal is important even on an ordinary day, it is considered almost sacred during the New Year’s Eve dinner. So many families travel to see their relatives just to eat with them that the days surrounding Chinese New Year are known as the world’s largest annual human migration, with more people traveling than during the winter holiday season worldwide.
The Nian Monster and “Gung Hay Fat Choy”
– The famous phrase “Gung Hay Fat Choy”—which people say to mean “Happy New Year”—actually literally translates to “Congratulations and Be Prosperous.” Congratulations on what?
– According to an ancient myth, the Nian monster (“Nian” translates to Year) was an ugly dragon that came out in the winter to eat people and livestock. Soon, villagers discovered that it was afraid of the color red, loud sounds, and light. When people were lucky enough to survive another cold winter and another Nian / Year, they were congratulated—hence “Gung Hay Fat Choy.”
– Over time, traditions to start off the new year have evolved, but most have their roots in scaring off evil spirits and the Nian monster: wearing red, passing out lucky red envelopes with money, leaving the lights on for the first night of the year, and watching traditional dragon and lion dances accompanied by loud drums and loud, red firecrackers.
Lucky Number Eight, Hair, and Prosperity
– The word for the number “eight” (baat or bat) in Chinese sounds similar to the word for “prosperity” (faat or fat), making it the luckiest of all numbers. That’s why the Asian supermarket chain in Boston is named Super88 and not any other random number. It’s also why the Chinese decided to have the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony on 8/8/08 at exactly 8:08:08 local time. It’s THAT big of a deal.
– (Not really related to prosperity, but just pointing this out: The number “four” is the least lucky Chinese number because it’s a homonym for “death.” When it stands alone, it is unlucky, but if it is paired with another number, the phrase can change. “49″ means “dead enough,” “48″ means “die prosperous,” and “45″ means “can’t die.”)
– The word for “prosperity” is also a homonym of the root word for “hair” (tuw faat). For fear of washing away their prosperity, the Chinese do not wash their hair on the first day of the new year and for fear of cutting their prosperity, they do not cut their hair in the first few days following the new year.
The Role of the Elderly and Dead Ancestors
– Aging is a positive thing in China (although Americans might think we never physically age.. hehehe). Age goes hand-in-hand with social status, power, and command for respect. A word for “old man” (gong) is the same as the word for a god. (For those of you who are Cantonese, think of “gong gong” the maternal grandfather and “ley gong” the thunder god.)
– The Chinese believe that dead older relatives have power over the living. We depend on them for good health, fortune, and prosperity. We bow to their shrines, leave food out for their spirits to eat, burn fake money so they could use it in the afterlife, and address our prayers TO them—not have prayers about them. Indeed, dead ancestors are treated like gods. Again, it’s all about the power of family.
– Unlike American homes with lots of photos of children and the new generation, Chinese homes have lots of photos of and even shrines for grandparents and great-grandparents.
– Interestingly, even though New Year’s is the biggest and happiest holiday in China and funerals of grandparents are one of the saddest occasions, New Year’s and funerals share a few traditions.
– Just like how we do not get haircuts in the beginning of the new year, we also do not get haircuts for 49 (whose homonym is “dead enough”) days after an elderly’s death.
– The two main occasions in which red envelopes (“hong bao” or “lai see”) with money are passed out—especially from adults to unmarried children—are the New Year and at funerals. During the New Year, the amount in each envelope is always an even number, while at funerals, it is always an odd number. It perhaps illustrates the contrast between happiness and the death of an ancestor.
American New Year vs Chinese New Year
– Chinese New Year is a time to recognize once again that it’s not about me. It’s about us. It’s about eating together and being together with living family members. It’s about how well I’ve remembered dead ancestors throughout the year to be able to get new blessings from them this year. It’s about family and community.
– Right before the new year begins, the Chinese clean their homes, buy new clothes, and get haircuts to start anew and get rid of bad spirits. Being proactive is found right before the new year. Being reactive is found after the new year begins.
– When the Western New Year begins, it is about a newfound sense of determination in achieving individualistic goals, while the Chinese New Year is about a renewed sense of commemoration and remembrance of family and dead ancestors. It’s all about people together, not individuals.
– While Americans get things done on their own, the Chinese slow down just to hope for things from others. Americans become proactive, while the Chinese become reactive and open to receiving more blessings like happiness, good health, and wealth from dead ancestors.
– Influenced by Buddhism and Eastern religion, we recognize that to be happy, all we need to do is sit back and be thankful for what we are Given. After all, there’s nothing more worthy of gratefulness than surviving another Nian—another Year—and still being on this beautiful planet with family, friends, and community.
So to all my family and friends who celebrate Chinese New Year or any other Lunar New Year, I wish you all the happiest new year possible.
Be healthy. Be happy. Be prosperous. Be hopeful. But most of all: Be grateful.
GUNG HAY FAT CHOY!!!!!!!! XIN NIAN KUAILE!!!!!!!! =)
(And yes, that would be a lucky 8 exclamation points.)