Chinese New Year with My Family
by June Lee
The Tale of the Monster Nian
A long, long time ago, in a small village in rural China, people were living happily and peacefully. They had very few worries except one: One day each year, a monster named Nian would come out of his nest after the sun went down. The monster would rampage through the village, destroying houses and killing animals throughout the night, and finally went back to its lair when the sun rose. The villagers were very fearful and troubled by the monster and tried to come up with a solution to get rid of it once and for all. They noticed that the monster disliked the color red and loud noises, so, right before the day Nian came out again, all the villagers put on red outfits, decorated their front doors in red, and prepared a lot of firecrackers. And it worked! Nian hated all the red and the noise from the fire crackers. He ran away and never came back to the village.
About Chinese New Year
The story above is one of the many versions of the origin of Nian, and it partly explains how we celebrate this most important holiday in Chinese culture.
The word Nian means year. We call it Guo Nian (passing Nian) when celebrating Chinese New Year. The word passing is almost as important as the word Nian, the monster who represents troubles from the past year. When we meet one another during Chinese New Year, we always say, GongXi! (Congratulations!). By that we mean, Congratulations for surviving the ordeals of the past year, and now it’s time to celebrate. More often than not, we add FaCai (get rich) right after GongXi. (There’s no time for subtlety when you just survived the Nian.)
Chinese New Year with My Family in Taiwan
People usually get seven days off for the Chinese New Year holiday, starting the day before Chinese New Year’s Eve. When I was little, we always went to my grandparents’ house in Taichung to celebrate. I still clearly remember the festivity during that time. There would be red paper decorations on my grandparents’ front door. We would all wear red clothes, and very important, they would be new clothes! My mom’s three younger brothers would also be there. Neighbors would hang out by the front door chatting. There were snacks everywhere and all the time.
My grandma would prepare a huge feast for Chinese New Year’s Eve. There are certain foods we must have, because the names of the foods are pronounced the same way as our most important wishes for the New Year.
- FaCai: Yes, it’s “get rich” again. It’s a kind of moss made up of fine strands (technically, it’s a terrestrial cyanobacterium) that we use as a vegetable in some dishes. It’s pronunciation is similar to the word for “get rich;” therefore, it’s quite common to find it on Chinese banquet menus.
- NianGao: It’s a kind of rice cake and is pronounced the same as the phrase “going higher/taller every year.” The white NianGao is flavorless by itself but can be cooked with vegetables and meat. The sweet NianGao is made from red beans.
We always eat it pan-fried, and it’s one of my favorite dishes.
- Yu: This term means fish and the word is pronounced the same as the word for “leftovers.” It signifies the wish for abundance, so that there are “leftovers” every year.
- JiaoZi: These are dumplings and are also much loved. Their shape is very similar to ancient Chinese money.
As a child, my favorite part of Chinese New Year was the red envelope. Traditionally, adults would put some money in a red envelope and give it to children as a gesture of good wishes. As the only kid in my family at that time, I was the sole beneficiary of this tradition. My grandparents, my parents, my three uncles, plus numerous neighbors and family friends, would all give me red envelopes. I thoroughly enjoyed walking around the neighborhood with my grandparents, wishing all their friends “get rich,” because I knew after they got rich, I’d get rich too!
Gambling is another favorite tradition for my family on Chinese New Year’s Eve. After dinner, all the adults would move from the dinner table to the mahjong table and begin their days-long mahjong journey. I was not allowed to go near them. So I would happily sit in my corner, count my red-envelope income and daydream about what I could spend it on.
The first few days after Chinese New Year were pure bliss. I was constantly eating all the yummy food and had a lot of money for a change. However, I had to come back to reality around the third day after Chinese New Year, because school was about to start in a couple of days. My school always gave us mountains of homework assignments for the holidays, and one of them was diary keeping. They always asked us to keep a diary for every single day of the three-week-long winter holiday, and I always started writing my first entry just two days before school started. Needless to say, my Chinese New Year holidays always ended in stress, regrets, and resolutions. And yet, I repeated the same mistake every single year.
Keeping the Tradition
I wish I could tell you that this happy time lasted forever, but my grandma was diagnosed with cancer when I was in secondary school and passed away soon after. My uncles moved to the US and my mom moved my grandpa to Taipei to be close to us. He, too, passed away just a few years after my grandma did.
It’s hard to keep the tradition when so much has changed. Still, Chinese New Year is significant to me: it means togetherness for my family, wherever we are. We are now creating our own tradition. Although it’s hard to fully experience the atmosphere of Chinese New Year in Germany, we make sure that there are always fortune-related dishes, red clothes, and lots of happiness.