Going home for the holidays can be a nerve-racking experience in any culture. All families tend to have their own traditions and unique ways of doing things and no one wants to inadvertently cause offense or hurt feelings. The experience is especially complicated for the many foreigners who will spend Spring Festival with loved ones in China and experience firsthand this most important of all traditional Chinese holidays. Whether you have a Chinese family of your own or you will be accompanying a Chinese friend to his/her home for the holidays, we provide a few tips here to make spending the holidays with a Chinese family a bit easier.
The nice thing about visiting Chinese families is that while it is polite to bring gifts, generic gifts are expected and even welcome. You don’t have to go overboard, nor do you have to spend a lot of time picking out something personal for each family member. A gift box of in-season fruit, a carton of cigarettes, and a nice bottle of local spirits are safe bets for practically any family makeup. If there are elderly people in your host’s family some vitamins or traditional Chinese medicines are good gifts which show your respect and care for the older generation.
Don’t forget the hong bao
Hong bao are red envelopes filled with money, and for Chinese children, getting hong bao is the most exciting part of the Spring Festival holiday. If you’re out of college, and especially if you’re already married, prepare hong bao for the younger members of the family. Find out ahead of time if there are any children in the family and set aside enough money to make sure you can give them each a little something. You don’t have to blow your entire savings on hong bao for the entire extended family, but if there are any younger brothers or sisters in your friend’s family, nieces or nephews, or if your friend has children of his/her own, preparing a hong bao is customary, and, while not expected from a foreign guest, would be a nice touch and a good way to return some of the hospitality you’re being shown. You can put as much money as you like in the hong bao but 100RMB is a good amount – not too much or too little. If you’re younger and unmarried, be prepared. The family may give you a hong bao themselves! If this happens, accept it graciously and be sure to thank them profusely.
Try a little bit of everything
Try to sample all of the dishes on the table, but be warned, if you particularly like a dish, your Chinese companions will be sure to load your bowl up with your favorite until you have to physically stop them. You might want to let your host know ahead of time if you have any allergies or if, for instance, you can’t handle spicy foods, especially if you’re dining with a family in Yunnan or Sichuan, where practically every dish is loaded with la jiao, or hot peppers. Your hosts will feel bad if you are unable to eat any of the food prepared because it is too spicy or was cooked in peanut oil and you’re allergic (and they might even go so far as to get up and cook a new dish just for you). So give the person who invited you some advance warning about any food issues so the cooks can be sure to prepare something suitable for your palate.
Be prepared to watch TV
After the big meal, most Chinese families will sit around the TV and watch the Chunjie Lianhuan Wanhui, or the Chinese New Year’s TV Gala. There is a bilingual version on CCTV 9, but even so, the New Year’s Gala can get kind of dull if you’re not a native Chinese speaker and it can be hard to keep yourself from nodding off. Politely watch the TV Gala with your hosts for awhile, and if you get bored you can suggest taking the children outdoors to set off fireworks. Chances are the kids are just as bored as you are and just looking for an excuse to get away from the TV as well.
Wear new clothes
On Chinese New Year’s Day it is traditional to dress in new clothes. Most parents will buy their children a new set of clothes for the occasion, so if you’re a parent and celebrating Spring Festival with a Chinese family, make sure that your own children can participate in the tradition by buying them a new outfit for Chinese New Year’s Day. The outfit does not have to be particularly fancy, but some families will use this occasion to dress their children in traditional outfits, or tangzhuang. Other families will simply buy a nice set of regular everyday clothes. If you’re an adult, you do not have to dress in new clothes, but make sure the clothing you wear on New Year’s Day is clean and does not look too worn. Be sure to compliment the children in your family on their beautiful new outfits.
As the guest, your host’s family will probably fuss over you, worrying over whether you’ve brought warm enough clothes, piling extra blankets on your bed, and making sure you have enough to eat. The attentions of a Chinese family can be a bit suffocating at times, and it is hard not to get annoyed sometimes by all of the extra attention. Just remember that their attention, however unwanted, is coming from a place of caring. Try not to get visibly aggravated even after grandma suggests for the 16th time that you probably should wear more layers or when auntie thrusts yet another banana into your hand because you look hungry. Politely thank them and accept their hospitality, even if it is annoying, because in the end you’re only spending a few days there and it will make them happy to be able to take care of your needs and to know that the foreign visitor was happy and comfortable during their stay.
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Keywords: hong bao gifts when visiting Chinese family staying with Chinese family for Spring Festival spending Spring Festival with Chinese family Spending Chinese New Year with Chinese family
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18 years in China (7 in Hong Kong and now 11 in Shanghai)
2 daughters and a Shanghai wife.
Don't kid yourself that you ever belong, they tolerate you, are amused by you, (sometimes) but you are still the waiguoren. You could save the father in law from certain death by pulling him out of the way of a speeding truck..but you will never belong...don't kid yourselves.
That said my wife loves me. Of course, she loves the kids more. Why, you ask, because at least they're 1/2 chinese.
Jan 20, 2011 19:30 Report Abuse
hi everyone,,yes china is better country compare to other ,but in other side have a problems same in my country..but china is nice place ive ever seen..most are busy working,...i work here 4yrs and i enjoy..but the problem is if im not busy too boring..so just keep urself busy and keep on working and never forget to pray..thanks
Jan 14, 2011 19:20 Report Abuse
In my time here I have noticed some problems that I have, and I have developed some solutions. This might help somebody else over CNY, especially if like me you have 10 days of it.
Problems I have encountered include:
Feeling isolated. My Chinese family will probably spend most of the time talking local dialect, not that my Mandarin is very good.
Also my wife gets so carried away with the conversation she forgets I am not part of it. And often when I am in mid (English) sentence taking to her, someone will cut in and I am forgotten. But if I interrupt them I am being rude. Because of bilingual conversations and brain processing, often my wife just tunes into Chinese.
Additionally, the family is very loud.
Solutions I have developed include:
Take the iPod, with isolation ear phones. Firstly for the noise, just use the earphones, as they cut out a lot of noise.
Listening to my music is also therapeutic as it is MY noise. This at least gives me some sense of control when I am being marshaled around by the collection of matriarchs.
Suggest going for a walk. This is common practice over CNY. It gets you out of the house, and you can walk on your own while still being with them (so to speak). iPod time again.
Sleep. Possibly China's number one pastime. Say you are going to sleep and you will be cheerfully excused. Go to the bedroom and iPod or book time (take a book).
Food, you have to grin and bear it. Try a small bit of everything. If there is one dish you passed over, say you already tried it no one is checking. Say everything is 'hao chi' but don't do it enthusiastically if you hated it. If offered food take it, and then leave it.
Drink. Bai jiu (hate it) but the most you will ever be made to drink is three glasses for toasting (good luck comes in 3s). Usually though you can ask for beer instead.
Personally, I find CNY stressful and exhausting. I just grin inanely and let it flood over me until I run away and hide in the bedroom. I am sure my Chinese family think I am weird, but they expect me to be, I am a foreigner.
Jan 13, 2011 19:19 Report Abuse
Totally agree with you. I too have encountered the same problems; isolation, food palette discrepancies, etc... I have been in China for 4 years now and I have finally overcome the longing for home. My wife is also Chinese and we have a three year old son. So I am part of the Chinese family now. The Chinese do have a way of making you feel very welcomed though. I enjoy the attention as I am a public performer (I play Scottish bagpipes) so I am used to it. So for all the noise and loud talk I do have a my version of getting back and quieting them down. I pull out my instrument and PLAY! As I play I grin ( tongue in cheek) as they must now bear and grin it this time. Payback! Satisfaction guaranteed. It may not last long but the reactions are priceless . Mind you, my playing is quite enjoyable but the bagpipes in close quarters can give you a real jolt! I always get a kick out of that.
On the whole, the New Year in China is fun. I enjoy the food, the people, the sites and sounds. So if you are a foreigner reading this, open your heart and mind to all that is different and try to embrace it even though it may be aggravating and just smile at it all. It can be fun when you try to put yourself in the spirit of the season. Enjoy!!
Jan 16, 2011 17:00 Report Abuse