Spending the holidays with someone else’s family can be a fraught experience in any country and culture. Different families have their own traditions and unique ways of doing things, and no guest wants to inadvertently cause offense. The experience is especially complicated for the many foreigners who will spend Spring Festival, AKA Chinese New Year, with Chinese families. Whether you have family of your own or you’re accompanying a friend or loved one, here are a few tips for celebrating Spring Festival with a Chinese family.
Source: Angela Roma
Bring (generic) gifts
The nice thing about visiting Chinese families at Lunar New Year is that while it’s polite to bring gifts, generic presents are expected and even welcome. You don’t have to spend a lot of money, nor do you have to spend a lot of time picking out something personal for each family member, most of whom you’ve likely never met before.
A gift box of in-season fruit or a nice bottle of baijiu are safe bets for practically any family makeup. Bring a gift basket of vitamins or traditional Chinese medicine if there are elderly people in your host family, as this will earn you extra points by demonstrating your respect for the older generation.
Prepare hong bao for the kids
Hong bao, those little red envelopes filled with money, are the most exciting part of Spring Festival for Chinese children. If you’re out of college, and especially if you’re already married, find out if there are any children in the family and set aside some money so you can give them each a little something.
Preparing a hong bao for younger members of the family is customary for anyone working and/or married. While not expected from a foreign guest, it’ll be a nice touch and a good way to return some of the hospitality you’re shown. You can put as much or as little money as you like in the hong bao, but 100RMB is a good amount – not too much or too little. Don’t use coins and remember that your notes should be crisp and new looking.
If you’re younger and unmarried, you may even receive some hong bao yourself from more senior family members. If this happens, accept them graciously (with both hands) and be sure to thank the giver profusely.
Be an easy eater
Try to sample a little bit of everything during the big Chinese New Year banquet, as this will show you’re appreciative of the efforts made and open to Chinese food culture. Be sure to say everything is delicious, but, be warned, if you show a particular liking for a dish, your Chinese hosts will keep loading up your bowl until you have to physically stop them. When you’ve eaten all you can, leave a little something in your bowl, otherwise your hosts will think you’re still hungry.
It’s a good idea to let the family know ahead of time if you have any allergies. The same applies if you can’t handle spice, especially if you’re visiting a family in one of China’s famous spicy food regions of Hunan, Yunnan or Sichuan. Your hosts will be mortified if you’re unable to eat any of the food prepared, and may even jump up from the table to cook a new dish just for you. And that would obviously be mortifying for you!
Be prepared to watch TV
After the big meal, most Chinese families will sit around the TV and watch the Chinese New Year’s TV Gala. There’s a bilingual version which your hosts may be willing to put on for you, but, even so, the show can get pretty dull pretty quickly if you’re not a native Chinese speaker. Politely watch for a while, and, if you get bored, suggest you take the children outdoors to set off fireworks. Chances are the kids are just as bored as you and looking for an excuse to escape the TV, too.
Prepare a new outfit for New Year’s Day
It’s traditional to dress in new clothes on New Year’s Day. Most parents will buy their children a new outfit for the occasion, so if you’re taking your kid to celebrate Spring Festival with a Chinese family, make sure you buy them some fresh togs so they can participate in the tradition. The outfit doesn’t have to be fancy, but some families will take the opportunity to dress their children in traditional outfits known as tangzhuang. Subjecting a foreign child to this would be a real crowd pleaser!
It’s not essential to dress in new clothes if you’re an adult, but make sure your New Year’s Day outfit is clean and doesn’t look too worn.
Roll with the fussing
Expect your host family to fuss over you to the extreme, worrying about whether you’ve brought enough warm clothes, piling extra blankets on your bed, and making sure you’ve had enough to eat. The level of fussing a foreign guest receives in a Chinese household can be a bit suffocating at times, but just remember that the attention, however unnecessary, is coming from a place of caring.
Try not to get visibly vexed when grandma suggests for the 16th time that you should wear more layers or when auntie thrusts yet another pork rib into your bowl because you look hungry. Politely accept their hospitality whenever possible, as it will make them happy to know that a foreign visitor was comfortable during their stay.
Any other tips for spending Spring Festival with a Chinese family? Drop them in the comments box below.
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