Getting into a serious romantic relationship in China, is something that many foreigners have at one point or another experienced. Anyone who has had the joy of experiencing such a relationship, will tell you that despite all the difficulties and cultural differences, it is actually not much different than dating someone from your own country. That is, until, it comes time for the Chinese New Year!
During the Chinese New Year, many foreigners will often opt to go out of China, for travel or visiting their homeland. This is due to the majority of China simply being closed during that time, with major busy cities suddenly appearing as “ghost-towns”.
For those foreigners in a relationship with a Chinese man/woman, they will know that during this festival, it will be close to impossible to convince their partner to leave the country, as it is this time of the year that every Chinese family is expected to be together.
Photo: The Standard
As a foreigner, you could perhaps go down to Thailand or Malaysia on your own, or with a group of friends. Or, you can choose to experience something totally different and unique.
For many Chinese families, the parents (or grandparents), still live in the “countryside”, or less urban areas than what most foreigners are used to. Depending on where your partner is from, some of these may be on the outskirts of the city you live in, or sometimes in whole other provinces. Regardless of location, these places (where one is originally from) are referred to as their “LaoJia” (老家), literally meaning – “old home”. There is a big chance that your Chinese boyfriend/girlfriend, regardless of how modern they seem now, have their roots in such locations. If they did grow up there, more often than not, it will be in villages where most/all the relatives and close family members are in close proximity, if not immediate neighbors.
Going back to their “LaoJia” can often be heard described as tiring and annoying, as the entire family and relatives will be there, and will ask countless questions of the younger members, regarding career, education, or love-life, almost like an interview. However, regardless of the level of annoyance, (which everyone around the world has a fair share of), this festival is an important time for Chinese people, and comes with a feeling of warmness and love.
If you, as a foreigner, are invited to come and spend the festival with your partner’s family, there are a few things to keep in mind (and yes, you will also be asked a million questions, so prepare answers in advance!).
Before anything else is being said, it is important to mention, that going to your partner’s “LaoJia” and meeting the family during the festival can often mean that this relationship is serious, with a high possibility of marriage approaching. It may not always be the case, but be prepared to be asked questions regarding the subject, and also try to avoid going at all if you do not see a future. It’s best to talk to your partner about each-other’s expectations before agreeing to go!
Photo: MD Pennysaver
First of all, as in any festival or family-meeting, it is not only polite to bring presents, it’s almost a given. The few weeks before spring festival, any large supermarket such as Walmart or Tesco will have aisles of red-packaged goods on sale, anything from candy and yoghurt to wine can be found, and anything could be a safe bet to bring as a present. Be ready to buy more than just one or two items. If indeed your partner’s LaoJia is in the countryside, where many of the relatives live as well, you will be going around to each and everyone’s houses, so you better not come in empty handed!
Of course, the best/most expensive present, should be given to your partner’s parents. If there are younger kids in the family such as young siblings or cousins, you may choose to prepare “HongBao” （红包）, which are red envelopes with money inside, and are customary to give during the festival (you may also receive some from the elders).
If your partner’s LaoJia is somewhat far from the city, be prepared that they will not only stay for one or two nights, so unless you are ready to make the journey back to the city yourself, you may need to prepare to spend the night (or a few). Spending the night might depend on the family, but normally will be accepted whole-heartedly (assuming there is enough space).
In the true old village homes in the Chinese countryside, often there are no real beds or dining tables. The living room (also guest room), will often have a “Kang” (炕), which is a wooden/brick platform which serves as a bed, chair, table, or resting surface, and is often heatable. A normal sized Kang can fit several people on it. The Kang has a compartment underneath for placing coals in the winter, making it hot and comfortable to sit or sleep on. During the spring–festival, many of the family members will spend the majority of the time sitting and resting on the Kang, and drinking tea. During lunch and dinner, a smaller wooden foldable-table will be brought and placed in the middle of the Kang, and food will be served on it. It may seem uncomfortable and crowded at first, but in the colder places in China, this is the best place to be!
Photo: LA Times
You will be expected to eat a lot! Food may seem a bit stranger than what you are used to at restaurants, but there will most probably be plenty of choices to choose from. As always, there might be a few dishes which may not be to your liking, but be prepared to be asked to try them. Politely refusing is fine, but be ready that refusing just once is not going to be close to enough!
You may also drink a lot! Like every large family gathering in China, alcohol is more often than not, a major ingredient. Baijiu (white wine), beer, brandy, cognac, and even some strange spirits you have never tried (such as deer-blood wine), might all be served throughout the feast (as well as before and after it). Make sure to drink slowly and carefully, you don’t want to be a drunken mess before dinner time.
At the night of the spring festival, different provinces, cities, regions, or even individual families, might have their own different set of traditions. You may go outside and watch (or even light your own) fireworks. Some families might go to temple at the late hours of the night (assuming there is one nearby). One thing that almost all families will do is sit together to watch the widely-beloved New Year Gala show.
The next few days are for visiting family members, and yes, for more eating and drinking. It might start to get overwhelming after the second day, but it is a good chance to escape from the urban craziness, and enjoy a simpler life. It also won’t be much fun anywhere else in the city-centers as everything will be closed.
Should you have the opportunity to join such a unique experience, you should most definitely go! Not only will you be a part of something very different (for foreigners at least), but you will come out of it with a much better understanding of Chinese culture, and with plenty of interesting stories to tell in the future! Don’t shy away from the experience and be ready to be the center of attention as a foreigner. No one will expect you to totally understand or be familiar with the traditions, but everyone will make sure you are having a good time!