China’s a big country, so it makes sense that there would be variations in holiday traditions, but every New Year I feel like each of my friends has a different idea of how to celebrate the holiday. I just told Rosa that I’ve cursed myself by washing my hair this morning and she had no idea what I was talking about. (BTW I find that link so funny because really, the answer to any question about the reason behind any Chinese tradition is that it’s lucky or unlucky.)
So I want to start a conversation, and please leave me a comment about this. I’m going to write down some of the traditions I know and have been observing (or forced to observe) since birth. Tell me yours, and let me know if you’ve never heard of mine!
A friend was just telling me about how one of his friends always got her hongbao put under her pillow after she slept on New Year’s night, like a Hongbao Fairy. He said he made fun of her till she cried (so cruel) because obvs no one ever sleeps on the hongbao. But in my family, we get the hongbao (red pocket) full of massive wads of ca$h (ok, 20 bucks) the night before and put it under our pillows to sleep. My mom is from Hong Kong and none of my mainland friends had ever done that before. You?
2. Lion dances
I love being in Hong Kong for New Year because you can go to the big fancy malls and see lions dancing and spitting lettuce all over the floor! I forgot why that happens but obviously (see above) it has to do with luck, and probably a pun on the word vegetable (cai). I rarely saw that happen in mainland China, but I did see it once or twice in the south, right next to Hong Kong. Is it a Cantonese thing?
3. Hair washing and showering
I can’t seem to find the pics I took of the larger part of the hairdresser’s in China, but this is a (rather old) pic of me on the bed where you get your hair washed/scalp massaged/body massaged all at once. It’s awesome!
Back to the larger point: you’re not supposed to wash your hair or even shower on New Year Day because you’ll be washing away the luck bestowed upon you. This isn’t one I observed as a kid; I learned it while living in the mainland. My Taiwanese friends seem not to do it either. Is this something people give up when they get to the US, because Americans are crazy about showering? Seriously, Americans love to clean themselves. I’m going to go out on a limb here and admit something personal: in the winter, I often shower every other day.
4. New Year foods
Here’s my old students, Viv and Helen, chopping celery to make dumplings!
In my family, we just ate something sort of Chinese for New Year because we were in a tiny town in TN and didn’t really have access to Chinese foods or ingredients (or the will to use American ingredients and go through the time and effort of creating Chinese delicacies from them). When I went to the village in the mainland to teach, my students told me that it’s tradition to eat dumplings, and it’s also tradition to hide a coin in one of them and whoever finds it has extra luck. That seems especially unlucky to me though, biting into a dumpling and finding a coin (and breaking a tooth, and losing a filling, etc).
5. Teacher’s Day
I can’t find anything on this, but when I was studying in Hong Kong, our Chinese teacher invited us to her house on a specific day of New Year because that was the teacher’s day. I’ve not heard about that since! But I know that each day following New Year has some significance, like one day you go see your teacher, one day you go see your friends, etc. Anyone else know about that? What’s the schedule?
6. Get a new outfit!
My favorite tradition! There are MAJOR sales on clothes before the New Year because you’re supposed to get a whole new outfit to start the year off fresh! I couldn’t find a pic of a sale so I will treat you to this picture of Calvin Klein’s window display in Hong Kong for the year of the chicken. I think it gets the point across. But again, not everyone has heard of this tradition, and I didn’t know about it until I went to HK. Maybe parents want to hide it from their American-born kids so they don’t have to pony up for new clothes?
There might be more, but lunch break is over. Things I miss most: the HK light show, fireworks going off at all hours every day for two weeks, the general good mood, the flower market. Leave me a comment about your traditions, or argue with mine! I’ll fight you!