Feb 17

Part II: Chinese New Year & Family Time

Author: Bri Rodriguez-Cancio

This is Part II of a 4-part series on Chinese New Year to share special family memories of a good friend, who is from Shanghai, China. Please be sure to read the introduction and Part I: Chinese New Year's Eve.

Spending Time with Family

Remember that on New Year's Eve it is tradition that everyone must come home for dinner. This seems similar to Christmas Day in the U.S. or Christmas Day/Boxing Day in Great Britain and its former colonies... Or like a long Thanksgiving break!

As in any family, there are idiosyncrasies, family histories, hierarchies, allegiances and feelings to consider when scheduling family visits. These visits typically occur during Days 1-7 of the 15-day Chinese New Year Celebration. Naturally, one wants to be equitable and see all the necessary and important folks. Many decades ago, the government only allowed 3 days off. To harmonize with centuries of tradition, the more humble families would reunite for dinners only for the remaining days. Contrast with today, in which many Chinese families can squeeze in 7 days of eating, visiting and general festivities.

How does one accommodate 10, 16, or 20+ people in an apartment in a city like Shanghai where the population is 14+ million! (Contrast with approximately 8+ million in NYC.) You pick up the phone and call your most favorite restaurants, that's how! This modern convenience allows families to have more space, eat, and again, schedule visits, as the visit effectively takes place during the multi-course meal. If the host wishes, s/he can serve "light refreshments" at home and then everyone can head over to the restaurant.

Food & Drink

While regions such as Szechuan are known for their fiery, spicy cuisine, Shanghai dishes are known for their touch of sweetness.

For New Year's Day, one Shanghainese family always serves rice balls with sesame paste (a bit sweet) or meat (for those that love savory foods) in the morning [Tang Yuan or Yuan Xiao]. (If you are in Northern China, no rice balls will be served; instead, dumplings.)

Rice Balls

Another dish for certain Shanghai families is an egg dumpling soup [Dan Jiao].

Interesting side note: what happens when you marry someone from another part of China... or the world? How do you please, honor and commemorate each side's cultural/historical/culinary history? Sounds like a minefield to me. Or, what happens if you immigrate somewhere, to Lagos, to Alabama, to Sweden--how do you find the special ingredients for these special dishes? You improvise, no? Most certainly.

How about "Glutinous Sweet Dumplings in Sweet Wine" [Jiu Niang Yuan Zi]? Very traditional. The rice is fermented; there are small rice balls formed that go in the soup/broth (which becomes very glutinous). And, there are small red dried goji berries added for color and taste. These can be found at the health food sections of the market. I must taste some!

For drinks, the shortest toast to say is "Gan Bei!" This is the equivalent of "Cheers," but literally means "Dry Glass." Read more about the importance of an appropriate toast, with a lengthy list of popular examples.

How to Pass the Time

Nothing terribly "different" here--games, television, cards, board games. Starting on Chinese New Year's Eve, there is a marathon of a television special sponsored by the government that starts at 8:00 p.m. and goes to 1:00 a.m. (If you are on the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S., the show airs at 7:00 a.m. by CCTV.) The name translated into English is: Spring Festival Gala Evening. You can also wait a couple of hours or a day, and watch large excerpts on YouTube. It is a "smorgasbord" of the biggest dance stars, actors, talk show celebrities, magicians, etc. As I am writing just after Super Bowl Sunday in the U.S., I can see some similarities to the Half-Time "Event."

Fancy a game of Mahjong? This is a little bit like dominoes--ivory type chips, but with Chinese characters on them. Some families play for fun, but some will bring out the money and play for higher stakes.

Interesting fact: Did you know that many American Jewish women in the early 1900s took up Mahjong? I caught part of a PBS special on it recently and was fascinated while learning how and why it became so immensely popular for that population. For a slightly longer presentation, CBS Sunday Morning featured a segment on "Mahjong Madness" in 2014.

The younger generation is also taking up Mahjong. Interest is so piqued that there are even national conventions and boat cruises sponsored yearly. And this is not a past-time just for the ladies anymore... men are joining as well.

This post is Part II of a 4-part series on Chinese New Year:

Chinese New Year Introduction »
Part I: Chinese New Year's Eve »
Part II: Chinese New Year & Family Time »
Part III: Chinese New Year & Kids »
Part IV: The Lantern Festival »

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