An American’s Reflections on Spending Chinese New Year in China

Chinese Home Front Gate

It’s been exactly a year and a half, and once again I’ve found myself in China. Mudanjiang to be exact. Why such an obscure place like Mudanjiang? Because it’s my wife’s hometown, and it’s Chinese New Year, the most festive and family-centric holiday in the Middle Kingdom.

The last time I was in China for the Lunar New Year was six years ago, way back in 2011. That was my second Chinese New Year in China, and I vowed it to be my last for the next several years to come. I guess I stuck to my plan pretty well then, as six years is a pretty long hiatus.

But why did I avoid Chinese New Year for so long? Isn’t it a fun time, considering it’s the country’s most important holiday? It certainly can be, but it really depends on you, your personality, and your past experiences. If it’s your very first Chinese New Year, then it can be a blast. I know my first back in 2010 was wild and unforgettable. The beer and liquor flowed freely, the in-laws cooked all kinds of tasty and intriguing dishes, I shot firecrackers for days straight, and it was fun to see just how holidays are celebrated on the other side of the world from where I grew up.

Chinese New Year Decorations in Dalian
节日快乐 (Happy Holidays) – Chinese New Year decorations in Dalian.

But I was a different person back then. I was only 23 years-old and had very little travel experience. Asia was a whole new planet to me.  I loved getting retarded drunk, laughing, making a fool of myself, and just being a typical young idiot. I had no discretion for what went in body, either – China’s deep-fried foods, sugary drinks, and mystery meats were all welcome to enter my stomach. As long as it tasted good, I’d eat it. And I was so very patient with my in-laws back then, as it was my first time to meet most of them. They’re decent folks.

Fast forward seven years to 2017, and I’m now 30 years-old old. There are very few places in Asia I haven’t been, and I no longer see the continent through the eyes of a rose-tinted glasses wearing naïve Westerner. Rather I see things and places for what they truly are. I also now consider my personal health to be one of my highest priorities in life. I avoid alcohol 99% of the time, I eat clean, and I know better than to eat junk food just because it tastes good. I now know my in-laws all too well, and I have little patience for their pesky quirks. I try to be civil with them, but I can’t keep up the charade and fake smile for more than a few days.

I had my fun in my youth, mostly due to having a typical youngster’s carefree attitude, but now I live my life with more regard for what’s best for me in the long run, not for what I want at the moment. Call me a prude if you like, but I believe I’m doing what’s right.

China, just like Japan, really is a strange country. China is China, and many things that happen here only happen here and nowhere else. That said, words can only do so much in describing how China really is. It’s cliché to say you need to go to a country to truly understand it, but this adage applies more to China than any other country I’ve ever been to. You could blindfold me and throw me into China unknowingly, and I would know exactly where I am within seconds. This is because China assaults your senses in so many ways – some of which are exciting, but others of which are greatly appalling. Your nose, your mouth, your eyes, your ears, your mind – they’re all overwhelmed.

Anywhere and everywhere in China has the lingering smell of low quality cigarettes. There’s also the strange but distinctive smell of uniquely Chinese foods, such as 茶叶蛋 and dirt cheap Chinese sausages, lingering in every market and convenience store. And it seems like only in China do I see so many spilled liquids on the sidewalk, some from food and others from the human body. Avoiding stepping on someone’s regurgitated (or fecalated) lunch is just another day in China. And why does nobody seem to flush public toilets in this country?

There’s always a sense of impatience and panic when first arriving to any Chinese transportation hub – bus stations, railway stations, airports – they’re all the same. The masses of people rushing to get to their gate, the strangers’ hands nudging on your back in a vain attempt to make you move faster, the mean-faced officials shouting on megaphones herding the masses like sheep, the lack of cleanliness, and the overwhelming sense of disarray. I can think of no place in the world where I hate going from point A to point B more than in China. It’s the ultimate test of a traveler’s mental fortitude and patience. Times this by ten when it’s Chinese New Year, and everyone and their mother is going back home for the holidays.

Changchun High-speed Railway Station
You don’t want to be anywhere near here around Chinese New Year!

But let’s not forget those things that make China awesome to a young bright-eyed Westerner arriving in Asia for the first time. For example, I’ll never forget how busy my eyes were checking out all the eye candy the very first time I went to Dalian in the summer of ‘09. The number of natural beauties I saw all around me was shocking to this fresh-out-of-the-Arkansas-countryside American. Their long black hair. Their pale-yellow skin. Their slim figures. Their sense of style. I had never seen so many natural beauties in my life.

And the food! Everywhere around me was food that I had to try – baozi, Chinese dumplings, lamb kebabs, tanghulu, malatang, and hot pot. None of the food I was seeing even remotely resembled the food I was used to seeing at all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets in Arkansas. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder why, as all the food I was eating was far superior to the “Chinese” food back home. The mouth-numbing “ma” (麻) sensation of eating Sichuanese cuisine was a feeling I had never felt in my life prior to my first trip to China.

Yes, for better or for worse, China is an insanely unique country, but I’ve gotten way off topic. Hopefully I’ve set the scene though. We’re in 2017 now, I’m in my wife’s hometown of Mudanjiang, and I know China all too well these days. The country can longer throw any unexpected curveballs past me.

While I am generally a fan of Dalian, the city I called my second home for nearly three years, I’ve never exactly been a fan of Mudanjiang. Dalian is considered a “second tier” Chinese city, but Mudanjiang is a “fourth tier” city at best. China can be crazy just about anywhere you go, but it gets crazier when hopping down from tier to tier. The smells get smellier, the staring gets more intense, the loogie spitting becomes more frequent, the modern “Western” amenities start to vanish, scatterbrains scatter more, and people’s general sense of personal safety fades into oblivion. For example, jaywalking is the norm anywhere in China, but in Mudanjiang the people are even more haphazard. Walking straight into fast-moving traffic on a six lane avenue doesn’t seem to faze people in the slightest.

Signs of the coming Lunar New Year are all around me. Advertisements and PSA’s constantly remind people to return to their hometowns to celebrate the New Year with their families. Bright and flashy decorations are also prominently displayed in every public square. Every apartment window sill has a hanging red lantern, and every apartment door has a diamond-shaped “fortune” banner plastered on it.

Chinese Apartment Complex on Chinese New Year
Apartment window sills glow from hanging red lanterns.

While it can literally be translated as “Spring Festival” from Chinese to English, Chinese New Year in Northeast China ironically feels anything but spring-like. In fact it’s quite literally the coldest time of the year. Snow is practically guaranteed in Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost prefecture where Mudanjiang happens to be located. In fact Vladivostok, Russia’s easternmost prominent city, is only about 150 miles from Mudanjiang. And though it’s blistering cold in dongbei during this time of the year, it’s not quite Mongolia cold, though it’s very close. If Mongolia is a 9 out of 10 on the cold factor scale, then Heilongjiang would be an 8.

It’s now Chinese New Year’s Eve night, and my wife’s family has prepared a giant spread of a feast. Steamed carp, braised pig’s skin, deep-fried shrimp, and cucumber salad just to name a few. Some are amazingly good, while others I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Nevertheless, it’s a meal I always enjoy, as everyone at the table is in a festive mood.

Chinese New Year's Eve Feast
A Chinese New Year’s spread could put an American Thanksgiving’s spread to shame!

But what I don’t enjoy is my in-laws’ insistence that I eat any and all dishes to the point where I literally feel like I’m gonna vomit. You see, in China it’s considered polite and humble to refuse anything and everything offered to you, even if it’s something you want. If a host offers you something, you refuse, the host insists you take it, and this goes back and forth until you eventually “begrudgingly” accept it. If you’re dying of thirst and someone offers you a refreshing drink, you should still pretend like you don’t want it until the host eventually just forces you to take it. That’s Chinese culture, and I understand that’s just the way they do things here.

But the problem arises when you genuinely don’t want something. I’m not a big fan of eating a duck’s face, but that’s considered the best part of the duck to many Chinese. And seeing that I’m a laowai who’s come all the way from the other side of the world to be at this special meal, my Chinese in-laws want to give the “best” part of the duck to their most special guest – me. But I hate duck face and the mere thought of putting it in my mouth makes me wanna gag. No matter how many times I refuse, they’re still ultimately going to give it to me because they think I’m merely refusing it out of politeness. So in the end, the duck face winds up sitting on my little plate untouched and wasted, as I don’t wanna touch it with a ten-foot pole. Replay this exact same situation 100 times over the span of ten days, and surely you can see why it would get tiring to me. I know what I like and what I don’t, so I wish people would just let me select what I want to put on my little plate.

While eating is surely the most important aspect of Chinese New Year’s Eve, drinking has to be the second most important. Well, if you’re a man, that is. And last time I checked, I unfortunately – at least on this rare occasion – am.

While drinking was a blast during my university years and early twenties, it’s anything but to my now 30 year-old self. No, I’m not a prude or turn my nose up at drinkers, I just don’t enjoy drinking anymore. I’m in the best shape of my life these days, and I know my lack of drinking is just one of many reasons why. Going to the gym and lifting weights every other day and binge drinking every weekend just don’t mix. If you don’t believe me, then try. And let’s not forget those nasty hangovers that leave you largely unproductive for the 48 hours following a night out. While I could be feeling fresh and back on my own two feet only a few hours after a long night of drinking when I was younger, nowadays I simply can’t.

Chinese Man Holding a Bottle of Baijiu
“Baijiu, anyone?”

But right now I find myself looking down the rim of a Chinese shot glass, slamming shot after shot of disgusting baijiu, a strong sorghum-based Chinese liquor that’s about 110 proof. I knew this moment was coming. “It’s only once” I think to myself. Just do it one time to give face to the in-laws, and then get back to just being my good ol’ healthy self. But no matter how much I try to kid myself, I know I won’t be able to only drink “once” over a ten-day period with these crazy people. And writing this ten days later after the events actually took place, of course I can say my intuition was right.

After downing glass after glass, I found myself feeling the drunkest I’ve been in years. I guess that’s no surprise considering I might only drink two or three beers a year these days. While I didn’t get blackout drunk, I do clearly remember getting “act-a-fool” drunk. Lots of videos of me acting silly and giving speeches to the family in Mandarin surfaced on the in-laws’ social media accounts the following day. It felt like all of Mudanjiang was commenting on my wacky antics, but at least they were all positive and light-hearted remarks. Still quite embarrassing.

But before I got act-a-fool drunk, the in-laws did as they always do before the clock strikes midnight on Chinese New Year’s Day – they made dumplings by hand. They usually make a variety of flavors, with pork, leek, and egg dumplings being the most popular. Shrimp and egg dumplings are also classic. I love Chinese boiled dumplings, so this is always my favorite part of the whole night.

One tradition up in the Northeast is to put coins into some of the dumplings. Some are filled with yi mao coins while others with wu mao coins. When the dumplings are cooked and ready to eat, everybody rushes to eat as many as they can, as everybody wants to get one of the lucky dumplings filled with a coin. If you bite into one of the lucky dumplings, you get a cash prize of 50 yuan or 100 yuan, but not only that, it’s also considered good fortune for you in that calendar year. Though I got lucky way back in 2011, I didn’t get lucky this year. Shucks.

While I still was feeling the full effects of five or so shots of baijiu, I clearly remember watching the New Year Gala, yet another New Year’s tradition in mainland China. Every year the Chinese government prepares a grand TV presentation, which features elaborate dancers, wacky comedians, and not-so-talented Broadway-esque actors. While I appreciate that the Gala goes hand-in-hand with the festive New Year’s season, the whole thing just reeks of cheesiness, staged reactions, and government propaganda. It’s so cringeworthily bad that I don’t see how any Westerner could genuinely enjoy it. The mainland Chinese eat it up, though. On the bright side, I’ve noticed some of the 80’s and 90’s generation youngsters showing more and more distaste in the annual Gala.

Now the clock is only minutes away from striking midnight, and all the men of the family want to go outside and let off some fireworks. I had originally (and naïvely) planned to photograph the occasion, but I wouldn’t dare touch my camera when I’m this inebriated, as it’s a recipe for disaster.

We trekked downstairs into the deep and cold night outside, surrounded by thick snow, and I was handed a freshly lit roman candle. I surprisingly didn’t harm myself with it, considering how absurdly drunk I was. My father-in-law and his two brothers (my uncles-in-law) dealt with the big and flashy fireworks, which lit up the dark and hazy sky with bright colors. The clock struck midnight as they were doing all this, and it was now officially the Year of the Rooster according to the Chinese zodiac calendar.

Chinese Firecrackers Debris
The morning after aftermath

Ironically enough, that also happens to be my wife’s zodiac year, as well as her dad’s and grandpa’s. One’s animal year only comes once every twelve years, so you gotta enjoy it while it lasts. Coincidentally, the year of the tiger (my Chinese zodiac) was back in 2010, the year of my first Chinese New Year celebration in China. I still have another five years to go until the next one.

As we all made our way back up to my wife’s grandfather’s apartment (the place where all the New Year’s Eve festivities always occur), the festive atmosphere quickly ran out of steam. People started giving their polite excuses on why they had to get back home, and they started disappearing one by one. After helping clean up for a bit, my wife and I were next to leave.

The wild night was finally over, and I could finally get some well-needed drunken blackout sleep. Another Chinese New Year’s Eve is down, and I hope I don’t have to repeat the process for at least another three years. But unfortunately for me, Chinese New Year’s celebrations don’t just abruptly end on New Year’s Day like in America, rather there’s still another five to ten days (depending on the family) left to be social, eat, and drink. But that’s a story for another time, as I could write an entire book based on what happened in the following ten days.

Right now I’m sitting on a slow train from Mudanjiang to Yanji, which officially starts yet another grand adventure in China for me. This time I’m solely focusing on the Northeast, China’s “Rustbelt.” That said, expect more China stuff in the coming weeks. And for now, I wish everyone a prosperous Year of the Rooster! Good luck in 2017.

Glowing Red Chinese Lantern
Still two more weeks of celebrating left to go, as the celebrations don’t officially end until Lantern Festival (the 15th day of the lunar calendar).