Spring festival with a Chinese family

It’s an article from February 2015*
I was really shocked at first how much the way of celebrating of Chinese New Year is similar to the Catholic way of celebrating Christmas. I felt as if I was back home for a while. The Chinese New Year I celebrated with my girlfriend Momo and her family in Liuzhou, Guangxi Province in the south of China .

Momo’s closest family is composed of around 15 people including her parents, 2 pairs of uncles, grandparents and undefined, fluctuating quantity of cousins with the latter being however always less than 7. You start at 1 pm drinking alcohol with everybody at pace which can knock you down within 45 minutes. Usually after 25(minutes) it reaches the “stage of spinning” just to stay there. It could stay there because – to my surprise – in China you are not supposed to get drunk on such occasion. It contradicts my expectations, since when you start drinking so much/so fast in my social circles, then you do so exactly to get drunk. Subsequently you have 3 meals interwoven with activities like playing Mahjong or Chinese poker. I wasn’t allowed to play any of these but most probably because I don’t know how. Around 10 pm everybody go home to meet on the morning of the next day.
I always thought that white people in China enjoy a somewhat higher status however it’s not really the case when dealing with families. Of course it is being kept in mind that you are a foreigner and in my case it was followed by a lot of delicacy and sensitivity, but I wouldn’t really consider it an advantage. I’ve heard stories from friends who got together with Chinese girls where families simply rejected the very possibility of any relationship like this – not even mentioning marriage. In such case even if you meet the parents in person at some point you just find out that it’s not going to work. A Russian friend of mine after a year and a half relationship with a Chinese girl was simply told on Skype that “my family doesn’t agree” and that’s the end of the story with them never contacting each other again. It luckily wasn’t my case and going back to my story, I was immediately introduced to all the available important family members and the members of “the inner circle” (in China friendships can be similar to family relations).
There wasn’t a lot of talking though. Mostly we just ate, drunk or sat next to each other exchanging acts of courtesy but that’s maybe another peculiarity – here people don’t really talk to each other much somehow. Cementing of a relationship is not being done through talking and sharing experience but rather via more formal ways like helping each other, announcing things etc – in other way – words mean less than deeds. Thus after two days of sitting at the table and being fed too much of food that I don’t really like – I grew extremely bored and a bit annoyed. Of course from there happened some funny things like the 90+ grandfather asking me from which province I am or some amusing misunderstandings when I didn’t know what should I do and was left with playing dumb as the only option. However, in general nothing happened. On the second day my boredom had been (thank god) noticed and my girlfriend was told by her father to take me out somewhere what repeated every other evening for the next 5 days and improved the quality of my life substantially. And that’s actually the funny part of it – when I told Momo that I’m bored she laughed and said that everybody is but this is the tradition, so there is no other option than to follow it. She has also said however that spring festival isn’t really always like this and that even her parents to escape from family moments often go away from their home city during the holiday(like travelling etc.). When I heard her saying it, this was the moment when I realized that actually we are all not so different . My Christmas in Poland were always utmost boring with eating traditional weird dishes that nobody but old people like and characterized by watching TV together when there was no topics to talk about. There were gifts and visiting each other too.

When the time came, I was quite surprised that everybody gave me money. In China, older people give money to younger or dependent put in red envelopes(“Hongbao”).

In my case it wasn’t really big amounts however when I put everything together it came out that I got around 1000 Yuan which equals around 130~~ Euro what is of course more when thinking that China is cheaper. After counting we discovered that Momo collected more than 4000 yuan which is already a considerable sum of money.

Another interesting thing was family hierarchy. It was largely dependent on wealth and role played in the family and not really on age. Thus Momo’s first uncle was the most important person in the family because of being wealthier than others and because of being the one who helped everybody else get richer. Momo told me that actually her grandfather should be the most important person, however being already 91 and speaking in a way unintelligible to others he was being respected by others and laughed at simultaneously. He is not so good with technology and his mind stayed somewhere in the early 70s so one day when we were supposed to go to the park at 8 am he already waited in front of his house already since 6 am (just to avoid missing us when we come to pick him up) and there was no way to tell him that we will be there at 11 because the plan had changed. He waited for 5 hours outside in his suit and funny hat and then without a word of complaining got into the car when we finally came. On another day he just waited in his apartment for another relative to arrive, the guy was coming by train but the grandfather doesn’t believe in phones so he was just waiting until he is there (until the evening) so that he can take him to see the others and nobody will get lost. Grandma (his wife) is a bit younger (like 82~) and thus more able to comprehend things. This comprehension was however really far from being perfect, and herself being a lovely and warmhearted person , had problems with comprehension of ideas like “abroad”, “country”, “job market” etc. Momo’s uncle and father however could comprehend every subtlety of cultural differences better than most people that I’ve ever known. They’ve asked some detailed questions about European political stage and their opinions – if not perfectly overlapping with mines – were at least substantial what I didn’t expect from people in a mid-size Chinese town without any contact with English. There was a really strong division between males and females however, which couldn’t exist in Europe in such way. At many occasions women ate separately from men. My girlfriend who needed to help me with the language sometimes, stood behind my chair at the table to translate things which I didn’t understand. Sometimes her father asked her to do something for me like cutting fruits, cleaning something etc. what I of course enjoyed especially when looking at Momo, who not wanting to disobey her father didn’t have slightest willing to be my waitress. The gender division on the surface seems to come from differences in interests like it does everywhere. If I ask Momo – she will tell me that “women in China are not really interested in politics”. Momo’s family was so nice to me and my reception so welcoming that many negative thoughts about China simply disappeared. I’ve been given an enriching insights in how real (non-internationalized) Chinese people actually think. If Chinese politics is a topic which Chinese avoid to talk about even with their friends, then it was totally different there and I came to know more than expected I will.

The celebration lasted for 4 days with the 2 other spent visiting family friends what I was luckily spared thanks to the consideration of Momo’s parents.

Article posted originally in March 2015

This article has 2 Comments

    1. Well it’s actually more complicated than that. In America or Europe if you introduce your girlfriend to your parents then it means something too. In China it really often means intentions to get married however not always. Sometimes it just means that you two are dating and especially if you are a foreigner, you will have more leeway. Come on I’m too young to get married!:)

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