A Happy...Authentic...Lunar New Year

February 04, 2016

These days, when someone mentions Coldplay and Beyonce, most of us think about this Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime show, just down the road at Levi’s Stadium. But the other day, I heard a piece on NPR’s Morning Edition about the most recent Coldplay and Beyonce music video for the tune “Hymn for the Weekend” filmed in India. The video is aesthetically stunning, but the NPR piece drew attention to the gratuitous caricature of Indian culture; it contains every cliche you could imagine, all completely out of context. This is what the late Edward Said caustically termed “orientalism,” the West’s sometimes shallow, romanticized perceptions and fictional depictions of “The East.”

Fifth grader Lauren K.’s artwork featured on the Mass Greeting programAs a school that is dedicated to embracing a foreign language and culture, we need to not fall into this trap. Uncontextualized and constructed representations of Chinese (or any) culture have a limited shelf life. Deep dives into kite-making, qipao dresses, dragons or Peking opera masks, for instance, are potentially interesting and enlightening if taken in the broader context of Chinese culture. But more often than not, in isolation they just become worn out cliches. At CAIS, we need to strive for a deeper understanding, and not be satisfied with “mystery” or “exoticism” or even just the (admittedly) stunning aesthetics—no matter how cool material culture is at first encounter.

All this is relevant as we head into the most important of all Chinese holidays—the lunar new year. We are awash in lanterns, spring couplets, dumplings, firecrackers and bright red everything. But what are the deeper meanings of the lunar new year? As we get together for feasts in classrooms, delight in children’s performances at Mass Greeting, or for many of us, enjoy large family gatherings on the lunar new year’s eve—why after all, is this so deeply special?

I’m not Chinese. Although I was lucky enough to live in China for fifteen years and spent many enjoyable lunar new years with local friends, I wasn’t raised in a family or in a community that celebrated and enjoyed this holiday the same way my family enjoyed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Fourth of July when I was growing up in the Midwest. How lucky we are to have so many families at CAIS whose relationship to the lunar new year is much deeper than mine! And so at this time of year we should regard these members of our community as precious resources; ask them what the lunar new year means to them! Not only will you gain knowledge that contextualizes the two dimensional images and forms that we associate with the lunar new year, but you will also be infected with the contagious positive energy that they radiate as they speak about their magical childhood experiences—just like the excitement your kids feel as they dress up for Halloween or prepare to visit their grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins on Thanksgiving.

My impressions of the meaning of the lunar new year are filtered through the lens of an outsider. But here they are:

Home - In Chinese the word for home and the word for family are the same: jiā 家. My home town means my family’s village: jiā xiāng 家乡. It feels warm and it feels like it’s where we belong. Years ago, Chinese seldom traveled far outside their villages, being home was something most people took for granted. Today it is estimated that more than 275 million rural Chinese have left their villages and relocated to urban areas in search of employment. That number is more than 85% of the entire population of the US! Each year at this time, as the lunar new year approaches, massive numbers of these migrants struggle to return home—most of them on trains and buses. It is expected that some 332 million train trips will be made over the course of the lunar new year holiday in China this year, and this past Tuesday railway officials estimated that 175,000 people passed through the Guangzhou railway station in a single day—that’s more than two and a half times the number of people that can fit into Levi’s Stadium to watch Coldplay and Beyonce! The vast majority of these people are not riding on the bullet or maglev trains that have received so much attention. They are riding in overcrowded, poorly ventilated, second-class hard-seat carriages, many of them standing, some for 24-hours or more. Why would anyone endure this? Ask any migrant in China—they want to be home.

Gratitude - On the morning of the first day of the lunar new year, people pay visits to their closest friends, colleagues and teachers, wishing them a happy new year. This is called bài nián 拜年. One of the purposes of bài nián is to express thanks that one has made it through the previous year, perhaps to thank the person being visited for her or his help over the previous 12 months. This is a heartfelt expression of gratitude for one’s good fortune and good friends. On day two typically women return to their parents’ homes (called huí niáng jia 回娘家) with their spouses dutifully in tow. This is the daughter’s way of expressing gratitude for the upbringing her parents provided and the spouse’s way of expressing gratitude for raising such a wonderful wife.

Hope and Optimism - During the lunar new year season we see bright spring couplets on either side of doorways. These balanced, auspicious phrases express hope and optimism for the coming year: 八方财宝进家门,一年四季行好运 bā fang caí băo jìn jiā mén, yī nían sì jì xíng hăo yùn (From all directions wealth enters our door, in all four seasons of the year we have good luck) or 万事如意福临门,一帆顺风吉星到 wàn shì rú yì fú lín mén, yī fān shùn fēng jí xīng dào (All things are as we wish and good fortune is at our door, everything is smooth sailing and our lucky star has arrived).  As people bài nián they often greet each other with four character phrases that express hope that the coming year will bring good fortune: 万事如意 wàn shì rú yì (may all things go your way) 心想事成 xīn xiăng shì chéng (may you realize your heart’s desires) 大吉大利 dà jí dà lì (may you enjoy good fortune and great benefit), 年年有余 nián nián yŏu yú (may you enjoy abundance every year), and by far the most popular phrase —one with which many CAIS parents may be familiar—is 恭喜发财 gōng xĭ fā cái (“wishing you prosperity”, or more literally, “congratulations, get rich!”). 

Home, gratitude, hope and optimism. These are not exotic concepts at all, they are universal, and we understand them in our own way in San Francisco. I am somewhat a fan of Coldplay. Beyonce…not so much. But I don’t need them to romanticize China in order to connect with the meaning of the lunar new year.

Happy year of the monkey, everyone.