Surviving the Chinese New Year

Posted on January 31, 2012

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For most Chinese, the week-long Chinese New Year vacation has just ended. Hundreds of millions of Chinese have returned from their parents’ homes back to where they work or go to school, accomplishing, almost magically, the most challenging travel of the year.

But if you think that travel is the only challenge of the New Year, you’re too naive. How can you forget the relatives? Yes, relatives, families, those people whom you haven’t talked to for a whole year but sadly share some genes with, or those who are connected to you solely with some kind of arbitrary marital ties. Sure, we Chinese value our families, but time has changed. The week-long celebration of the Chinese New Year with extended families can be overwhelming to younger generations. Emerging from the New Year celebration, many young Chinese are now sharing their love and loathing of these holiday family reunions on social media.

One of the things that annoys and in many cases “scares” young (or young-ish) Chinese during those family reunions is their parents’ and inquisitive relatives’ persistent interest in their personal lives, especially the part about marriage and money. On weibo.com, one of the most popular microblogging websites in China, a poll, which asks”When you’re back (to your parents’) home for the New Year, what are the most annoying questions you get?,” shows that 65 percent of respondents chose “Do you have a boy/girlfriend this year?” and 63 percent chose “Where do you work? How much do you make a month?” The poll allows each respondent to choose up to two answers, and these are the two most popular answers, with percentages significantly higher than the third ranking answer “How was the year? Much much money did you make?” with a 13-percent popularity.

Traditionally, it is not only acceptable but also expected from senior relatives to ask younger people about their love life, marriage or kids. Same is true with questions about their income. To the older generations, this is a gesture of love and caring, but to most Chinese who are in their 20s and 30s, it is nothing but intrusive. Also, as young Chinese are increasingly faced with employment and economic pressure, more and more of them choose to give up dating and delay to have a family so they can focus on their career. Questions about love life and money can only remind them of the pressure and anxiety that they try to escape especially at a time of holiday celebration. No wonder on weibo.com, netizens gave these questions a name: the questions of “poisonous tongue” (dushe wenti or 毒舌问题).

For many young women, the expectations of marriage from their family and those of career success from society can be overwhelming. “Every New Year the pressure is on,” writes a young woman, “with so many relatives, the older ones and the younger ones, as a single young woman in between, my wallet is pretty tight! Plus (I’m) asked repeatedly when to get married, or whether I have a boyfriend! Before I have a successful career, I won’t consider getting married! Why does happiness have to involve a family and children?” While choices like this are quite common among young women in China nowadays, they’re still hard for older generations to digest.

Similar pressure is shared by young men, who are supposed to make money and provide for a family so that the family name will continue. These expectations can make some young men quite bitter. “During the New Year at home, some people asked you how much money you made each month, some asked you when you would get married, some asked you about your plans after the holidays,” a man writes, “but they seldom asked you: Are you happy and content? (an emoticon of a sad face).” Another man writes, “You know what is more annoying than being asked by your relatives about your girlfriend when you don’t have one? That’s when your relatives ask you, not knowing that you and your girlfriend broke up a year ago, ‘Why don’t you bring your girl?’ ‘How’s your girl?’ etc.”

What’s more frustrating to young people is that, despite their aversion to these questions, they are supposed to show respect to their senior relatives and answer their questions politely. To shut up her parents’ endless inquiry about her love life, a young woman lied that she was into girls. “After a week of silence,” she writes, “they said, ‘Next time bring your girlfriend back and let us have a look at her!’” Yes, Chinese parents are persistent.

From the New Year experience shared online, one can see a generational cultural change. Compared to their parents’ generation, Chinese youth expect more personal space and more respect given to younger people, including children. Based on people’s comments on the topic, weibo.com summarized ten New Year’s taboo questions:

1. Are you seeing someone? When are you getting married?

2. Son, where are you ranked in your class?

3. How much money did you make last year?

4. What did you eat to get so fat?

5. How’s your job?

6. (To kids) Why can’t you greet people properly? You’re a big boy/girl!

7. How old are you? (Implying the kid is too old to receive the lucky money.)

8. You’re not planning on going to grad school?

9. You can’t recognize me now? I carried you when you where a kid!

10. When are you going to buy a house?

These questions used to be acceptable in China, but nowadays, they are considered offensive, intrusive or simply embarrassing.

Chinese New Year is a time of giving. Families exchange gifts and the older relatives give younger ones lucky money wrapped in red envelopes. But some people complain that materialism these days has turned the New Year into a time when relatives show off their wealth at family gatherings. Even those who do not have much are pressured to match their wealthier relatives’ giving so as not to “lose face.” A netizen summarizes this materialist trend of the New Year with some fun word play:

Spending the New Year with less than 10,000 yuan ($1,585) is hard… The “Spring Festival” (chunjie or 春节) has turned into the “Spring Robbery” (chunjie or 春劫)… New Year greetings (bainian or 拜年) have turned into “money worshiping” (baiqian or 败钱)… The lucky money has turned into a “face-saving project” (mianzi gongcheng or 面子工程)… “Looking forward to the New Year” (pan guonian or 盼过年) has turned into “being scared of the New Year” (pa guonian or 怕过年) — (This is) the New Year, with less and less a festive flavor but more and more the smell of money.

The lesson learned? If you’re young, single or poor in China, be thankful that the awkward and stressful time of the New Year is finally over.

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