I was too young to recognize Lunar New Year as anything more than feasts of dumplings and sweet pastries and extra pocket money in red packets the last time I spent it in China. Lighting up fireworks and firecrackers was also just the climax of a rare and exciting holiday occasion where I was allowed to stay up past midnight in front of a TV.
People make dumplings before the Lunar New Year.
So it was with these nostalgic anticipations that I returned to my hometown of Shenyang, Liaoning Province, for the holidays after a decade and a half living overseas.
How simple things must all seemed for a kid.
A jolly discussion of my holiday plans based on childhood memories earned me gentle chidings from the cab driver. Instead of going door-to-door in any random order, he told me I should stay with my father's family through the first day of the lunar month, and visit relatives on my mother's side on the second day. And bainian – New Years greetings – must be done before noon, especially those over the phone.
This sent me into a bit of a panic. Having been trying to fit into the Western society as an immigrant, I was never quite studious of Chinese traditions. I had expected the trip to be a root-finding journey, but it also turned out to be an overdue lesson of long-held cultural customs.
As a starter, preparations typically begin a few days before Lunar New Year's Eve, such as a thorough cleaning of the house to sweep away any bad luck from the old year and hanging up festive lights outside the home and couplets on doorframes to welcome new fortune.
There's also the buying of new clothes – folded neatly and not to be worn until New Year's Day. Before the eve comes, we finished up and cleaned out leftover meals before preparing the New Year dinners – which must contain fish, a word in Chinese that shares a sound with "abundance" and "prosperity."
My aunts and uncles were amused by my frequent probing of every detail of these customs, especially when I was unsatisfied by the more practical reasons for such tasks as house cleaning and having seafood in a holiday feast. Could they be just a list of chores most Chinese take for granted to go through every year?