It’s so still outside.
My neighbourhood seems to be in a waking dream state, or maybe that’s just me.
The buses are running, which is a surprise. However, ust a few of them amble along roads which are almost empty. A few cars appear and weave their way from one end of the main street to the other. Unlike other weekdays, they’re not in a hurry and not a single driver has leant on his horn. There’s no traffic to shift and no other motorists to compete with for space on the tarmac.
All is calm. The Year of the Fire Monkey has ushered in peace across China, for the next few days at least.
Last night the fireworks began almost as soon as the sun wrapped itself in a red ball (a crimson flame tribute to the Fire Monkey perhaps?) and sunk behind the mountain opposite my apartment. Splashes of colour accompanied by loud bangs and the fierce popping of firecrackers burst upwards and shattered the dark air between sky scrapers, apartment blocks and silenced building sites, the labourers long gone home.
It was four hours or maybe more of showers of illumination split between reds, golds, greens, blues and striking orange. Some fireworks stayed low, rendering them possibly hazardous for people walking by. Others, propelled by powerful gunpowder, rose up until I was craning my neck skywards from my 34th floor balcony in awe at their glittering beauty.
Today, the first and special day of the new Lunar year sees Chinese people across the globe joining with their families to express gratitude and celebrate the possibilities of another chance to get it right this time.
Elders berate their eligible, single offspring, questioning how long it will take them to do their filial duty of getting married and produce an heir or two, now that the single child policy has been relaxed.
Parents will compare their child to their child’s cousins and close neighbours, reminding that child, yet again, that there’s no limit on how hard you can study.
Children of all ages will inwardly roll their eyes, putting up with the nagging and the pressure because the Hong Bao, makes it all worthwhile. Red envelopes of money which quickly pile up adding up to significant amounts, gifted to them because they are young. Oh the joys of youth.
For foreigners, Chinese New Year is an odd time. As we ‘quit the Sheep and have Golden Monkey in delight’ (a reference to saying goodbye to 2015, the Year of the Sheep and welcoming in 2016, the Year of the Fire Monkey), we almost don’t know what to do with ourselves.
Those of us with a significant other who is Chinese, have a clearly laid out path almost impossible to deviate from; Shop for new clothes, food and fruit. Travel, sometimes for more than 10 hours to be with the family. Have dinner with the in-laws and other family members. Hand out red envelopes full of lucky money to younger relatives, have more dinners and more visiting to and from other relatives whilst giving out more red envelopes.
They will most certainly spend some time watching the gala show on TV. A panoply of comedians, musicians, singers, dancers and entertainers. They will laugh at the in-jokes about Chinese culture if their Chinese is good enough. Otherwise, its a case of smiling along at the right moments just to be polite.
It amounts to eight days and nights of not having to think, except for trying to remember the correct titles for younger and older brother and sister and aunts, uncles and grandparents on both sides of the family; not an easy task so I’ve heard. Apart from that you can just go with the flow and enjoy the festival.
For those of us who are single, new in China or don’t have many Chinese friends, this time of year can be a little lonely. It’s not a good time to visit tourist areas. Despite the winter cold, the crowds are likely to be unbearable. It’s also not a good time to book a flight to neighbouring beauty spots such as Thailand, Malaysia or the Phillippines. Prices are jacked up, airports are crowded and delays are inevitable.
So you can hunker down and just absorb the special, new year’s atmosphere whilst forgetting about work for a while. Treat yourself to some of the goodies on sale beforehand. Try new food, fruit or nuts. There’s bound to be a cooking tutorial video on YT if you’re unsure of how to prepare your new produce.
If the weather’s clement take a walk around your area and appreciate it without hoards of people blocking your view. Most shops are likely to be shut so make sure you have everything you need before the holiday begins.
Practice saying ‘Happy New Year’ in Chinese when you come across other walkers; ‘Xinnian Kuai Le!’ in Mandarin, or if you’re in the South of China, ‘Kung Hey Fat Choi’ for Cantonese speakers.
Maybe you can even re-do your new year’s resolutions in case the ones you made in January aren’t working out so well.
In the meantime; gong he xinxi daji-daji! Happy New Year, luck with everything!