This is a transcription of an interview with a friend from high school, identified as A. In this piece, I am identified as IC.
IC: So, tell me about Chinese New Year. Where does it come from?
A: Lunar New Year is something that happens at the beginning of every calendar year and so it’s also often referred to as the spring festival. There are 12 animals that represent each year and how this myth came to be is that there were these animals who were basically told to engage in a race to determine who would be symbols for each year. The twelve animals in order are Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig. The rat is first because it rode on the ox’s back and cheated.
I heard about a variation that the cat was tricked out of the race by the mouse which is why they hate each other. I forget exactly how the cat was tricked out, but this supposedly also explains why cat chases the mouse so much.
IC: What does your family does to celebrate? Like what do you eat and what activities do you do?
A: And so one of the things that we eat every year is this thing called 年糕 (nin gou) which translates to new year cake and so it’s this It’s like not really a cake it’s like a slice of it’s like glutinous. We also eat 蘿蔔糕 (lo baak guo) which is like a radish cake and it’s my personal favourite. Then there are traditions associated with it and the most popular with children at the very least is the giving of the red package.
IC: Yeah, I remember those.
A: Yeah, so it’s married couples, and only married couples, give away red packets to the younger generation.
IC: Why is it red?
A: It’s a symbolism of colour because red a lucky colour in Chinese culture and that’s why you see in Chinese brides wear red during weddings, simply because it’s a very lucky colour. So, by giving red package, the deal here is that you’re helping give them luck for that year.
IC: How much money is in the envelope?
A: That depends on the person giving the envelope. So usually newlyweds give less because they won’t have as much money and also, they don’t want to build high expectations. But the tradition is called拜年 (bai nian) and first you go to your father’s grandparents place to pay respects for the new year and then you go to your other grandparent’s place. I think that’s the order but I’m not really particularly sure about that because my dad’s parents live in LA, so I usually just go to my mom’s side of the family for that. It’s just going there spending time with your grandparents and like wishing them well for the new year.
IC: Are there any specific things that you’re supposed to do to pay respects or is it just like talking to them and spending time with them?
A: Well, this applies to the whole festival in general actually but there are a lot of four-word sayings that you say. They are blessings that you say to people. Some examples are 年年有餘 (nin nin yau yu) which means “may you be prosperous every year” and 快高長大 (fai gou zheung dai) which means “grow up well”. The main one is 恭喜發財 (gong hei faat choi) which means “happy new year”.
IC: Yeah, I remember that phrase. Are there any other foods that you eat? Like aren’t you supposed to eat fish or something? That’s what I remember from Chinese class in high school.
A: Are we? I don’t know… I don’t think we do that.
IC: Oh, okay. I mean, I guess it’s different for everyone. Like you don’t have to eat everything you’re supposed to.
A: Oh, there is this one thing where Chinese households have a candy box during New Year. I don’t know why but there’s a box of candy and sweet stuff in every household.
My informant is 23 years old and she is my friend from high school, which was in Hong Kong. Though she is American, she went She went to New York for college and graduated last year. She is currently working in Hong Kong. She knows about this tradition because her family is from Hong Kong and celebrates Lunar New Year.
I asked her about this tradition because I vaguely remember learning about Chinese traditions for Lunar New Year during Chinese class in high school. I thought it would be interesting to ask someone who comes from a Chinese/Hong Kong background to ask about the specifics since I don’t know much about it. All I knew was from textbooks designed for speakers learning it as a second language.
Hearing my friend talk about how her family celebrates it and the traditions that she knows about was interesting to hear as different countries celebrate it differently. It was informative to learn about some foods that she eats and sayings other than the popular phrase that means happy new year.