Informant Bio: Informant is a friend and fellow business major. She is a junior at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. Her family is from China but she has lived in Southern California for nearly all of her life. Her dad spends lots of time working in Shenzhen. She speaks fluent Mandarin and English.
Context: I was talking with the informant about traditions and rituals her family has.
Item: “For Chinese New Year my family usually gets together. Traditionally, ever since I can remember, the adults have given kids red envelopes filled with money, and, we always have specific foods that translate to specific proverbs like good fortune and good health. An example would be, having, um fish, because “Nian nian you yu” means abundance throughout the years, but the last word ‘yu’ means abundance but also means fish. They are two completely different words but have the same pronunciation. And, a couple of other things we would say is, “Gong Xi Fa Cai” which means ‘congratulations for your wealth’, “Wan Shu Ru Yi” which means ‘may all your wishes be fulfilled’.
Sometimes our family does follow this tradition but we don’t follow it too strictly, but there should be a placing order in how you bring the different foods to the tables. You’re also supposed to say phrases with the addition of each ingredient such as pepper or lime or oil. Uh, some of the themes touch upon wealth, luck, youth and business success or advancement. That’s basically one specific dish but there are other flourless cakes that basically expands as you cook it. It kind of symbolizes growth for kids especially. Our family also hangs specific square red banners that has the word “Chūn” meaning ‘spring’. We’d flip it upside down because when you flip it it means ‘dao’, or ‘it is here’ like ‘spring is here’. We also do that with ‘fu’ which means prosperity, so prosperity it is here”.
Analysis: Chinese New Year really seems to revolve around luck, prosperity and happiness for the new year. The props used – which vary from clothing to food eaten to the number of dishes served all are meant to be congruent with Chinese lore and beliefs. The number 8 means good luck so things are done in eights, the color red is lucky so red is shown often and new, clean things are seen as ushering in good luck for the coming year. There is a cyclical nature in Chinese/Eastern thought that we do not have here in the West. The coming of the new year, though celebrated here, doesn’t truly entail the “reset” that it does in China. This may be in part due to the fact that the Chinese civilization has been around for over four millenia (most of which they were relatively isolated), so they’ve seen a much longer time span of existence than most other cultures. As such they’ve seen empires rise and fall, other warring worlds, and geographies change but still remain, which may contribute to their more cyclical way of thinking as opposed to the U.S. There also seems to be very set things that are done in a precise process each new year celebration. This is in contrast to many of the U.S. informants I interviewed who admitted a much more diverse and relaxed understanding of rituals and traditions.