The Lunar New Year falls on Feb. 5 this year. It's a momentous occasion celebrated by millions around the world, and we reached out to some of our friends to see how they'd be ushering in the year of the pig. Ann Mah, a Chinese-American writer and author who splits her time between the U.S. and France, recalls past new year celebrations spent in Beijing—and the small but memorable cultural differences that emerged.
In a game of word association, I would pair “Lunar New Year” with “red underwear.” It wasn’t always this way. But one of the most memorable things I learned while living in Beijing for four years was the importance of scarlet undergarments and as I’ve moved around, I’ve carried this information with me. Allow me to explain.
When I moved to the Chinese capital from New York City, I felt confident my Chinese-American childhood had prepared me to sidestep culture shock. I spoke Mandarin (well enough, anyway), I knew and loved Chinese food, and my Asian features allowed me to blend into a crowd. My first months in Beijing, however, upended all my expectations.
I found myself tongue-tied in simple situations–unable, for example, to decipher the poetic names of dishes to order a meal in a restaurant–and my Chinese face and American accent caused great confusion to others and, for me, isolation. And yet, there were also flashes of familiarity, like when my Chinese teacher scolded me for spending too much time in the sun, causing my cheeks to freckle–she sounded a lot like my mom. And so, when the Lunar New Year rolled around, I thought I knew what to expect.
During my Southern California childhood, my family celebrated Chinese New Year by eating sticky rice cakes and (occasionally) attending the dragon dance at my Saturday Chinese school. Like all of the kids, I received red envelopes filled with modest amounts of cash, and hard, milky sweets wrapped in crackly red and gold paper. So that’s what I anticipated: rice cakes, red envelopes, and candy, albeit expanded to the scale of a major national holiday. What I experienced in China was far different.
The first thing that threw me was the holiday’s name in Chinese. Chun jie translates to “spring festival,” which evokes a warm-weather jubilee of sunshine and newborn lambs–not the dark, bitter days of January or February when the Lunar New Year falls. I eventually figured it out, but not before asking my colleagues if the Spring Festival would include baby animals. “I love chicks!” I said as they stared at me with astonishment.
I had imagined streets crowded with colorful parades of dragons and dancing lions, and so the emptying of Beijing came as a surprise. What started as a trickle quickly grew to a flood as the city’s large population returned to their lao jia, or childhood homes. Later, I learned that the days before chun jie witness the world’s largest annual human migration; last year, 385 million people left the major cities to visit their families in rural China.
Meanwhile, in Beijing, offices closed, restaurants and shops were shuttered. The city’s wide streets–built to accommodate tanks, and usually clogged with traffic–felt eerily empty. Equally unfamiliar was the blue sky soaring overhead. The local factories, closed for the holiday, had stopped spewing pollutants, leaving the air so clean it almost sparkled.
At least, I thought, I’d find familiarity at the table. But here, too, I was wrong. In my family, we ate nian gao at the new year, small chewy rice cakes stir-fried with shredded pork and black bean sauce. We also ate zongzi, packets of sticky rice stuffed with pork, sausage, and boiled peanuts, wrapped in a bamboo leaf and steamed.
But as I soon learned, both these dishes hail from southern China: nian gao from my mother’s native Shanghai, and zongzi from my father’s ancestral Guangdong, where the local diet features rice. In the wheat-producing northeast, Beijingers feasted on noodles and dumplings. It was a delicious surprise, but a surprise nonetheless.
At first, I didn’t notice the symbolism and superstition permeating the Lunar New Year celebrations, but once I did, I saw it everywhere. It was in the foods we ate: the noodles, which symbolize long life; the dumplings, which resemble gold ingots and signify wealth; even the nian gao, which means “sticky cake,” but also sounds like the words “year high.”
It was in my calendar, which a friend marked with the last safe day to get a haircut, since cutting my locks would mean cutting off my fortune. (She also suggested I skip washing my hair on New Year’s Day, but I drew the line there.) I saw it in the pre-new year cleaning sprees, as well as the post-new year dust bunnies, when sweeping the floors or taking out the trash is akin to throwing away all your money.
And so we come to the red underwear.
As you might know, the Lunar New Year heralds the rise of a new zodiac sign. There are 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac and they rotate on a 12-year cycle. Some years are considered luckier than others, like the Golden Pig year of 2007, which saw a baby boom in Asia. But the worst luck falls when your own zodiac sign repeats, as it does every 12 years.
That’s right: Although it seems counterintuitive, the year of your zodiac sign is actually filled with bad luck. There is a way, however, to counteract the misfortune: by wearing red every day for the entire year. Some sport red jewelry, red ties, or red string bracelets. Others employ a more discreet use of the color: They wear red underwear.
Indeed, Asian department stores are filled with red underwear from December to February. Couples bestow it upon each other as gifts, while the superstitious buy it for themselves. Red underwear is so popular in Asia that Triumph, the continent’s largest underwear producer, says its sales are ten times higher around the lunar holiday.
Because this year’s holiday falls on a Tuesday, my family and I will wait until the following weekend to celebrate. Our current home, Washington D.C., boasts a large Southeast Asian community and so I’m thinking of trying something new: gathering with friends at a local Vietnamese restaurant. We’ll eat dishes like banh chung, a banana leaf-wrapped packet of sticky rice stuffed with pork and mung bean puree (which sounds similar to the zongzi of my youth), traditionally eaten at Tết, the Vietnamese celebration of the Lunar New Year. The year of the pig is thought to bring wealth and good fortune, and I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate than with a rich and delicious meal.
I left Beijing 10 years ago, and I still miss it this time of year. I’ve moved around since then–from Paris, to New York, to Washington D.C.–and my celebrations in each city have been very different from the festivities of the motherland. But living in Beijing showed me that there’s no right or wrong way to celebrate the Lunar New Year. In a country as large and diverse as China–and in a diaspora as long and widespread as the Chinese–differences are to be expected and, even, embraced.
And while I may not fold the dumplings, light the firecrackers, or offer red envelopes, still I find myself waiting for an auspicious date to cut my hair. I scour the house before the new year, and let the trash pile up and avoid sweeping on new year’s day. And when my zodiac sign rolls around again, you know what I’ll be wearing beneath my clothes.