Chinese New Year is coming! If this is your first time spending the holidays with a Chinese family, here are 3 things that will definitely NOT impress:
#1: Be totally antisocial
Chinese New Year is all about reuniting with family and friends to celebrate. You’re meant to get out there, attend those dinners, and knock on those doors with red gifts in hand.
Which means the worst thing you could do is be utterly antisocial.
Now, let’s get clear about what antisocial really means in this context. Sitting quietly at the dinner table or among guests, not speaking much, doesn’t necessarily apply. You don’t have to be chatty to win their hearts over. Just being present, butt in seat and chopsticks in hand, will suffice.
But if you spend the whole holiday locked up in your room, only consuming crappy ramen noodles (I actually witnessed someone in my husband’s village who did this), you’re definitely going to piss off more than a few people.
#2: Don’t prepare any gifts
Years ago, when I was getting ready to experience Chinese New Year for the first time ever, a friend clued me in on my obligation to my hosts. “You need to buy them some gifts,” she said, even taking me shopping in the supermarket next door to pick out the perfect one for them.
Chinese New Year gifts are such a big deal that every supermarket creates huge red-and-gold displays filled with all the usual suspects to lure shoppers – from fine alcohol and spirits, to dried fruits and nuts, to even traditional Chinese remedies like ginseng and Dong quai. These are all neatly packaged, often with their own attractive red-and-gold gift boxes or bags. All you have to do is show up at the house, goods in hand.
But if you show up empty handed, you won’t win any favors. Especially if you’re a foreigner. Most Chinese think foreigners have a lot of money, despite your current financial circumstances. They’re probably expecting you to bring some of the best gifts at the table – or at the very least, something as good as everyone else.
With nothing in hand, you’ll be branded as either rude or stingy. And quite possibly might be the talk of the family…but not for the reasons you’d hope.
#3: Dress in shabby or old clothing
I’m pretty sure my mother-in-law was privately shocked when, one Chinese New Year, I didn’t have a single new sweater or jacket to wear.
It didn’t matter that my down jacket was a gorgeous ruby red that glimmered in the sun, and nicer than most of the jackets I could have bought in the stores in Hangzhou. Or that my sweater was less than a year old and still in fine condition. Or even that my Calvin Klein jeans looked as good as new.
I had broken one of the cardinal rules of Chinese New Year. I was wearing something old, which is totally inauspicious and against the usual custom.
My mother-in-law has often reminded me about the importance of wearing nice clothes. Clothing is like your public face, and how everyone dresses reflects on the whole family.
Now, it’s one thing to wear old clothing…but if you really don’t want to impress the family, show up in something old and shabby. Dress like you’re about to renovate an apartment in the middle of China’s winter, or beg on the streets for a few extra kuai.
(Chances are, your family would be so embarrassed they’d probably give you something decent to wear. And force you to wear it.)
P.S.: Want to know how to impress family during Chinese New Year? Read all about how to impress your boyfriend or girlfriend’s family in China during Chinese New Year, or how you can prepare to meet the family in China.