Why Spending Chinese New Year With Family Can Be Exhausting (Or How I Ended Up In The Emergency Room)

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The last thing I wanted was to end up in the hospital during the Chinese New Year holiday! (No, this is not the exact hospital, but it looks pretty similar.)

You know your holidays have hit a low point when, halfway through, you end up doubled over in a chair in the emergency room with an IV drip, hoping and praying you won’t vomit into that ugly little fluorescent green plastic wastebasket at your feet.

Yep, that was me on the fifth day of the new lunar year. The only thing that would have made the whole situation worse was if the nurse had forced me to get that shot in the butt right there in public. Apparently, it’s what everyone does in the hospital. (Fortunately, she let me take the shot in a private room.)

I was shrouded in a soft white baby blanket printed with roses – a thing of beauty that was quite the foil to my ugly situation, shivering in my chair because I had vomited three times already that afternoon. That included the two instances in the little red VW polo we borrowed from a friend to drive down the Zhejiang coast, forcing me to turn the little plastic bag that was supposed to be for our fruit and other snacks into a makeshift vomit bag.

Between wishing to god that I wouldn’t once again have to anoint the wastebasket with the few remnants in my stomach, a bigger question loomed before me: How in the heck could this have happened to me?

Granted, I didn’t come into the holiday in the best shape. The night before February 18, Chinese New Year’s Eve this year (the most important day of the year), I had literally just wrapped up a substantial paid project for a client in the US that involved multiple late-night interviews to write up four articles. Just as I had made it to the finish line, hoping for a breather, another one appeared before my weary eyes – the end of the Chinese New Year holiday that stretched before me.

On top of it, I got maybe four hours of sleep that night worrying about all of the horrible things that might happen to me when I sat behind the wheel of that little red VW polo the following morning. It would be my first time driving in China and visions of all the gory tabloid news stories I had watched the year before tugged at my consciousness. You know, the kind of massive, bloody accidents that could make anyone swear off getting behind the wheel in this country.

But ultimately, I could have recovered from all of that – the marathon project before the holiday, the lack of sleep, even the stress of driving itself – with a nice sedate holiday filled with lazy late mornings in bed, curled up with my favorite e-reader devouring a memoir or novel.

Yep, this would have been my perfect kind of holiday -- just reading and enjoying the quiet. (Even better if it had happened in Bali, where this photo was taken years ago!)
Yep, this would have been my perfect kind of holiday — just reading and enjoying the quiet. (Even better if it had happened in Bali, where this photo was taken years ago!)

Unfortunately, “sedate” is not a word you would use to describe my Chinese New Year with the family this year.

Don’t get me wrong – there are things I love about Chinese New Year. My mother-in-law always outdoes herself each year with a feast that could give some of the best restaurants in Hangzhou a run for their money (even the vegetarian ones). The house is overflowing with the best treats of the year –sugary pecans, dulcet green dates, and honeyed black sesame cakes. And I have an excuse to visit some of my favorite relatives – such as John’s grandmother, who still manages to charm us all into laughter despite the fact that I can only understand maybe 50 percent of her speech in the local dialect.

In theory, a day or two of this togetherness works amazingly well.

The problem is, Chinese New Year with my husband’s family lasts at least three or four days (if not more, depending on where you are and how long you’re able to say). It’s all about being with the family day after day…after day…after day. And what sounds great at first soon becomes tiring and even overwhelming.

And if you’re already exhausted coming into the holiday, like I was, you’re at risk for even worse outcomes if you push things a little too much. (Like attempting to drive some six hours in one day to visit a friend in south Zhejiang.)

What about the holiday can wear you down? Here’s my list:

1. Visiting people and/or having guests over every single day

That amazing Winter Solstice dinner you had at the family home in China? Nobody gives a damn about it.

Once the lunar new year arrives, so with it arrives the annual custom of bainian (visiting with relatives during the new year). In my husband’s family, for at least three whole days you’re either hosting family or schlepping your way over to someone else’s house. The thing is, this isn’t a couple of people – we’re talking about 10 or sometimes even 20 people in a house at the same time! And because Chinese love it “renao” (literally “hot and loud”), every house is a boisterous mix of loud chatter, drunken toasts, and a cloud of smoke as people exchange far too many cigarettes around the table.

I’m an introvert myself, so just being around huge crowds of people already makes me nervous (which is tiring). Add to that the concerns that someone might actually light up indoors (I detest smoking and cannot handle secondhand smoke) and the pressure is even worse.

It’s a shame too, because invariably many of these meals dish up some of the most delectable things I’ll eat all year! I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve either wolfed down my rice and dishes or simply passed up a few meals simply because the whole environment was too exhausting.

2. Firecrackers and fireworks

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If there’s anything destined to steal away your precious hours of rest – especially the first night of the new year – it’s these traditional holiday explosives.

Imagine me, a shadow of myself that first night, desperate for some much-needed slumber – only to have my ears assaulted in the early morning hours by what must surely be the closest thing to being camped out in a war zone. The neverending blitzkrieg of fireworks, firecrackers and anything else that sparkles or booms happened to occur at 5am to 6am or so (it’s traditional to set them off when you first open your door in the morning of the new year) – coinciding with the time when I was supposed to be in my deepest sleep.

When I finally rolled out of bed sometime around 11am, my husband remarked at how my “panda eyes” – those dark circles I used to have years ago around my eyes – had returned to my worn out face. Ugh.

3. Being asked to eat WAY too much food

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It was the afternoon of the first day of the new year, only a couple of hours after we had all polished off enough food to easily feed all the people in the minibuses that zoom through the countryside. John and I were sitting at the dining room table in his home, discussing some business with friends. The sunlight cast lazy, relaxed shadows on the wall as we were all enjoying the conversation and nibbling on pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds.

If only my mother-in-law hadn’t barged into the room with five huge, steaming bowls of dumplings that nobody could have humanly consumed at the hour.

“No, no, we couldn’t possibly eat these!” The protest came from everyone at the table, most of all the friends’ daughter, whose blood seemed to drain from her face at the sight of this food being forced on her. “Please, I can’t!” she squeaked in a pathetic voice that made me feel so sorry for her. After all, the girl said exactly what I was thinking.

This was the middle of the afternoon. We were all expected to eat elsewhere for dinner (surely, yet another gargantuan feast where the relatives would demand you to eat, eat, eat!). How could we make it through with the dumplings in our stomachs? You always have to eat something when visiting someone else’s house.

When did eating suddenly turn into a task, a chore even?

Even worse, when I passed on the dumplings, as did John’s friends, this “responsibility” of cleaning the bowls was transferred to John, as well as John’s dad and mom (his dad actually grumbled a little as he shoveled spoonfuls of dumplings into his mouth).

Just seeing the whole scene tired me out and drained my appetite too. That evening at dinner, I only devoured a fraction of what I had eaten for lunch. Too bad, because John’s aunts fried up one of my favorite Chinese dishes, the silky smooth and fragrant chao liangpi (fried bean starch).

4. Preparing just the right gifts for the family (especially if you’re on a budget)

(Photo via http://www.meilishuo.com/share/836698329)
(Photo via http://www.meilishuo.com/share/836698329)

Experiencing Christmas as an adult has taught me that gift-giving can easily raise your blood pressure a few notches as you agonize over getting someone the elusive “perfect gift” (which almost never really exists anyhow).

Well, in China you can’t do Chinese New Year without giving things too. Every time you visit a relative’s home for the new year, you must arrive with some Chinese New Year gifts – such as organic milk, fine wines, nutritious crackers and cookies, or even fruit (invariably wrapped up in little red giftboxes like the above photo). It’s etiquette…and trying to plan for it all (especially if you have a large extended family like we do) will drain your mental resources as well as your finances.

As I wrote before, my husband and I didn’t have a lot of money in the run-up to this Chinese New Year, which meant this responsibility weighed heavily on our shoulders. In the end, we were fortunate that his parents prepared enough Chinese New Year gifts for us to do bainian (though that also left us with the equally frustrating feeling of utter guilt that we couldn’t afford everything ourselves).

5. Traveling during the busiest (and craziest) holiday season of the year

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When I told people I was going to drive in China after getting my license, many responded that they were too scared to do it.

Now I understand why!

Let me tell you, the highways in China during this holiday felt more like a large-scale game of dodgem in real time, with drivers constantly whipping and weaving through the traffic at all times, just barely missing our front bumper. Almost no one uses their turning signal to change lanes; they just change at will, use whatever space they can find, and think nothing of tailgating even at well over 100 kilometers per hour (over 60 miles per hour). Even when it’s a downpour! It’s no wonder we saw a multiple rear-end collision in a tunnel involving four cars (and three horribly crushed bumpers).

Getting behind the wheel while I was already fatigued was the final strike against me – and what ultimately sent me into the emergency room in that little city on the Zhejiang coast.

Here’s what I’ve learned. While I think short distances are manageable, even on a holiday, I would never, ever, drive more than two hours during a vacation time like that. It’s suicide. Even my husband’s friend on the Zhejiang coast said we’d be better off doing the high-speed trains next time around.

Of course, if you’ve got to move around during the holidays and haven’t the luxury of a car, you’re not off the hook. Train and bus stations transform into a suffocating sea of people that make you truly understand why China is the most populated country in the world. You’ll even feel the crush of humanity at the airports. And good luck trying to score tickets for travel when everyone else is trying to hoof it home!

In the end, I’m reminded of what my husband’s dear college friend – the friend I first met in that emergency room during the holidays – told me later on: “We usually just spend our holidays traveling instead of visiting family,” including travel out of the country. While I wasn’t in any shape at that moment to attempt international travel, one thought did occur to me: I could definitely use a holiday from this family holiday!

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15 thoughts on “Why Spending Chinese New Year With Family Can Be Exhausting (Or How I Ended Up In The Emergency Room)

  • March 9, 2015 at 7:20 am
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    I am so sorry to hear that you ended up in the hospital. The holidays can be tiring if there is a lot of travel, mingling, eating, and socializing involved. I am glad to hear that you are feeling better and doing well.

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  • March 9, 2015 at 7:54 am
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    So sorry to hear of your misery! It definitely sounded like some of my worst Christmases as well. It’s all a combination of factors times the cultural factor. Hopefully, you are on the mend now. I love the travel idea as well, it’s hard to do right now because our children love the holidays and spending it with everyone though so you may want to take advantage of that one while you don’t have kids. I have tried to clear the holiday calendar, no more big projects during holidays etc. -part of it is being a grown-up(blech!) during the holidays. I think that the gifts part would really stress me out because I am not a good gift giver idea person….and at the same time I don’t want to treat the holidays in a materialistic way.I think it’s also rude to expect people to bring you gifts or feel obligated to spend outside their means..I wonder if there is something simpler you could do that reflects the American culture and honors “it’s the thought that counts” …Best Wishes!

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  • March 9, 2015 at 8:02 am
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    I am exhausted — and a little sick — just reading about your schedule! The drive alone sounds grueling (also reminds me of driving in Italy, where the lines on the road are but a suggestion and using your turn signal comes under the heading of “giving away information to the enemy”).

    Our life is similar. We live in LA. His family is in Hawaii, mine all over the East Coast. Every holiday involves a visit to one family or another. If we see my family, they badger Andy for hot & sour soup and potstickers. This involves making chicken stock, which can take until midnight. Meanwhile, I’m babysitting for nieces and nephews while making several hundred Christmas cookies or an apple pie.

    Every time we come home, I say, “I need a vacation to recover from my vacation!”

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  • March 9, 2015 at 11:38 am
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    I’m sorry Chinese New Year left you so exhausted – and I feel even more sorry that you had to spend time in a Chinese hospital. With a few exceptions, regular hospitals are rather terrible places. Hope it wasn’t too bad an experience.

    Personally, I try to shift my holidays whenever possible – work during the holidays when possible and then take the week off after. Less traffic, fewer people, all transportation is much cheaper and the family ain’t so distracted as when everyone else is around. Plus you escape the heavy drinking and smoking.

    @cassandra
    “it’s the thought that counts” – I get the feeling this is not how many Chinese see it. My girlfriend always fears that people may complain when they get the “wrong” gift. Getting any gifts other than fruit and money ain’t easy…

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  • March 9, 2015 at 12:39 pm
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    It’s a shame when holidays that are supposed to be fun for everyone just end up stressing us out instead. It happens everywhere, although I think the Chinese customs are particularly extreme. There must be ways to celebrate the true intent of the holiday without letting it snowball into a disaster. I hope you’re feeling better now.

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  • March 9, 2015 at 3:20 pm
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    I am sorry, Jocelyn. 🙁 My husband and I can somewhat relate. I hope you feel better and that you’re relaxing at home in Hangzhou.

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  • March 9, 2015 at 4:29 pm
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    I’m so sorry to hear that you had such a crappy holiday. I truly hope that you can find rest in the coming days and weeks.

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  • March 9, 2015 at 4:40 pm
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    So sorry to hear this! What a horrible way to spend your holidays. When you add it all up, though, it makes sense your body shut down. It was just too much!

    I am also an introvert and feel lucky my parents-in-law don’t do the week-long celebration, most likely due to living in Canada. 1 meal is enough for me; there are always way too many dishes to humanely consume! Had I been in your position, I am certain I would also be in the hospital…long before the 5 day mark!

    I remember one day in Shanghai, we were having dinner with my MIL’s family, just after having had lunch with my FIL’s family. Both meals reminded me of the extravagance of The New Year (minus firecrackers but with jetlag). We also had bought presents for everyone, which as you know, is a stress by itself. With second hand smoking and boisturous family members – and alcohol playing a big part in it – I had to step outside a few minutes, in the middle of the meal, for fresh air. I felt so bad; I didn’t want to be rude to anyone but my head felt like it was about to explode. This was just 1 day of celebration!

    All in all, I completely sympathize with you. I really hope you are feeling better now and hope you will get the chance to rest some more.

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  • March 9, 2015 at 10:43 pm
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    Oh my! I hope you are totally recovered now. CNY can be really exhausting and even sickening! This year was fine for me regarding transportation (we took a flight, the airport was not too crowded and the plane left on time! Unbelievable!!) and firecrackers (not too many or at least I didn’t hear them, I slept with earplugs!) but I also got sick thanks to too much food and drinks. I didn’t go to the hospital but I only ate boiled rice for two days hahaha.

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  • March 10, 2015 at 4:43 am
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    Jocelyn! Oh my goodness that sounds horrible I hope you’re feeling better now!

    I can’t even imagine driving in China–and you’re a brave, brave woman to do it. Do you need a special license to drive in China, or does the international drivers license work over there?

    That sounds even MORE stressful than Christmas over here in the states (at least we wrap up the holidays in 2 days, not 7!). I hope you’re back home in Hangzhou and having a proper rest!

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  • March 10, 2015 at 7:43 pm
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    What a shame that the holidays left you so exhausted. Traffic in China is a mess and especially the driving styles are often insane!

    My father-in-law used to be a taxi driver and is now a driver for government body. All those years he has been driving he never had a crash nor a scratch even but as soon as he was let lose on the empty streets of Finland he was lost. Too regulated everything, no one using the horn and and and

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  • March 12, 2015 at 2:20 am
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    I feel your pain!! I ended up in the hospital in Changsha with a UTI when we travelled to bring our middle child home… nothing quite like having to do a sterile collection over the oddest bathroom situation I have ever run across – was not expecting a trough of flowing sewage IN a hospital. It ran a close second to trying to explain to our guide what was wrong with me so he could tell the doctor. He was so confused and I just wanted to curl in a ball and expire quietly.

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  • March 17, 2015 at 9:58 am
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    Wow, sounds like a bad experience, as well as very exhausting both physically and mentally and emotionally. Hope you’ll feel better!

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  • March 19, 2015 at 9:33 pm
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    CNY can be a demanding period, especially when spent in China with a Chinese family!

    I never really experience CNY with a local family as my boyfriend’s relatives always go on trips during that period and they don’t really celebrate it that much (at least compared to what I saw in China Mainland). I would like to experience the real thing sooner or later though!

    Take care Jocelyn and recover soon!

    Reply

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