4 Things That Make Me Nervous About Chinese New Year With The Family

When you live a lot of your life online like I do, it’s easy to make things look perfect. Like, for instance, Chinese New Year. Last year I spent much of the run-up to the holiday posting eye-catching photos of Chinese New Year – from shots of mouth-watering homemade goodies from my mother-in-law’s kitchen to handwritten red couplets shining in the winter sunshine.

But here’s the thing – it’s not all perfect or fun when you actually spend Chinese New Year with the family here. Sometimes, it’s even nerve-wracking. So in the spirit of being totally honest about Chinese New Year, here are 4 things that actually make me anxious about spending this year’s holiday with family here in China:

1. Firecrackers and fireworks


Confession time – I’m a jumpy person. If you startle or scare me (like, sneaking up on me all of a sudden), I will literally jump!

That’s why I’m not exactly the biggest fan of two of the biggest symbols of Chinese New Year: firecrackers and fireworks.

Whenever the family sets them off at our house, it’s like they’ve kicked me into a war zone. I head for the safest corner of the house to duck down and cover my ears, praying it will all be over soon.

Of course, it doesn’t help that every Chinese New Year generates a frightening bunch of tabloid-worthy news stories about tragic accidents (including deaths) caused by firecrackers and fireworks, making me even more nervous whenever I hear that great “boom” outside.

If only my husband’s family would go for those electronic firecrackers that I heard about on the news in China last year – they have a prerecorded “boom” but none of that destructive or dangerous force.

But I know better — they’re traditionalists to the core when it comes to their choice of explosives. Which means I’ll have to prepare myself for another year of explosions outside the door – and another year of me nervously crouching in the corner of the house…with my ears plugged.

2. Visiting with relatives


Two years ago I captured the pressure of visiting relatives in a post titled On Bainian — Chinese New Year’s Calls — And Those Annoying Questions From Relatives:

The other night, while talking to our close Chinese friend Caroline during Chinese New Year, my husband asked a common question. “Did you go out to bàinián?” Bàinián (拜年), of course, is the tradition of paying new year’s calls to your relatives and friends, usually by going over to their homes.

Caroline laughed with embarrassment. “I didn’t want to go out, I’ve stayed at home. People ask too many questions!”

That’s because Caroline still hasn’t, as they say in Chinese, “solved her personal problem”. She’s a single Chinese woman in her thirties. And because she’s single and well above 30, a sort of unofficial marriage expiration date for young people in China (especially women), her relatives will ask her the bomb of all questions: “Do you have a boyfriend?”

Caroline’s not alone in detesting the questions about her personal life. After all, one of the hottest topics trending on Chinese social media in the lead to Chinese New Year was Counter Annoying Chinese New Year Questions From Relatives.

Even I’m not immune to such questioning. John and I still have no children, which makes the questions “Do you have a kid?” or “Are you planning to have a kid soon?” — questions I frequently get from Chinese friends and relatives — sting at times. Of course, my mother-in-law doesn’t even bother to ask us; she just simply tells me I’m “too old,” which does wonders for my self-esteem! (Not.)

So, since we still don’t have a kid, guess what I’m expecting to hear from the relatives this Chinese New Year? Yep. And I’m definitely not thrilled.

3. The pressure to drink

(Photo by toyohara via Flickr.com)
(Photo by toyohara via Flickr.com)

As I wrote the other week, one of my most awkward experiences during Chinese New Year involved watching a relative get so sloppy drunk he became nearly unconscious and vomited on himself. The reason? Because his elders kept pressuring him to drink out of respect for him.

It’s really scary when alcohol gets co-opted in China to measure things like filial piety or loyalty. Some of the biggest bullies often end up being some of your closest friends or relatives.

While I’m not too worried about my husband (as I’ve written before, he regularly uses the excuse of having a foreign wife to get himself a “no alcohol” pass at Chinese New Year) I do fear for the men in the family. Someone already got so drunk last year they needed hospital care, and I witnessed other men collapsed on their beds many an afternoon in a drunken stupor. Sigh.

4. Smokers in the family

(Photo by MiKi via Flickr.com)
(Photo by MiKi via Flickr.com)

Big tobacco must love how China’s culture has successfully linked cigarette smoking to masculinity, guaranteeing that pretty much every family in the country includes smokers.

But I’m a rabid nonsmoker who finds secondhand smoke repulsive, so having smokers in my family here in China is another thing to worry about during the holidays.

Last year, it was almost impossible to find a dinner table where someone wasn’t lighting up. I experienced some uncomfortable conversations about smoking and often had to steal away from the dinner table because my lungs just couldn’t take it.

I’m expecting another round of “dodge the secondhand smoke” this year – and it’s definitely not going to be the highlight of my holidays. Ugh.

What worries you about spending the holidays with your family?

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24 Replies to “4 Things That Make Me Nervous About Chinese New Year With The Family”

  1. Chinese New Year has been held at our house since we moved in (this will be our 6th year). Therefore, we have an unspoken rule of no smoking because my husband and I don’t smoke. The only person who smokes in my husband’s family is his youngest brother and he prefers to go outside (every time my husband and his brothers see him smoking, they also tell him he should quit). When my husband plays mah-jong with his buddies (an annual CNY eve tradition that has been going on for years which my husband now hosts), they will also go outside. Drinking is never a problem as well.

    1. You are really fortunate to be hosting CNY (and able to set the ground rules)! Since it happens at my in-laws’ home and they tolerate a lot of things I never would (like other people smoking) it can make the holiday really unpleasant at times.

  2. good summary. I mostly look forward to it though – especially since I learned how to be liked by everyone without having to smoke, to drink myself under the table or by having to make a fool out of myself 😉 I just wish my Chinese were better – or their English (or both).
    I agree, people should drink and smoke less. Especially since most people who drink and smoke the most are husbands and young parents. And they might also waste a bit less food while they’re at it – the amounts of food nobody ends up eating are always staggering…

    1. That’s good you’ve learned how to connect with people without the need for cigarettes or drinking too much! They’re both awful habits. A number of the men in our family (including my father-in-law and an uncle) have now been forced to quit smoking and drinking because of health issues. It’s sad to me that it takes a health concern to nudge them in that direction.

  3. Frankly, I hate Chinese New Year. Last year was particularly terrible because I was about 8 months pregnant and my husband was gone for work. I had to spend time with my mother-in-law’s boyfriend’s family. It was awkward and they don’t “get me” (and my strange American ways) like my husband’s relatives do.

    The fireworks and firecrackers put me on edge and I hate the chain smoking and endless card games and gambling that often goes on. I find Chinese New Year incredibly boring. It’s like Thanksgivng that drags on forever (two weeks!) without the football or decent alcohol or Black Friday to get me through. So glad I’m missing some of it this year!

    1. Oh that does sound terrible R Zhao — being 8 months pregnant and around relatives you don’t really feel comfortable with! I’m definitely with you about feeling on edge with the fireworks/firecrackers, not loving the smoking and gambling. Good for you that you’re headed to America!

  4. Regarding the smoking and drinking, I have seen the discomfort of male (foreign) colleagues when in a social situation where they are pressured to do either of these things that they don’t wish to .

    I remember during my first year in China when some of my colleagues from home were invited to a lunch only to be subjected to constant pressure form the host (my departmental president) to engage in mutual toasting during the meal. Because we were all due to attend official engagements and presentations after lunch, some of which my colleagues were to give, they declined politely, to the increased ire of our host. However they chose to toast using non-alcoholic drinks.
    Later the same day, at an evening function the process was repeated, the same pressure to get drunk. Again my colleagues excused themselves as best they could, citing a busy schedule the next day, and again the host became more visibly annoyed.

    I can at least use the fact that I am female as an acceptable excuse, but I saw my colleagues get more and more discomforted by this ‘cultural bullying ‘, and the host getting more and more angry at the refusals to engage in the drinking.
    While wanting to respect local tradition, I just wished for some reciprocal respect for differing behavioural norms.

    1. I’ve seen the same issue you describe with other foreign men and it is a tough situation. And really sad that not drinking/smoking can upset a host.

      I agree there needs to be a balance with respect to behavioral norms. Also, the fact that a growing number of folks in China are also concerned about the over drinking and smoking reminds me that it’s clearly not an appropriate norm.

  5. Those would make me nervous. I’ve been fortunate with Chinese New Year two years ago with my husband’s family in Taiwan. I did not have to deal with second hand smoke and everybody handled their alcohol just fine – no vomiting. Some people were buzzed but nothing over the top. Nobody asked if we were going to have kids, either. We just ate and talked about other stuff.

    This year, my husband and I are staying in Shanghai during Chinese New Year to save money. We did the same last year and it was pretty relaxing. The streets were empty, clean and we would go to Costa to relax. I mean, as long as we stay away from the Bund.

  6. A good list of *great* reasons to feel uncomfortable about CNY with the in-laws. I feel very uncomfortable with fireworks that people use themselves (as opposed to the big fireworks shows that are popular in Japan)ーpartly because of the danger and the noise, but also because when our dog was young, some teenagers thought it would be funny to throw some firecrackers towards my dad and herーscaring her out of her wits. Which is expected, but the lasting impact was that she became afraid of thunder, fireworks and gun shots during hunting season (we don’t hunt, but live in a rural area so hearing shots fired isn’t unusual). She sweats and cowers and is completely inconsolable and restless. 🙁 (Better now that she’s an old lady and half deaf though, haha!)
    But, I digress! The last two points are what have turned me off some drinking parties with coworkers/friendsーit just ends up being more of a bother than not. My husband can’t drink (he goes red, followed by a headache shortly after even just a few sips of beer) and people will still try to force it on him. Like your husband though, he uses me as an excuse to not drink if I’m there, hehe. ^^

    Good luck though! I hope you can find a way to avoid the worst of it and have a great Chinese New Year! 🙂

  7. Hi Jocelyn,
    I feel like this entry could have been written by me. I literally am phobic of fireworks, and my blood pressure probably rises to dangerous levels at Chinese New Year. I also am in the same boat with the kid issue, I would love to be closer to my husband’s extended family, but the unrelenting prying into our personal life causes us to be more distant. I am also totally with you on the drinking and smoking. So, stay true to who you are and don’t let them get to you! I am so glad we’ve decided to spend the new year here in HK, and go to visit family in the mainland after it’s all over. 加油!

  8. Amen! When you think about it, Chinese New Year is pretty annoying!(I’m not a big fan of Christmas either!). I can’t stand the drinking and the smoking, and I can’t understand why getting wasted is a sign of respect. Luckily in my boyfriend’s family they don’t drink that much. The smoking is unavoidable though.

    The firecrackers are extremely annoying also. It hasn’t been that bad in Suzhou, but once in Beijing I had to endure non-stop firecrackers noise for like 8 hours straight. And it was not even CNY, but that festival that is 2 weeks later! (is it 元宵节? Can’t remember). I was this close to go out to the street and kill someone…

  9. I have issues with all of these, but also the cold weather! Like you, when I spent Chinese New Year with family in China, we were in a place that was cold and didn’t have heat. I wonder if things would have been easier for me if I had been in a sub-tropical climate. I did spend a CNY in Hong Kong once, away from family responsibilities, and it was wonderful. I felt so selfish at the time for staying back, but thank goodness was pregnant and couldn’t leave on doctor’s orders. Before that year, though, I also got an earful from family in China about when I would get pregnant. Now warmed by central heat, I very much enjoy CNY with family and friends.

  10. Finally someone puts it out in the open. Chinese New Year is not just about happy family dinners, beautiful decoration and dumplings…
    I am not looking forward to this years celebration with my husbands family. Exactly because of those four points you have listed! Last year have haven’t been able to sleep the whole two weeks the new year lasted because my father in law was lighting up firecrackers every three hours! In front of our window!
    Just thinking about having to take part in bainian makes my stomach squeeze.
    Drinking and smoking is something I cannot stand the whole year out and I have declared to not take part in any Chinese dinner ever again. Simply because you always get forced! Even if I don’t drink in the end, it makes me feel horrible and takes away all the fun. Gatherings during Chinese New Year are the worst. They always end up with me and my husband fighting because he gave in into the hard core Baijiu contest, I got mad and did not “give enough fave” to the seniors in my family. Or I would simply leave the room because I was nearly suffocated due tithe smoke (you know these Chinese private dining rooms, without windows and no air shaft! And than five Chinese men start smoking!). The drinking “culture” is horrific here. If you don’t drink as a men you are not a men. You could as well slap your father in the face… Gujing is a part if Bozhou the city I live, and the main producer of a very popular Baijiu brand.
    Because of all those things I have started to dislike Chinese New Year in the village here. I am still trying to figure out what to do the year. If we go back at all or if we just stay in the city where at least we have an aircon during dinner. Something I personally hate as much as firecracker, is the cold!

    Maybe I have to really give some more thought to how to make this years Chinese New Years celebration a bit more bearable…

  11. I wish for my husband to finally attend to lunar new year with his family, he haven’t done that for last 8 years or so. Besides having a dinner with me, of course. But then he’s like ‘Too much drama: first they ask you about school, once you graduate they ask about job, when you have job they ask you when you’re going to get a flat, once you have a flat they will ask you why don’t you date anyone, when you date – when you get married. Then you’re married so they ask when is the baby coming and if you’re lucky to pass all of that they will still ask you about something’ so looking how crazy his family is I’m pretty glad we’re so far away 😀

  12. I spent the last two Chinese New Years in China with my husband’s family. The first year was the first time I’d ever been to China, so they basically had a lunch or dinner (or sometimes both) planned with various family, friends, and coworkers every day to introduce me. I didn’t speak much Chinese at the time, so all I could do was smile and nod, most of the time. The food was wonderful but I did gag on the secondhand smoke. There was a scary moment when the group of drunk young men decided to set off large fireworks and almost didn’t back away in time. My mother-in-law didn’t drink, and she ran interference for me when others tried to get me to drink, for which I was thankful. My husband did drink, but not too much. Overall, although my father-in-law and his friends got quite drunk, the younger crowd didn’t get very bad. A little tipsy.

    The worst thing for me was the smoking. Watching these guys go through several packs in one meal, and knowing I was breathing in all the second-hand smoke from hundreds of cigarettes within a couple of hours in those closed off little private rooms, made me really mad. I kept getting up to go out, but it wasn’t better outside. The hallways were smoky from all of the smoke drifting out of all of the rooms, and outside was smoky from the haze and firecracker dust. Basically, there was nowhere to go to escape the smoke. Drove me crazy. Other than that, things were pretty good. At home, my father-in-law went outside to smoke, since he knew I didn’t like it, so at least if we kept the windows at home shut up tight the air inside was better than outside. I’m a pretty heavy sleeper, so the firecrackers at night didn’t bother me much.

    I did get into an argument with my husband over the smoking, though. He hates the smoking and always tells his dad to quit, but he said that he can’t ask a room full of people to not smoke just because I don’t like it. I think part of it was culture shock, for me, but I was like, “Well, when we have a baby, I’m NOT taking them to any of those dinners. I won’t have a little baby breathing that stuff. Period.” And he was saying how rude that would be and everyone would want to see the baby and I was like, they can come visit in our house and not smoke, and he told me I just didn’t understand. His mom was like, “Hey, don’t worry, look how tall your husband grew, and his father smoked all the time when he was growing up,” as if him being tall was proof second hand smoke didn’t hurt him as a child. (Which, actually, it did – he gets lung infections all the time and was in the hospital a lot as a boy.)

  13. OMG the alcohol pressure!!!
    This year I am back in Switzerland to do my Visa and won’t be able to reach my boyfriend and his family on time for 春节.
    All his parents are so excited and can’t wait to see me for the first time but I’m actually so scared of alcohol pressure, I don’t like to drink alcohol and I am very petite and skinny and already after a single glass of vine I will feel tipsy, but I already had to assist my boyfriend several times after he came home totally drunk from business dinners or meetings.
    For me as a western is unbelievable that people can really bound business relations in this way…but I learned not to judge this and just let it go. He knows exactly that I don’t approve and that he cannot to that in my country if one day he will come to visit my mom and dad.
    How did you treat this topic with your husband? I really need some suggestions.

    Thank you for your article, like always very interesting!

  14. Oh Chinese New Year. I have never experienced it in China so I am not really able to talk much about it however I did experienced some Chinese family gatherings.

    What I hate the most in those is the pressure the family can create for “certain” younger people. It is really frustrating for many and I heard many stories from friends who suffered a lot due to it.
    Furthermore I hate smoking. I am not smoking myself and I have no one around who really smokes so to have them all suddenly starting to smoke inside is kind of awful for me (and my wife and many others…).
    Also the drinking is not that nice but I can deal with it to a certain degree. But I have no doubt that nearly all of those who want to drink with me would be able to drink me under the table…

  15. @ Jocelyn.

    I am in agreement that smoking, drinking and the firecrackers can just be a little too overwhelming and that you should shy away from those activities. But I do have to agree with your relatives that having a baby should be the order of the year. You are not too old. You can still have the wonders and joy of a little one to satisfy yourself and your in-laws. Also, I would love to see the baby’s face posted on this site. So, go and have a baby this year!!!!!!!!!!


  16. @ Fred…. I know you only mean well but have you actually read and re-read your reply; can you hear how your words must sound like to someone else reading your post.

    Your reply is somewhat condescending, the decision to have or not to have a child is no one else’s but the couple themselves, to have a child to satisfy someone else is not a good enough reason to have a child.

  17. The mainland Chinese are having a 暴发户 rush, older generation is trying to make up for those missing decades. Maybe ten years they will learn to be much more subtle, that is when the post-80 population have more say in the society.

  18. I have to agree with all the points you made. I hate loud noises! I’ve never been able to be around firecrackers or fireworks without running towards the hills. They freak me out. Another problem is I have social anxiety. It is not as bad as it was when I was growing up. I still struggle with it from time to time. It’s already hard being around people, but it’s harder when I don’t understand the dialect. I feel left out in conversation. Sloppy drunks…every year I have to watch over Tony because he has to drink so much. I’ve got some stories…I can’t stand smoking either. Tony has moved on to vape, but I can’t stand the overwhelming sweet smells. I wish we could wear some type of mask to prevent us from smelling all the fumes. 😛 This year his parents will be spending New Year’s in China. We’ll probably just make a dinner for ourselves at home.

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