How to Spend Chinese New Year Overseas, For Busy People

A Chinese man stands all alone on stage for Chinese New Year
Feeling all alone in celebrating Chinese New Year, because you're living abroad, and you're busy? Try these ideas to get into the holiday spirit, for the person on the go.

Saturday night, the rum-ta-da-rum-tum-tum drumbeats echoed out of the ballroom on campus, as that red lion — looking lavish as a Liberace suit — bust through the doors, bobbing up and down, and wagging its tail all the way to the stage. This was the beginning of Chinese Night at our campus, the local version of Chinese New Year. And my Chinese husband John and I, exiled to the tables in the food court area outside the door, could only imagine what was really going on.

Of course, we didn’t get a chance to see that kickoff to that great show for a very simple reason. We arrived late, finding a “people mountain, people sea” of a ballroom, with no seats at the tables, nor the overflow rows of seating added to the back.

Yet, in a way, it’s almost a metaphor to the millions of Chinese — and their loved ones — who pass Chinese New Year in a foreign country. Once you squeezed your way into China’s ballroom, and watched the holiday explode before you in all of its red firecracker excitement. But now you’re seated so far away, you don’t even notice the stage.

It doesn’t help that, in 2011, the year of the rabbit falls on Thursday, February 3, in the middle of the week. Or in the middle of a mind-busting Spring semester for my Ph.D. student of a husband. Or, for that matter, that we’re located in a cultural no-man’s land somewhere in the US Mountain time zone.

No matter where you are or what you do, when you spend the Chinese New Year outside of China, you’re just going to feel left behind, because it’s NOT a holiday for everyone else.

John and I are about as busy as people come, but Chinese New Year is still sacred to us, and still worth squeezing into our schedule. So I thought I’d share a few of my own ideas on how to spend Chinese New Year — on Chinese New Year’s Eve — when you’re busy, and overseas.

1. Wear something red. This is easy, and a no-brainer. Red is the most auspicious, good luck color for Chinese New Year, so this is the time to dust off your favorite red sweater (or even, in my husband’s case, his favorite red underwear with that little “good fortune” [福, or fú] character embroidered on the side). Even if they’re just red earrings or a red necklace, it’ll help you get in the holiday spirit. A little bit, at least. 😉

2. Decorations that do double-duty. Who says you need separate decorations for Christmas and Chinese New Year? As I wrote back in December, in my Very Chinese Christmas entry, there are a lot of great ways to incorporate the Chinese spirit into your holiday home. I put up my Christmas tree and Chinese New Year duilian, Christmas stockings and Chinese New Year firecracker mobile at the same time. That way, when Chinese New Year arrives, I still have plenty of Chinese New Year decorations to let our home explode with the spirit of the holiday — while saving us the hassle of redoing decorations when we’re crazy busy. (And, yes, I don’t even take that Christmas tree down until Chinese New Year is officially over — even though my neighbors shake their heads, wondering why I still have Christmas lights in my windows.)

3. Take out, or eat out Chinese New Year dinner. Dinner on Chinese New Year’s Eve is supposed to be as sumptuous as Christmas dinner in the West. But if you’re busy, who has time to slave over the stove when you’re balancing work and/or family? Especially, in the middle of the week? Give yourself a break, and a treat, and leave the cooking to someone else. If you’re living the student life — like my Chinese husband and I — or have tight finances, go for your favorite Chinese takeout. If it’s in your budget, splurge for a delicious dinner at a local Chinese restaurant. Those of you in big cities have it even better, because many Chinese restaurants bring Chinese New Year right to your table, where your Kung Pao chicken comes with anything from a lion dance to an erhu performance.

4. Watch highlights of the CCTV New Year’s Gala online. The CCTV New Year’s Gala in China is kind of like Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve here in the US. We don’t watch because we enjoy it, but because it’s, well, tradition, and it’s just not the holiday without it (if, for nothing else, as background noise while you’re waiting for your Chinese relatives or friends to bring out the food). If you’re not in China, chances are, you probably can’t stream it live because of the time difference. And why would you, since you’re busy? In fact, you’re probably better off than the 700 million plus viewers, who zone out through the hours of skits and banter and songs. Depending on how much time difference you have with China, by the time you sit down to celebrate your Chinese New Year, bloggers and journalists will have written or posted highlights of the best and worst programs of the evening. Just do a quick google search on either “CCTV New Year’s Gala 2011” or “中国中央电视台春节联欢晚会2011,” and watch a few of the most entertaining five or 10 minute sketches.

5. Save Christmas clothing to wear on Chinese New Year’s day. If you’re like my Chinese husband’s family, maybe you can’t start the Chinese New Year without some brand new clothes. But who has time to make an extra shopping trip for the perfect new thing for Chinese New Year? Instead, do yourself a favor next year, and save one piece of new clothing you got for Christmas, just for wearing Chinese New Year’s day. (I’ve got a red cotton Gap pullover that I’ve been waiting weeks to model.)

6. Call family and friends in China/Taiwan/Hong Kong (or wherever home is). The hardest part of spending any holiday away from your country is the people. After all, it’s family and friends that make the holidays, including Chinese New Year. Bring them a little closer by giving them a call during Chinese New Year. Ask them how they’ve been spending the holiday. And when they start telling you about the red-braised pork their mother made, or the red lanterns Lao Ba put up around the house, or how your Aunt’s nephew almost burned himself setting off firecrackers, you’ll almost smell that star-anise fragrance wafting from the dish, or the smoke drifting through the windows. (And perhaps, in the last case, be grateful you’re not there to hear the little boy scream.) 😉

Are you spending Chinese New Year away from China, or your country, or outside your parents’/relatives’ country? How will you fit the celebration into your busy schedule?

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3 Replies to “How to Spend Chinese New Year Overseas, For Busy People”

  1. Thats a really good idea to call my friends in! What is the best day? February 3rd in China? I think I can call their mobile phone number from skype and its cheap for me and not any extra charge for them.. Just went to the Chinese New Year celebrations in my city! Was awesome food, performances, open bar, kids singing.. 新年快乐!I am so happy that next year I will be in China : D

  2. I think China is 13 hours ahead of EST and 12 hours ahead of EDT. So, if you’re in Chicago, 9 p.m. on Wednesday night is 9 a.m. over there.

  3. Xinnian kuaile!! Thanks for following me on Twitter! I just found your site and absolutely love it! I was married to a guy from Wuhan way back when and am still hopelessly enamored by all things Chinese. I look forward to reading more of your posts!! Hoppy New Year!

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