When Returning Home for Chinese New Year is Too Painful

A few weeks before Chinese New Year in 2016, I was invited to attend a get-together in Hangzhou for a training company where an acquaintance I’ll call Jian worked. One of the themes of the evening happened to be the holidays, and the leaders called a young man (not Jian) up to the front of the room to ask him about his goals for the coming year.

“So what do you want to bring home for Chinese New Year?” the leader asked him, referring to next year’s festivities.

“Fifty thousand yuan,” said the fellow, who appeared to be in his 20s. He had an ambitious grin that, if it were a power source, could have illuminated the entire room.

I was struck both by the confident determination in his response, and the fact that he desired so much money. The sum of 50,000 yuan was the equivalent of about $7,500 at the time, which actually startled me. As much as I enjoyed a thoroughly middle-class lifestyle growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, USA, I doubted my parents had ever spent anything close to that much on Christmas.

But the topic of money and Chinese New Year surfaced later on over dinner with Jian, who was as much of a high-powered go-getter as the 20-something guy in front of the room. Jian confessed that he once made a promise to himself – if he didn’t hit his income goals for that year, he would not return home to face his family and friends at Chinese New year. He didn’t say so, but it was clear that a failure to “bring home the yuan” would be a huge loss of face.

Clearly, the traditional Chinese saying “money or none, return home for Chinese New Year” (yǒuqián méiqián huíjiā guònián; 有钱没钱回家过年) didn’t apply.

Yet while he was concerned about face, others in China are more concerned with the pressure to give – even if they cannot afford it. Consider this article by Sixth Tone about the growing number of migrant laborers in China giving Chinese New Year in their hometowns a pass, titled Going Home for the Holidays a Hard Sell to Migrant Workers:

“I haven’t returned home for two years,” a villager surnamed Gao in central China’s Hunan province told the newspaper’s reporter. “I didn’t dare go back. In addition to the cost of transportation, visiting my relatives would add up to a few thousand yuan.”

Gao explained that most of this cost stemmed from an obligation to give red envelopes to family members he hardly knows or hasn’t seen in years as a token of goodwill. “I’ve got a lot of relatives back in the village,” he said. “The expenses are bottomless. I’ve thought it through, over and over, and decided not to return.”

It’s alarming that even migrant workers, those earning paltry sums compared to Jian and his colleague, would be expected to dole out money during Chinese New Year that they cannot afford to give.

I too know all too well the pressure that comes along with Chinese New Year. A few years ago, I wrote “What will they think?” The fear of being seen as a failure before family at Chinese New Year and noted:

The other night, I suddenly burst out in tears over what might probably be the silliest of all things – the fact that Chinese New Year was fast approaching, and I was really afraid of spending it with the family. …

Deep down, I know it was all about face, our own mianzi. That I thought if only we had a car – even if it was a borrowed one – it would somehow make up for everything else about our lives that seems totally imperfect or open to family criticism. Like how we don’t have kids (and everyone keeps bugging us about it). Or how we don’t own an apartment or a car (unlike all of John’s relatives his own age). Or even the fact that we live in a tiny apartment. Having a car would somehow prove our “worthiness” before everyone else in the family. …

Chinese New Year is one of those times when it seems like everyone in the family makes it their business to tell you what they think about your life – whether it’s your marital status, whether you have kids, or even your own possessions. And even when people don’t say anything, sometimes just being the one who “sticks out” of the crowd – like, say, the only thirty-something couple in the family that doesn’t have a home, car, lots of money, and kids – can make you feel truly like the odd one out. As if you don’t belong (and, perhaps, never will).

And while I didn’t mention it specifically in that post, I’ve known the financial pressure too (for ongoing reasons longtime readers are well aware of).

I’ve also asked, in regards to Chinese New Year, Is The Family Pressure in China Too Much?, where I related the story of a relative whose business failed in its first year, wondering if that was the reason we didn’t see him during the holidays. I wrote:

From time to time, I hear stories about people like this – people who refuse to return home for the holidays, sometimes for years. People who just cannot face the family, because their lives don’t look like what others would consider “success” or “normal”. Sometimes it’s because they’re down on their luck in business or employment, like the guy I mentioned. Sometimes it’s because they’re not married yet.

Whatever the case, they have enough stress in their lives – and could do without the additional stress from their families during the holidays. They don’t want to be compared to so-and-so, who just bought a new BMW or apartment in Shanghai. They don’t want to be told that, say, they’re getting too old for marriage or kids.

While it’s normal for parents to worry about their kids, sometimes I wonder, is the pressure here too much? Is there too much of an expectation for people to conform to a narrow societal norm? Is there too much pressure for people to be “successful”?

Is that why my husband’s relative didn’t come back?

What do you think? Have you known people who refused to return home for Chinese New Year for monetary or “face” reasons? Or have you breathed a sigh of relief over not needing to return to your hometown for Chinese New Year?

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4 Replies to “When Returning Home for Chinese New Year is Too Painful”

  1. Hi Jocelyn,

    My partner and I were living together in Australia while I complete my PhD, but unfortunately he couldn’t find a suitable job during his 6 months here. He just recently returned to China, bowing to pressure from his parents to return, and he’s already dreading spending New Year’s with his family. I’m 31 and he’s 29 and they keep bugging him about getting married and having kids, even though we are not at a stage in our lives where we could financially support that (never mind my studies!). He told me his whole family is gathering this year, for the first time in 4 years, to “give him a hard time” about his current situation. It’s such a stressful time and so much unnecessary pressure is put onto him to succeed. He’s the only one in his family to have gained a PhD and moved outside of China, yet is still considered a disappointment in their eyes.

    1. Dear Vee, thank you for sharing this — it saddens me to think they would consider him a failure despite earning a PhD and feel the need to pressure him about his situation. Sending you both hugs and hoping he will survive this Chinese New Year!

  2. After viewing this article, I decided to query the immigrant co-workers about this phony “show of success” after residing in a more prosperous area of the world. These co-workers were originally from Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and north Africa. As it turns out, it is a universal obligation to distribute gifts whenever one of them happen to return to their homeland after residing in America. Any failure to follow through with the gift distribution of course would result in a great “loss of face” and they would be much better off if they had not returned at all. The timing of the return to village for the Chinese New Year occasion just happen to further magnify the Chinese dilemma of “traditional obligation” all the more and winds up ruining what it was initially intended to be an otherwise joyous reunion.

    1. Dan, thank you so much for sharing this — interesting about this universal obligation to give presents upon return, and that an inability would be a huge blow to one’s status.

      You wrote:

      The timing of the return to village for the Chinese New Year occasion just happen to further magnify the Chinese dilemma of “traditional obligation” all the more and winds up ruining what it was initially intended to be an otherwise joyous reunion.

      Can’t agree more about ruining a perfectly wonderful family holiday.

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