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

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


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


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


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!

“What will they think?” The fear of being seen as a failure before family at Chinese New Year

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.

It sounds ridiculous to admit that I was sobbing in my bed over another holiday with the family, but it’s true. And it was all triggered by an equally ridiculous thing – that none of my husband’s friends could lend us their extra cars.

We knew we weren’t in a position to rent a car to drive home for the holiday, but John and I had talked about borrowing one of his friends’ cars for a while. The only problem? We waited too long to ask for that second car – and of his friends who had an extra vehicle, all of them had been promised away to someone else.

As frivolous as it sounds, I had secretly daydreamed about driving back to the family home in a car. I often imagined myself, the sunshine beating down upon me like a spotlight as I stepped out of an actual automobile in front of the family – how great it would feel for them to see us driving home to the house (instead of taking the two buses we’d normally have to brave to make the trip back).

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.


Well, without the “armor” of a borrowed car at our disposal, all of my fears came pouring out, along my tears. That everyone will notice how not much has changed for us over the year of the horse. That they might think we’re failures.

The problem of “what will others think?” has weighed upon me for much of my life. I’m a recovering perfectionist, exacerbated by the fact that I’m also incredibly sensitive. The old saying goes, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” – and yet for most of my life, I’ve taken to heart time and time again what other people say about me. Even though I should have known better.

Meanwhile, 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).

Hence, all of my fears about heading home. And my crazy thinking that, somehow, having a car might make us “look better” in the eyes of everyone else.

I’d be lying if I told you I’m somehow over “what other people think,” because I’m not. I think it’s the biggest struggle of my entire life. It’s one I fight on a daily basis. Sometimes, it’s even the reason I can’t fall asleep right away; there are nights when I must whisper the mantra, “You are good enough just as you are,” over and over again, just like my mother used to whisper to me as a child when I couldn’t sleep.

Facing my family at Chinese New Year is like being tossed into my own personal three-ring circus of “what will other people think?” Specifically, people who I love and care about very much, which makes it even harder.


Yet, in another sense, I also realize that facing my worst fear – what others who love me will think – could also be my salvation. That sometimes, you have to face the darkness and plunge right into it, instead of just running away (which tends to be my knee-jerk reaction to things I am afraid of).

That instead of hiding behind someone’s borrowed car in order to feel worthy, I can feel worthy right now, exactly as I am. And not because someone else – or, especially, someone in the family – told me so.

So in a few days, John and I will walk our way over to one of Hangzhou’s bus stations and board the first of two buses to make our way back to his hometown. I don’t know what my Chinese family will say about us this holiday season. But for the first time in a long time, I’m going to try out something new – listening less to their criticism, and more to my own heart (which I’m certain that deep down inside already knows I’m good enough).

Have you ever been afraid of what other people — family or otherwise — might think of you? How do you manager your own “demons”?

P.S.: When I first drafted this post, it seemed my husband and I had no possibility of borrowing a car to head home. Then a miracle happened — when my husband happened to call a forgotten old classmate, she offered us her extra car. Still, that car won’t change my perspective; I’m still planning on listening to my heart!

On Bainian — Chinese New Year’s Calls — And Those Annoying Questions From Relatives

For some young Chinese, the very possibility of seeing family means the potential for annoying personal questions — ones they’d sometimes rather not answer (photo by Chew – Lin YIP via Flickr.com)

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?” Continue reading “On Bainian — Chinese New Year’s Calls — And Those Annoying Questions From Relatives”