“No need to give us jujube dates－we have plenty of them.”
This message from my in-laws, delivered by my husband Jun after he returned from a quick trip to his hometown in rural Zhejiang province, exploded my annual Chinese New Year tradition of sending all the family members packaged gift boxes of large Xinjiang jujube dates. After years of believing I had hit upon the perfect gift for the holidays, I was now left scrambling for an alternative.
And the options in my usual online supermarket didn’t look promising. As I ticked off the possibilities with my husband－Beijing-style haw cakes or ginseng or chocolates－he vetoed every one, saying the family could probably buy them or already had them. His mom had even tucked into his backpack a heaping plastic bag of assorted chocolates in flavors ranging from toffee to brandy, a reminder of the increasingly global goods available in the village of his childhood, making my search for something unique even more challenging.
After what felt like the 100th time of fruitlessly scrolling through Chinese New Year goods online, a picture of a gift box of goji berries, a specialty of Ningxia Hui autonomous region, suddenly drew my thoughts back to my 2020 reporting trip to the region for a video shoot. I went to Ningxia to explore how it was leveraging some of its most celebrated agricultural products－including those renowned goji berries－to alleviate poverty, mainly through online sales. And I’d made a number of friends along the way, who welcomed me to contact them anytime.
Surely, they must have some Chinese New Year goods, I thought.
Usually when we send anything for Chinese New Year to my husband’s parents here in China, it invariably elicits a very standard response that shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Chinese culture: “You shouldn’t have spent that money!” In fact, Jun’s parents already used this phrase on us twice – once after receiving the Chinese New Year gift boxes of Chinese jujube dates and walnuts, and then again after sending some whole root ginseng.
But when Jun told his father in a phone conversation that a gift box of auspicious red socks were also headed his way, he perked up with an uncharacteristic note of excitement in his voice. “Eh, your mother told me to buy some red socks and underwear!”
(That was my father-in-law’s way of saying: I love it, thank you!)
Those who know something about Chinese New Year culture and superstitions won’t find it surprising that he embraced this delivery more than the others.
First of all, wearing red in your Chinese zodiac year supposedly wards off the potential bad luck that might threaten anyone born under that zodiac sign. And second, people say the red clothing offers stronger protection if someone else buys it for you.
So since I bought him pairs of red socks, that could make these an especially propitious and welcome way to ring in this Chinese New Year, his own zodiac year.
Red socks or underwear (from actual briefs, boxers or panties to long johns) can present easy options to buy for your friends and family, provided you know their sizes. But when in doubt, go for anything painted in brilliant red: hats, scarves, gloves, wraps and even necklaces or bracelets.
Have any Chinese family or friends about to enter their zodiac year? Don’t forget them on your Chinese New Year shopping list – and remember, this is one time that someone might actually cheer to receive underwear or socks! For ideas, visit my post Great Gifts For Your Chinese Zodiac Year (Ben Ming Nian).
Need more Chinese New Year gift ideas for your Chinese loved ones? I’ve written extensively on the subject of gift-giving and recommend the following posts:
As Chinese New Year will light up homes and skies around the world at the end of this month starting Jan 24 (the eve of Chinese New Year), many of have already begun the annual shopping “shuffle” to find those perfect Chinese New Year gifts. And many Chinese brands you might not know happen to shine as splendid gift choices for Chinese New Year.
Here are 7 favorite Chinese brands – featuring foods and supplements — that you should consider while shopping for Chinese New Year, along with links to online stores in China and also around the world, including Amazon (where your purchases help support this site).
Three Squirrels (三只松鼠)
Chinese have gone nuts (pun intended!) over this label, which reigns as one of China’s best-selling snack brands and boasts an adorable trio of squirrels as its mascots. Naturally, things such as pecans, macadamias, pistachios, almonds and more stand out as favorites, but Three Squirrels also sells dried fruits, fruit and nut combos, plus a wide array of products that cover practically every snack category in China (from cookies, crackers and cakes to smoked/dried tofu and, yes, even potato chips). If you live in China, buy from the official Three Squirrels online stores on Alibaba’s Tmall or JD; you can also find Three Squirrels on Amazon.
Prince of Peace (太子牌)
This Hong Kong brand has won fans across the world and become one of the most ubiquitous ginseng brands in Chinese supermarkets across America for its quality and potent American ginseng products. While Westerners tend to like the convenience of the teas, capsules and powders, most Chinese will prefer whole root ginseng or ginseng slices. In China, you can buy on JD’s online marketplace. Otherwise, visit the Prince of Peace online store or Amazon.
Honey West (楼兰蜜语)
This brand name captures the sweet allure of the many popular snack foods of western China that have enchanted peoples’ tastebuds. Unlike Three Squirrels, Honey West specializes in western Chinese snacks such as large Chinese jujube dates, walnuts, raisins, figs and much more. As much as I love Three Squirrels, Honey West has become my go-to choice for Chinese New Year gifts for the family – their boxed Chinese jujube date/walnut combos always bring a delicious helping of joy (and good fortune, thanks to their clever packaging design) to the table at the holidays. You can find Honey West on Alibaba’s Tmall or on JD.
As vitamin brands from abroad have multiplied in the Chinese market, the domestic brand By-Health still flexes its muscles as one of the top choices for Chinese consumers looking for quality supplements at a good price. And since By-Health imports many of its key ingredients, buying from them can be like opting for an overseas brand. Even better – By-Health offers a selection of nearly every major vitamin, from vitamin B and C to multivitamins and calcium to even specialty supplements such as spirulina and garlic oil. You can purchase By-Health online at their Alibaba Tmall official store or their JD official store, and also visit its English website.
For years I’ve watched olive oil pour into supermarket shelves – and kitchens – across China, to the point where the country has risen to become one of the world’s major importers of this product. While Spanish and Italian imports vie for customers, the Chinese brand Olivoila, which promotes its own blend of imported olive oils tailored to the Chinese market, continues to sizzle among leading choices. In fact, my employer even gave a special boxed set of Olivoila olive oil for Chinese New Year. Here in China, you can purchase Olivoila at the Alibaba Tmall official store or its JD store.
Great Wall (长城葡萄酒)
The Alibaba Tmall supermarket listed a gift box of Great Wall red wine among its hottest selling products for Chinese New Year, a testament to how beloved this time-honored brand remains, despite the diverse range of imported wines that have flooded the Chinese market. For Chinese New Year, choose wines in red, the most festive color of the season. You can purchase Great Wall at the Alibaba Tmall official store or its JD official store.
White Rabbit (大白兔)
For many Chinese, White Rabbit candies, which date back to 1959 and represent one of the first treats in modern China, recall the sweet taste of nostalgia with every bite. And since generous bowls of candies always feature in Chinese New Year celebrations, consider surprising your Chinese loved ones with a box or some bags of these. They come in the traditional white milk candies as well as some newer and more innovative flavors (such as wasabi!). You can buy White Rabbit candies at the Alibaba Tmall official store or the JD official store, as well as on Amazon.
Photo credit: By David290 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77127042
What do you think? What are some other favorite Chinese brands you would recommend for Chinese New Year gifts?
Need more Chinese New Year gift ideas for your Chinese loved ones? I’ve written extensively on the subject of gift-giving and recommend the following posts:
If you’ve saved your holiday shopping for the last minute and wonder what to buy for Chinese loved ones on your list, we’ve got you covered on this blog. Here are four last-minute holiday gift ideas to consider:
#4: Hats, gloves, scarves
People love getting new clothes for the holidays in China (so they can dress in a completely new outfit from head to toe), so winter clothing is always in season as a gift.
Hats, gloves and scarves offer the easiest options — you don’t need to know sizes to buy the perfect gift. Still, quality counts here and, if you’re buying for someone younger, style as well. To play it safe, opt for major brands such as Esprit, Gap, Uniqlo or Zara.
Quality watches, earrings and necklaces in classic styles also shine as gifts for Chinese — and if you’re buying outside China, you can often find those with precious stones at better prices too. Unless you know the recipient well, stick to the most traditional pieces and settings from established brands or jewelers. Watches work well for men, while women will love earrings or necklaces.
If you’ve read every suggestion on this list and still feel stumped, then repeat after me — get a fruit basket or gourmet food basket. For more specific advice on this, see 4 Tips for Giving Gift Baskets in China.
Need more last-minute holiday gift ideas for your Chinese loved ones? I’ve written extensively on the subject of gift-giving and recommend the following posts:
The new year may be upon us — but in China, there’s another one just around the corner. Chinese New Year, of course!
Chinese New Year is also a time for giving gifts, especially when it comes to the tradition of bainian, where you visit friends and family bearing gifts known as nianhuo or Chinese New Year goods.
What makes a good gift for Chinese New Year? While I have a list of suggestions below, here’s my bottom line for Chinese New Year gifts. Always go for quality and don’t forget to get it wrapped and/or in a gift box.
The good news is, there are plenty of quality Chinese New Year gifts available, and if you purchase in China, most goods on sale usually come all boxed up, often in auspicious red and gold packaging. All you need to do is buy and give, it’s that simple!
So here are my 7 suggestions for great Chinese New Year gifts:
#7: Hongbao (red envelopes)
Children all across China eagerly await Chinese New Year for a lot of reasons, including the many hongbao (red envelopes) they’ll receive, filled with auspicious amounts of money, as the World of Chinese notes:
If you’re stuffing it with hundreds, go for even numbers for good luck: 200, 600, or 800. Don’t hand out bad luck with a gift of 400, or anything with the number four, the unluckiest of all numbers. Instead, stick to ones, fives, and, best of all, eights.
So if there happen to be kids with the people you’re visiting, don’t forget to give each of them a hongbao as a Chinese New Year gift!
Hongbao are also terrific for those in your employment, such as an ayi who might clean your home or care for your children. Think of it as a year-end bonus for the hard work they’ve done.
Say what you want about China’s national hot beverage. It really makes one fantastic gift….
What home in China doesn’t have a top-shelf box of tea (or even two), ready and waiting to entertain guests? Plus, everyone…loves drinking it.
But if you’re going to give tea as a gift, be prepared to pay top money for it. Most Chinese can taste the difference between the expensive, high-grade varieties (which are great gifts) versus the cheaper average teas (which you should never buy for anyone but yourself).
I wouldn’t buy tea online. Your best bet is to find a high-end tea shop in your vicinity and try the teas before purchasing this for Chinese New Year gifts.
#5: Nuts and dried fruits
No Chinese New Year is complete without the requisite hours of lazing around with friends and family, snacking on everything from walnuts and pecans to dates and raisins. They also make outstanding Chinese New Year gifts.
Nuts: Here in China, I’ve seen walnuts, pecans, hickory nuts, macadamia nuts, almonds, pine nuts, sunflower seeds and chestnuts given as gifts. You’ll even encounter Chinese New Year gift boxes that offer an assortment of nuts, nicely packaged up and ready to give someone you know or love.
Dried fruits: Dried jujube dates are always excellent Chinese New Year gifts because the name sounds auspicious. Dates are known as zǎo （枣）, and the name sounds like the character zǎo (早) in the phrase 早来福到 （zǎoláifúdào), which means good fortune comes early. So if you bring dried jujube dates, it symbolizes your hope the recipient will enjoy good fortune soon. While there are lots of varieties of dates available, I happen to love the large Xinjiang dates, which you can always find online on Amazon and in China on Taobao, including the Tmall Supermarket, and usually at your local supermarket.
Raisins from Xinjiang (particularly the Turfan region) are also a special treat to send someone during Chinese New Year, and are incredibly delicious. Amazon has them. If you’re in China, check Taobao, including the Tmall Supermarket, to buy online. Your local supermarket may also have some available.
Or, if you can’t decide on dried fruits or nuts, consider buying them this ingenious Chinese creation — dried jujube dates stuffed with walnuts. They are so heavenly they’ve become my favorite snack, and your recipient will love them because they combine two of the most nutritious winter foods together in one convenient bite-sized morsel.
#4: Chocolates, candies and cookies
Sweets — including chocolates, candies and even cookies — have become as ubiquitous as the standard nuts, dried fruits and fresh fruits you see at homes during Chinese New Year. Even I can’t resist, often stopping by the candy plate to devour a small chocolate — or two.
If you’re going to give chocolates for Chinese New Year gifts, I recommend imported brands such as Ferrero Rocher (their traditional chocolate hazelnut candies wrapped in gold foil are always a festive addition at Chinese New Year), Dove, Hershey’s or even Godiva. You can find all of these online at Taobao or Amazon, most at Tmall Supermarket, and also many at your local supermarket.
Imported cookies in gorgeous gift tins, such as Danish butter cookies, are also a good choice for Chinese New Year. Besides Amazon, buy them in China at your supermarket or online at Taobao’s Tmall.
There’s a saying in Chinese — dōnglìng jìnbŭ (冬令进补), which refers to how winter is a season for increasing your nutrition with a good tonic or medicinal herbs/foods. So naturally, these have also become popular Chinese New Year gifts, particularly for people over 50.
You’ll encounter lots of possible herbal remedies and foods in China, many related to traditional Chinese medicine. But sometimes even I find the selection overwhelming! Personally, I like to stick with the ones I know and recognize. For example, ginseng is something I’ve bought for family members with great success, and it’s available on Taobao. And if I’m in the US, I love to stock up on American ginseng, prized for its medicinal and nutritional qualities, to give as gifts, including during Chinese New Year. You can buy American ginseng on Amazon.
Vitamins are the “modern version” of these traditional health foods, and can also make wonderful Chinese New Year gifts if your recipients would use them. I’ve found that people living in cities tend to be more open to taking vitamins, compared to those living in rural areas — but it’s always good to ask ahead of time. Foreign brands make a better impression, so I try to buy overseas as much as I can (including on sites like Amazon). That said, you can still buy in China. Besides foreign brands, one option is By-Health (汤臣陪建), available online and in most supermarkets.
#2: Wines and spirits
Ganbei (“empty glasses” in Chinese) is the equivalent of “cheers” you’re sure to hear around the table during Chinese New Year, as people toast each other, usually with wine or spirits. It’s no wonder these make terrific gifts for Chinese New Year.
One option is top-shelf baijiu, such as Moutai or Wuliangye, especially if your recipient is a fan of China’s most fiery liquor.
But because I’m a foreigner who knows next to nothing about baijiu, I prefer to give imported wines, usually red (since red is the lucky color for Chinese New Year). Wine from France is highly cherished among the Chinese, so French red wine is an excellent choice. If it’s in your budget, French champagne is also sure to impress for Chinese New Year. But generally speaking, any quality imported wine will be a welcome addition to the Chinese New Year table.
In China, you can purchase baijiu either online or at your local supermarket or wine and cigarette store. If you’re not bringing your wine from abroad, you’ll find excellent options available online on Taobao, including the Tmall Supermarket; you can also shop your local supermarket for imported wine too, though you may be more limited in options.
If you’re still totally stumped on what Chinese New Year gifts to buy, please repeat after me: fruit!
As Huan Hsu, author of The Porcelain Thief, once wrote, “Fruit is China’s apple pie.” Chinese people treasure fine fruit because it’s often what’s for dessert, and always a favorite to snack on anytime during Chinese New Year. You’re sure to endear yourself with any host in China if you show up with, say, boxes of Xinjiang Aksu sweetheart apples (冰糖心苹果), or even a fruit basket loaded with everything from sugary mandarins and crisp fresh dates to fragrant pomelos and tangy kiwis.
Where you can purchase fruit? If you’re based in China, there are lots of great deals on boxed fruit on Taobao (including the Tmall Supermarket, which offers next-day delivery in most major cities in China). You can also visit your supermarket or neighborhood fruit store, where you can purchase not only boxed fruit but also fruit baskets.
It’s the year of the golden rooster. Happy Chinese New Year! While I’m taking a little time off to recharge a little during the holidays, I thought I’d share some photos from our Chinese New Year celebration in rural Hangzhou, China.
The biggest dinner of the year — Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner!
As always, every Chinese New Year’s Eve includes passing out the hongbao (红包，red envelopes) stuffed with lucky money for the new year.
As always, Jun and I brought some Chinese New Year gifts (nianhuo, 年货) to share with the family. On the left I’m carrying a gift box filled with an assortment of fancy nuts (complete with a “golden egg” design visible on the box); on the right, a gift box of large Xinjiang jujube dates.
On the first day of the new year, it’s time to wear your new clothes! Jun and I are both wearing new sweaters.
With such beautiful weather on the first day of the new year, we couldn’t resist stealing away to the countryside to enjoy the gorgeous scenery. Here we discover a waterfall cascading down the cliffs.
As we wandered beside the river, we were bathed in the golden sunshine. It was one of the most relaxing afternoons I’ve enjoyed in a long time.
The evening of the first day of the new year, I also helped my mother-in-law make migu, a special turnover we enjoy during the holidays. The dough is made from rice flour, and the filling is usually tofu and pickled vegetables and/or bamboo.
We visited Jun’s godfather during the holidays, presenting him with a hongbao and some baijiu liquor. He prepared us some sugar cane to snack on. Above, there he is, peeling off the rough exterior of the cane as I watch in the background.
As usual, we dined on some of the most delicious food of the year. One of our most memorable meals was at Jun’s Aunt and Uncle’s home next door to us. She even prepared a special hotpot of savory tofu and napa cabbage, plus her mouthwatering homemade kimchi. Yum!
Wishing everyone a prosperous and auspicious Chinese New Year!
But what are the things to avoid? How should you NOT give gifts in China? Here are 4 ideas you won’t want to try:
#1: Give something really cheap
I once came across a foreign woman in China staying with a family during her trip to Beijing. When I asked her what gifts she had prepared for them, she gleefully dug the hotel shampoo samples out from her suitcase. “Won’t these be perfect?”
I mentally cringed at the sight of those sad little plastic bottles, realizing this girl was on the verge of embarrassing herself in Beijing. That’s when I took her aside and clued her in on the reality. That one of the biggest no-nos for gift-giving in China is giving something cheap (or, worse, free).
Think of a gift as a version of your public face. When you give something cheap, you’re saying you don’t value the person or the relationship enough. Not exactly the kind of Hallmark sentiment you were aiming for, eh?
How much does the quality of your gift matter? Let me put it to you this way – Chinese would rather spend less on themselves just to buy the perfect gifts for their friends, family and valued business partners. It’s that important.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t shop around for a good deal. As I write this, I’m currently doing my shopping for Chinese New Year gifts. And trust me, I always hunt around for the best deal. But for me, the bottom line is a good price on quality gifts. It has to be quality, otherwise I won’t buy it.
So ditch the freebies and samples, and go for quality, name brand goods.
#2: Make your gift look sloppy
Growing up, I struggled with the art of wrapping Christmas and birthday presents. My corners bulged. I never seemed to be able to fold the edges without them getting unnecessarily wrinkled. And I used way too much tape. Sometimes, the result looked as though the box had fallen down the stairs a couple of times.
In other words, they were sloppy. Really sloppy.
I got away with sloppy gifts because I was a kid. But in China, if your gifts look sloppy, you may not get the same pass.
How your gift looks matters in China. It’s so important that, during Chinese New Year, most new year gifts include neat little gift boxes or bags. They’re usually a sturdy red plastic, embossed with golden characters and festive décor (such as the year’s Chinese zodiac animal). How cool is that?
Let me tell you, I adore those gift boxes and bags. Not only do they make the gift look gorgeous, but they also mean I don’t have to wrap anything. I’m better off staying far away from wrapping paper – otherwise I’ll end up with a sloppy and totally embarrassing gift.
#3: Give a gift that reminds people of funerals or death
Chances are, you’ve probably heard the advice to avoid white colors or clocks . Why? Because white is the traditional funeral color, and the Chinese words for giving a clock (songzhong) sound like sending someone death. (Yikes!)
Let’s face it – invoking death and funerals is not exactly the best way to show you care. Apart from joke gifts or Halloween paraphernalia, I’ve never met someone in the US happy to receive, say, a miniature coffin or a tiny gravestone with their name on it. Why would it be any different in China?
So how do you avoid this trap? Simple. Besides the general moratorium on white or clocks, I’d also avoid sending anyone a wreath of multicolored flowers. Folks in China place them on gravestones.
#4: Be stingy
If you’ve ever attended a banquet in China, then you’ve probably left thinking, “What a waste of food.” Yes, most banquets mean ordering ungodly amounts of food – so much that nobody in their right mind could possibly finish it all. I’ve left many a banquet shocked by the amount of leftovers.
But there’s a reason why hosts will ply their guests with more delicious food than anyone could possibly eat. In China, it’s important to be generous with what you give to others. (This explains why my mother-in-law always tries sending us home with heaping bags of vegetables from her garden or freshly made tofu.)
This idea of generosity is also true for giving gifts. Which is why being stingy with amounts will always get you into trouble.
Whenever I buy gifts, I generally opt for larger sizes or larger amounts. I want to give them an abundance of goodness, whether that’s a heaping basket of extra-fresh fruit or a case of imported French wine. There’s no better way to show you care than with a little more.
Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio in America, January was always a great melancholy expanse of a month, as depressingly white as the snow that piled around the house.
Sad little evergreens, once the beloved focal point of the season, would end up tossed unceremoniously beside the road for garbage collection soon after the New Year, while I secretly hoped for a few more weeks with the trees on display. Everyone would pull the plug on their merry Christmas lighting, and its absence on those dark and well-below freezing nights would lend even more of a chill to the neighborhood. And just the thought of another two months or more of winter was often enough to make my head ache, just like a bad after-Christmas hangover.
Thank god I married a man from China, where January marks the start – not the end – of the holiday season.
Everywhere I go in Hangzhou, there’s a palpable sense of anticipation of what the Chinese consider the most wonderful time of the year. The other night, I caught a glimpse of a raucous end of the year banquet, where everyone wore a festive red scarf printed with Chinese characters around their necks as toasts were made among laughter and smiles. Supermarkets entice shoppers with glossy red Chinese New Year gift bags that shine like beautiful Christmas wrapping paper, each filled with the season’s must-have snacks, herbal remedies and spirits, the perfect gifts for relatives and friends you’ll visit during the holidays. Christmas trees, holiday lights and even Santa Claus himself continue to grace the malls, stores and public squares, a nod to the many Chinese friends who often think of Christmas as Chinese New Year in the West – borrowing those Christmas symbols to imbue the city with even more holiday cheer. My mother-in-law has spoken of how she plans to do another large batch of homemade tofu, and given the way her fried tofu melted in my mouth the first time I tasted it, I’m salivating just thinking about it.
With all of this joy, excitement and holiday spirit buzzing all around me, the January blues I used to know as a child don’t have a chance in the buildup to Chinese New Year.
I love the timing of the Chinese holiday season. We have a holiday to look forward to just when winter is at its worst. Plus, once it’s over, you needn’t wait long for Spring. People here call Chinese New Year “Spring Festival” and in Hangzhou, it actually lives up to its name – not long after the official end of the holidays, the golden rapeseed flowers start to bloom in the countryside.
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.
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
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)
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.
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！
Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of e-mails with the same question:
What gifts should I give to my Chinese boyfriend/girlfriend/friend and their family during Chinese New Year?
So to answer that, I’ve compiled a simple guide for navigating the world of gift-giving during Chinese New Year.
If you’re family — or will be family — of your Chinese hosts for the New Year, consider adding clothes to your gift-shopping list. In my Chinese husband’s family, it’s traditional to start the new Lunar year dressed in a new outfit from head to toe.
Don’t worry, though — chances are, no one expects you to furnish everyone in the family with a new set of clothes. That said, you might at least consider buying your boyfriend/husband or girlfriend/wife a little something special that will keep them warm, such as a new sweater or knit shirt, a new coat, a new hat and gloves, or even a new pair of socks. Opt for anything in red or pink, those auspicious colors for the new year.
And remember — if your Chinese sweetheart is about to enter their Chinese zodiac year (also known as their ben ming nian — běnmìngnián, 本命年)), don’t forget to buy them some red underwear! (See my ben ming nian gift-giving guide for more on this, as well as other gift suggestions.)
Nourishing and Nutritious Foods/Supplements/Herbs
As the Chinese saying goes, dongling jinbu (冬令进补) — roughly, winter is the time to nourish your body. And Chinese New Year is the time to give gifts of nourishing foods, supplements and herbs.
In supermarkets in Mainland China, Taiwan and beyond, you’ll find an entire aisle devoted to nutritious herbs and medicines, usually already boxed and ready to gift — royal jelly, ginseng root, spirulina, and more. Beware, though — many of these items are for more senior folks, which means a twenty-something Chinese relative might not necessarily appreciate your ginseng root. Ask the store’s associates — or, better yet, your Chinese sweetheart/friends — for suggestions on what to purchase. Still, if I am going to purchase ginseng, I love buying American ginseng roots, which are available on Amazon.
Some of the best — and safest — bets for this category include upscale versions of those nutritious foods that Chinese families commonly enjoy in the winter months. Think guiyuan, Chinese jujubes, gouqi (wolfberries), or even black sesame seeds. Opt for organic or “green” choices where available, and be sure to get it boxed and/or wrapped to make a good impression.
Chinese also love nourishing teas — such as those made from ginseng, or even the ginger/Chinese jujube one I discovered in the summer of 2011.
Don’t forget one of the most nourishing options — vitamins. You’re usually better off giving them to your senior family members. My preferred choice of vitamins in China comes from the brand By-Health (汤臣倍健) — you can purchase them online on Taobao and also find them in most major supermarkets.
Nowadays, foreign-made vitamin supplements are just as ubiquitous in China as McDonald’s — but that doesn’t mean you should always buy in China. After all, sometimes the relatives appreciate the cache of foreign-bought gifts.
Sometimes you can score better quality for less abroad. Whole Foods, for example, offers great value with fish oil supplements, multivitamins, vitamin E and more, under their 365 brand. The same could easily apply to many quality supermarkets across the Western world.
Or, in other cases, you find something impossible to get in China. Years ago in Hangzhou, my neighbors begged me to buy Amway’s garlic supplements (not sold in China) during my trip back to the US.
Spirits and Smokes
Not sure what to buy for the men in your Chinese family? Consider boxed/wrapped fine spirits or cigarettes, either of which will find a welcome home during the many dinners and social visits during the holidays. In China, the foreign brands still hold more cache, so consider my previous advice:
Alcohol. If he’s a drinker, consider picking up a foreign brand of scotch, whisky or brandy, such as Jack Daniels, Johnnie Walker or Glenlivet. Chinese men will also love French or Italian wines as gifts.
Cigarettes. Foreign smokes still light up many a Chinese man’s face — as a gift. Consider major brands such as Marlboro or John Player.
Fruits, Nuts and Candies
“Here, have an orange.” Whenever I visit someone’s home in Chinese New Year, invariably someone thrusts a piece of fruit into my hands — and more often than not, they’ll also push trays bursting with mixed nuts/sunflower seeds and individually wrapped candies right in front of me.
So guess what also makes a nice gift during the Chinese New Year holiday? Gift baskets and fruit baskets.
When in doubt, go for a fruit basket, preferably with something more exotic than the local apples. Though keep in mind, auspicious choices include oranges and Mandarin oranges (they remind people of golden coins), but not pears (whose Chinese name sounds like the word for separation).
If you opt for nuts or candies, make sure they’re something unusual or special. In other words, avoid the peanuts but go for the hickory nuts or Chinese nutmeg yew nuts (delish!). For candies, if you really want to make a splash, choose a foreign brand such as Godiva Chocolates.
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