Chinese New Year is coming and your Chinese friend has invited you to 过年 guònián (celebrate) with his/her family. You start asking yourself: What should I do? Should I bring some food to share? Should I bring any presents? (As if it was some kind of Christmas celebration).
Fear no more because Mandarin Community will guide you through some etiquette so you don’t feel so lost. (We know you can be a better laowai than that).
WHAT TO EXPECT
Here comes a heads up in terms of food and CNY social practices. For food, expect tons of them. Ok, we may have exaggerated a bit but it might be fair to say you better fast the whole day before CNY dinner because your friend’s family will encourage you to have a taste of every dish they prepare.
It all depends on the region you’re at but expect 各种各样 gè zhǒng gè yàng (a good variety) of dishes:
- Jiaozi 饺子 (better known as dumplings)
- Spring rolls
- Steamed fish
- Steamed chicken
- Longevity noodles
- Rice cake (年糕 niángāo)
- Tangyuan (汤圆 tāngyuán)
- As for vegetables you can mostly expect stir-fried mushrooms, Chinese cabbage, and your typical greens. However, it would be nice to know you will find seaweed, lotus seeds, and bamboo shoots on the menu.
Also, here small interesting cultural facts about CNY food you might want to know:
- Chinese people like to play “lucky draw” with dumplings. Sometimes they put a coin inside one of the dumplings. The tradition tells that the one who gets that dumpling will get very lucky in the coming year. But be careful not to hurt your teeth or swallow that coin.
- Chinese people love to play with homophones. The reason why Chinese people eat fish during the CNY is because “鱼 yú” sounds like “余 yú” (surplus, extra, spare); it’s a way to wish the family good fortune in the coming year and still have some extra money by the end of the year.
- Rice cake (年糕 niángāo)：糕 sounds like “高 (gāo)”, which means the family can move to the next “higher” level of life in the coming year.
Some cultural facts about alcohol:
If you are a guy, expect to 干杯 (gānbēi), many times. Hopefully by this time you already developed some appreciation for 白酒 (báijiǔ) which is always tasted in small cups.
If you’ve finally been persuaded to 干杯 (gānbēi), we’re afraid to say that you will be asked more than one time (and many more), so please don’t feel offended since this is a way Chinese show their hospitality. In some places, people consider drinking wine is more important than enjoying the food during CNY, especially for those places that used to be poor. Wine is not something every family can afford so for them, alcohol is a very precious thing, which is why they would like to leave this for the guests. Nowadays, even though most families can afford it, Chinese people still keep this mindset around wine.
Once the family has had some 杯子 (bēizi) cups and got used to having a laowai around, they might start asking questions, a lot of them, so be prepared. Please note that this is pretty normal while socializing in a Chinese home and people are genuinely curious in order to get to know you more. Chinese culture is more about close relationships.
They might ask questions regarding your job, your family, your country… even personal stuff related to love life, salary, age, kids… phew… but don’t feel attacked, we understand this situation can be a bit awkward but there’s always the choice of giving friendly humoristic answers.
WHAT TO DO
It is common to have this sense of giving back and being respectful once you are invited to a CNY dinner. You might want to show some courtesy, also let’s remember that Chinese New Year is a very special occasion for Chinese people, so being invited by your Chinese friend to celebrate along means you are very close and you are seen as a brother/sister. Knowing that, the sense of showing courtesy increases.
The first option that comes to mind, in order to show courtesy, is bringing some food, but this might not be seen as special since food will be abundant through the night so… option discarded. Something nice to bring might be a bottle of red wine with a nice red card with a message in Chinese written by you. They will appreciate it so much!
And, talking about wine, you might also be invited to drink a toast in front of the family, in which case you might want to say something in English (with your friend translating) but the next Chinese phrases will come in handy to wish wealth, health and prosperity (and impress the audience):
- 祝大家春节快乐 (zhù dàjiā chūnjié kuàilè)
“Wish everyone Happy Spring Festival!”
- 祝大家生活顺利 (Zhù dàjiā shēnghuó shùnlì) “I wish everyone a smooth life!”
(Zhù dàjiā gōngzuò shùnlì, shēntǐ jiànkāng)
“I wish everyone success in work and good health.”
zhù dà jiā gōng xǐ fā cái ！
“Wish everyone prosperity/good fortune!”
Sometimes you can make a little joke with the family elders by saying:
恭喜发财，红包拿来! (gōng xǐ fā cái ， hóng bāo ná lái!) “Wish everyone prosperity. Bring in the hongbao!”
Youngsters have to wish their parents good fortune right away after waking up the next morning on New Year. They will also say “红包拿来 (hóng bāo ná lái)” “I want my hongbao!” after all the wishes. They will also say this when they visit their relatives.
One last warning, if you have to stay overnight at your Chinese friend’s family, get ready for staying up late and waking up very early the next day (4/5 am or even earlier in some places) since they have to prepare breakfast for their parents and then give New Year's greetings to elders in the same community.
Spring Festival is always a wide topic, we could just keep writing about it. We would like to know about your experience! What other points should we address in our future articles? Have you experienced a Chinese New Year dinner yourself? Let us know in our social media channels: Facebook and Instagram.
Also, take a look at Mandarin Community’s schedules and prices for Chinese classes!