Foreign Perspective: Happy Chinese New Year!

If you’ve ever studied abroad, then you know what it’s like to be submerged in an entirely foreign culture. But have you ever wondered what it’s like on the flip side of the experience – what it’s like for someone going abroad to America? Join columnists Amy Chilcott, of Australia, and Kasumi Hirokawa, of China, as they encounter all things American and Penn State – and tell it as they see it the way only one with a foreign perspective can.


This Friday marks the beginning of the Year of the Horse and the fourth time I’ll miss out on the red and gold, firecracker-bursting and food coma-filled glory that is Chinese New Year (also known as Spring Festival).

If you don’t know what Chinese New Year (CNY for convenience) is, try this. First, imagine Fourth of July, Christmas and New Year’s Eve all happening on the same week. Second, swap the turkey and BBQ with fish, dumplings and rice cake. Third, subtract all colors except for red and gold – now you have a pretty solid idea of what it  at least looks like.

Here are some of the things you’ll see at my house around the most festive time of the Lunar year: 

Family dinners

Much like the American New Year’s Eve, everyone stays up late on the night before the New Year’s watching music performances and disastrous outfits on Spring Festival Gala (a lot like Grammy’s minus the awards) live on TV or lighting fireworks. We usually eat at my dad’s side of the family on CNYE and dine with my mom’s side of the family the next day. There is no right or wrong way to have CNY dinners. My paternal grandma invites people to her place where she and my aunts cook the food while my slightly more well-to-do maternal grandma reserves a VIP room at a restaurant.

New Year’s greetings

CNY greetings can happen anywhere, with anyone. You greet the people in your family and even people who live near you. But keep in mind that you do have to pay attention to who you greet first. Traditionally, the youngest of the family offers New Year’s greetings to the most senior members of the family and work his or her way down the seniority social ladder. Senior members, when greeted, will hand out a red envelope containing a small sum of money as a gratitude to the child offering the greeting. Who doesn’t want that?

Spring Festival paper cutouts and banners

Nothing gets us into the spirit quite like red paper cutouts and banners hung on doors and windows do. The cleaning lady who works at my house says her family likes to go all-out and deck the house out in red and gold during the holiday. At my house, we like to keep it simple and hang a handful of red longevity knots and fish charms with gold embroidery on walls. You are supposed to sweep your house clean before decorating to get the bad luck from the previous year out, but that’s not mandatory (you didn’t hear it from me!).

Chinese New Year foods

Steamed dumplings and hot pot are always popular savory options. We like the dumplings with plates of steamed fish, sautéed vegetables and finish off with rice cakes and glutinous rice balls in sweet soup. If you still have room, my grandma would nudge you to have some diced cantaloupe as well. She would give you a bowl even if your stomach is about to explode, anyway. No one leaves her house hungry.

Firecracker showdowns

A major difference between the fireworks on Fourth of July and the ones on Chinese New Year is that the CNY one is not a display. It’s a competition. There are several versions of origin stories as to why people light firecrackers and fireworks. One is that the loud noise will scare away a human-eating beast, Nian, whose name is the Chinese word for year (because spending CNY was about surviving Nian, I guess). Another is that firecrackers are part of the offerings for the Kitchen God, who stays on earth and watches over households at the end of each Lunar year and returns to the heaven the night before New Year’s Eve. People say the household with the loudest noise (and most delicious candy offerings?) will be blessed with good fortune and money.

I hope this year brings you joy and happiness. Xin (pronounced ‘shin’) nian kuai le!

Photo by Ziyan Sha


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