Happy Year of the Horsey!
Friday, 07 February 2014 Filed in: China
Happy Chinese New Year! Actually it was Chinese New Year last week but the firecrackers are still going off here in the middle of the night so who can tell? Luckily, Little A can sleep through rockets landing outside his window - this might come in handy if he pursues a career as a war reporter. Personally, I’d rather he didn’t but the sound of shells exploding near his head may remind him fondly of his childhood in Shanghai.
Despite the fact that Mr Oh had three days off work, we didn’t go anywhere. In fact, we only barely left the apartment. It seems like a waste, doesn’t it, to have all that free time and do nothing with it? I am satisfied in the knowledge that the not moving option was preferable to the going anywhere option. Chinese New Year is generally regarded as a massive general mill-about. It’s like a billion people suddenly stand up and decide to travel. Every plane, bus, train and donkey cart in the country is jammed with people going somewhere. The safest place to be during this time is where people are not going anywhere i.e. our apartment - there was very little going anywhere in our apartment.
Chinese New Year is a bit like Christmas, for Chinese people. They hang out with their families and eat. As much as I’m loathe to admit it, in many ways CNY is better than Christmas. For one, there’s no present shopping. This has to be a good thing. I’m not good at presents. Sadly, we seem to be surrounded by friends and family who are really good at giving presents and never forget (you know who you are). We thought we might have shaken them off when we moved to China and conveniently forgot to give anyone our postal address. It turns out there’s nowhere to hide from present-givers. They will track you down and they will send you a lovely and thoughtful gift even if you live in China, your address is in Chinese and you lost the key to your mailbox. Even then, the presents will arrive. You will be horrified by the fact that you have, yet again, failed at present-giving and resolve, in the Year of the Horse, to find out where the post office in Shanghai is located and learn how to say ‘send this to Europe quick-smart’ in Chinese.
The Chinese don’t need to worry about this. They do not do presents (an unforeseen side-effect of which is the difficulty finding wrapping paper in China). That’s not strictly true. Chinese people do give presents but they don’t wrap them and they’re not like the kind of things we would give. It’s more like “Happy New Year, here’s a gallon of cooking oil”. Cooking oil is a good gift. Everyone needs cooking oil. I was once given a bottle of insect repellent for Chinese New Year. It was very practical and protected me from itching and malaria. I appreciated it a lot more than the golden, ornamental desk rat (I kid you not) I was once given by a former boss for Christmas. In defense of my former boss, he might have given it to me in the Year of the Rat but I really can’t say for sure. It now sits proudly in the office of my successor who, on a recent visit back to the office, kindly offered to return it to me (along with the golden, ornamental fern the same boss gave me the following year).
Chinese New Year is not about presents. There are no trees and surprisingly few decorations. There are no carols or men with beards (Chinese men can’t grow beards very well). There are, however, red envelopes stuffed with money. These ‘hong baos’ (which means ‘red envelope’) are what the Chinese give to each other. They are much better than presents. Parents give them to children, bosses give them to their employees. I gave one to Ayi. It was in a white envelope rather than a red one but I wrote ‘hong bao’ on the outside and put money inside so I don’t think she minded too much. I didn’t give one to Little A because he likes to throw money in the toilet - coins mostly (he likes the sound) - but also notes if he finds them. Instead, we bought him a ball pit filled with hundreds of small plastic balls - what a mistake that was - I should have given him money and let him throw it in the toilet - it would have been less messy.