Calling on Relatives – 串门儿

It’s my turn, people! Fire Rooster! Credit: Yvonne Osborn

China is a country full of tradition. China is also full of people that have no time for tradition.

But most of those folks fall in line during the Chinese Spring Festival. They save up, fight for their tickets home, stuff Red Envelopes with their hard-earned cash (many of them giving up meals to do so), and spend the first week of the Lunar January with their family eating dish after dish of homemade grub. Most families pull out all the stops. Preparing the New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day meals are endeavors they labor over, choreograph, and take pride in. For days before the event, Xiao Ming’s family blew up the family WeChat Group with instructions for preparing and making the food. You’d have thought they expected Xi Jinping himself to show up.

The celebratory atmosphere lasts until Lantern Festival which is the fifteenth day of the first Lunar Month, this year that’s February 11. It’s really just the first week of the New Year that gets most of the attention, though. Once the family is all together they eat, play mahjong, watch the Spring Fesitval Gala, and some, you know, like fireworks a little bit. Starting at eleven pm you hear the crack and pop and explosive bursts all throughout the city. This goes on for about a week with minor slowdowns throughout the daytime.

For most foreigners celebrating Spring Festival in China they learn about the importance of red, fireworks, and Red Envelopes first. Those are the shiny parts of the holiday and integral to the celebrations, but another tradition is all the visiting of relatives that’s expected. The Chinese call it chuan menr – 串门儿. Just like many Americans on New Year’s Day, the Chinese pay visits to family members at this time of year.

Luckily for Xiao Ming and me, most of the family lives here in Kai Fa Qu. We headed over to the oldest male cousin’s house. He lives in the same complex as Xiao Ming’s parents and aunts. There’s like eight family members in that one complex. We used to live there, too, but it was before everyone decided it was the best place in the world to live. Now we have at least a ten-minute walk separating us!

As usual when there is a family dinner, only about half the food was ready by the designated time of 4 pm. Everyone fretted over something. Chairs for the guests, enough cups, chop sticks, who wore too little, who was too thin, who was too fat. The spread looked great. Tasted better.

I’ve been here too long. That all looks really good to me!

After the food we all just chilled. The aunts played mahjong in the back, couple of the uncles smoked and talked about nonsense, and Xiao Ming and I watched some of the Spring Festival Gala. Every year this program takes over Chinese TV and heralds the New Year with performances from all over the country. Dances, songs, Kung Fu performances, Chinese skits of Crosstalk (Xiang Sheng), and of course over-the-top patriotic interviews with men and women in service jobs and military posts.

Then Jackie Chan leads everyone in a song of “My Home is in My Heart” while simultaneously performing Chinese Sign Language. Yeah, seriously.  Here’s a better link to it. 

Like Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve, there’s the same host for decades, a countdown, and even a Midnight Meal. Back home we ate Sour Kraut and Pork. Here they eat…


Eat Me!!!

Surprised by this, anyone?

I noticed the fireworks the most my first year in China. The noise, smoke, colors. It was the Year of the Dragon. Aside from what I read online or was told at my work, I didn’t take part in much celebrating that first year, at least not Chinese celebrations. With each year that passes that changes. Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, and now the Rooster. Being a part of a Chinese family has changed the way I view and experience China. How could it not?

And a random video of me walking:

This year will get your Goat

Kidney Stones and fireworks rounded out my first Spring Festival in China more than three years ago. I wrote the first draft of a novel while staying in Dalian my second time around. Xiao Ming and I brought in the year of the Horse in Cambodia my third festival. The fourth time I 过年了(guo nian le), or passed the New Year, I celebrated it married to Xiao Ming and eating meals with her family (and finishing another novel).

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I remember looking out my apartment window on Tong Niu hill that first year and comparing the scene to a war zone. With explosions of lights and noise erupting all across the city’s skyline, fireworks going off within apartment complexes, out in the intersections, and right in front of stores with people still walking by, that seemed an apt description. I kept thinking that in America you can’t light off a bottle rocket without your neighbors calling the fuz. They’re so afraid of any number of accidents that could transpire—burnt grass, burnt tree, burnt forest, and, you know, standing in the ashes that used to be their house. Well, I wasn’t in America.


Right outside my window this year.
Right outside my window this year.


The Chinese live with the fear that everything around them could blow up at any time, for a straight week. And they smile and have a hell of a time doing it. I might be exaggerating.

The clouds of smoke and sulfur eventually clear, the street cleaners in their neon orange and yellow suits bring out their tree-branch brooms, and the smoldering debris gets swept away, ushering in the lunar calendar’s New Year.
Some fingers get claimed, announcements are made denouncing the wanton use of fireworks, and each year a new animal controls the world—er, I mean uses his magical guanxi to bring prosperity to his devout followers. No, that can’t be right, either.

Traditionally, this week for Chinese people is a BIG DEAL. Students, adult children and their families, and even migrant workers all make a mad dash to their hometowns—no matter how far away it is, the Chun Yun (wrote about that last year, HERE). I had a friend need to get all the way from Dalian to Lhasa one year. I’ve done that trip by train. It takes a long time! She was a poor college kid, so she took buses and trains. It took her more than three days, and all of her savings for the year. Well, most. The rest she spent buying gifts for every person in her family, including stuffing as many Hong Bao, Red Envelopes, as possible.

It’s tradition, though. The magic word that makes people break their backs to follow its mandates. Any straying from the course that’s been set in the terra-cotta stone gets you branded as un-filial child—the mark of Cain for the Chinese. photo 4(7)

The problem is China’s national identity is threaded together by traditions that families can trace back hundreds, sometimes thousands of years, and yet their cities and economy are growing based on principles they adopted back in ’79—1979. The last few decades have definitely pushed Chinese citizens up against the traditional ropes.


Young Chinese are increasingly at odds with the older generations. I’ve read handfuls of articles about how much stress the Hong Bao causes between family members and co-workers, what the pressure to marry young does to the profession-oriented young adult (apparently it leads to attempted ABDUCTION , or RENTING a DATE  for others), but most valuable to me has just been living with and making friends with Chinese people dealing with these trials of tradition.

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Definitions are important. My students keep notebooks filled with definitions they need to know for high stakes tests, and understanding the terms in a treaty keeps countries happy. The way a nation defines itself is largely based on the past and the traditions that make up its culture. When those traditions are being challenged by a change that happens to also make a large portion of your people richer, values can also shift.

The Logo Love (just TM’d that on my own) that so many wealthy Chinese share for foreign brand names, the extravagant spending that borders on and often crosses into corruption, and the constant drive for more, more, more is chipping away at some of those traditions—carving a new idol for the masses to get behind. Move over Mao.

The tried and true of family first still seems to be strong, but it’s getting nuanced, too. I wonder how the next few decades will shape the modern family of China.

THAT, was a huge digression. I just wanted to throw up some pics from the last few weeks and make a few jokes.

I guess I’ll do that next time.

Chunyun—Chinese for “the annual suicidal dash back home.”

Not really, but once you’ve experienced the claustrophobia-inducing bus rides, the I’d-rather-chew-on-my-weenis-and-sacrifice-loved-ones-than-stand-here-for-two-days ticket lines, or the, we-have-a-toliet-but-you-can’t-use-it-now-because-we’re-so-overbooked-that-thirteen-people-are-sitting-in-there-for-the-duration-of-the-twelve-hour-ride train rides, you may think my translation is a bit more appropriate.

Insert obligatory Waldo comment here.
Insert obligatory Waldo comment here.

Just sayin’.

I'm missing Xi Yang Yang Hui Tai Lang for this Sh#t?
I’m missing Xi Yang Yang Hui Tai Lang for this Sh#t? Credit:

The Lunar New Year is the BIGGEST holiday for Chinese people. Spring Festival (Guo Nian) is the celebration of the new year, and everywhere in China you can see more red than usual, doorway hangers with meaningful and auspicious phrases greet guests as they enter homes, and many kids and business men will receive little red envelopes with crisp, clean bills in quantities of 100-1000 RMB.

Credit: baidu
Credit: baidu

As the legend—there’s always a legend in China—goes, Nian was a great and terrible monster that harassed a village, eating its people and basically causing the real estate market to crash. He did this for a while until an old man convinced him to switch his diet to other creatures that weren’t…human. The man turned out to be an immortal—there is always one of them running around in Chinese myths, too—and, additionally, told the people how to scare off this beast if he ever returned.

Wear a bunch of red, make noise, and light things on fire was his advice, and the Chinese have held true to these sage words so well that, for a week during this holiday, some Dalian neighborhoods resemble what I imagine downtown Baghdad might look like. Sulfur fills the air, conversation is blotted out by explosions, and flashes of light illuminate the sky. And occasionally a pedestrian gets fourth degree burns and street cleaners lose phalanges.

Guo Nian, once known as the “passing of the beast,” now mostly just means Spring Festival, but it’s fun to know the source, ain’t it?

Stories and myths are nice and all, but when you’re standing or squashed hip-to-hip with smelly strangers or sharing the bathroom with seventy other dudes, you come to learn that a new beast has appeared in China, and like Nian of old, it comes around once a year to ravage even the most civil of citizens—Chun Yun, Spring Festival Travel Rush.

He's little! Just stuff him into the overhead luggage compartment!
He’s little! Just stuff him into the overhead luggage compartment! Credit:

Families, students, migrant workers, and tourists all travel in China during Spring Festival, which usually falls around the first week of February. Some will fly, drive, take buses, trains, ferries, or even hitchhike to get back to their dear mom and pop.

High Ho, High Ho...Yeah, I know, one short.
High Ho, High Ho…Yeah, I know, one short.This is the classic bag of the min gong, migrant workers.

Airlines here are being, “…instructed to take measure to avoid flight delays as the world’s largest annual human migration…draws closer…”(Wang,, but in a country of so many, and a severe pollution problem that routinely grounds and delays flights out of big cities, this “instruction” might just be wishful thinking. Heck, Shanghai alone is projected to have more than 9.3 million travelers pass through ( That number might not seem so scary, but consider that Shanghai is just ONE of hundreds of cities with airlines in China. Still not convinced? Then think about the most popular form of travel: the trains.

Some guy took a shot of this as two trains were passing each other. Can't really beat the truth. Credit: baidu
Some guy took a shot of this as two trains were passing each other. Can’t really beat the truth. Credit: baidu

Last year more than 220 million passengers took to the trains, and this year already more than 148 million tickets have been sold for these suicidally filial citizens ( At its peak, more than 500 train tickets a second were sold! To put that in perspective—I have no way to cognitively register such a number of sweaty, pushy, humans—in the US this year AAA projected that about 94.5 million people traveled 50 miles or more during the Year-End holidays, and we Americans don’t even like trains—that number is a total for ALL travel forms ( Less than 100 million compared to more than 220 million…That. Does. Not. Compute.

Her brother is already in the luggage compartment. Just stick her in the toilet! Credit:
Her brother is already in the luggage compartment. Just stick her in the toilet!

Living in China introduces you to myriad situations that test your gumption and resolve, but nothing zaps the will so much as the sheer force of numbers. I’ve avoided markets and stores until I was about ready to boil the leather of my shoes, just to not have to deal with people. I’ve walked a block out of my way instead of allowing myself to become part of the anarchy that is the pedestrian parade crossing the street. When I see a China-size crowd, I feel like I need a pep talk from Jesus telling me not to take a machete and cull the multitudes.

Yup...It was either this or lose her spot looking for the bathroom.  Credit: baidu
Yup…It was either this or lose her spot looking for the bathroom. Credit: baidu

That being said, there are three reasons that people smarter than me blame for the rage-birthing throngs in China this time of year. Besides the simple answer of This Is China, or “Damn that’s a lot of people,” three reasons do stand out as the origins of so many annual aneurisms:

Traditions of traveling back home.

Education/Work reforms that promote students attending universities in other cities, and large numbers of workers that travel city to city for work most of the year.

Spring Festival, along with the Golden Week of the National Day holiday in October, are two holidays that EVERYONE has off. Because of this, they like to take their trips during these times as well as visit the ‘rents (Coonan, “Two billion journeys in China’s own great migrations”).

China is aware of these issues, and, believe it or not, they are working on it, but this Spring Festival travel season is already upon us, and all I can say is, “God’s speed to you crazy commuters, you.”

Oh, crap…I’m going to be traveling, too!!

"Yo, foreign devil, I hear you're lookin' for one of these...How much is in your wallet?"  Credit: Baidu
“Yo, foreign devil, I hear you’re lookin’ for one of these…How much is in your wallet?”
Credit: Baidu

Clifford, Coonan (28 January 2006). “Two billion journeys in China’s own great migration”. Written at Beijing. The Independent (London). Retrieved 2011-04-14

Si Huan:

Wang Qian:

Xin Zhiming: