aus·pi·cious (ô-spshs) adj.
1. Attended by favorable circumstances; propitious: an auspicious time to ask for a raise in salary.
2. Marked by success; prosperous
3. Term commonly used during Chinese lunar new year.
It’s impossible to be in any part of Asia in February and not run into the traditions of Chinese New year! I was all over Asia in February – so I got a extensive education on welcoming in the Year of the Pig! There are so many traditions around Chinese New Year it’s mind boggling. If you really want to know everything – then go to wikipedia and do some research. This post isn’t meant to teach you everything – just some of the things that I learned and was exposed to!
The basic atmosphere is jovial everywhere, the grocery stores are stocked with special Chinese New Year items, the music is all traditional New Year music – it’s basically like our western Christmas…minus the Christmas trees. I would find myself humming along to the Chinese songs after a while…a sure sign that I’ve been in Asia for a while! It’s a public holiday all around Asia for a few days and all shops/stores shut down – however the holiday itself goes on for 15 days. Everybody in Asia is on the move at this time – they are traveling to visit family. Let me tell you – when Asia is on the move…you are talking about massive amounts of people flying, driving, ferrying – you name it. It makes the day before Thanksgiving travel in the US seem like a little blip on the worldwide travel radar. Like most holidays around the world, one of the main purposes is to be around family. Chinese New Year is actually ‘kicked off’ with a Reunion Dinner the night before the holiday. Families get together and have a big dinner. The dinner sort of resembles a Red Party as everyone normally wears red – it is an auspicious color – the sign of wealth and prosperity. I even dawned a red outfit for the big day…luckily this was pretty easy since we just threw the annual Red Holiday Party and I am a Nebraska Cornhusker fan…plenty of red in my wardrobe!
The first thing I learned was how to say Happy New Year in Mandarin. I enlisted the help of my 7 year old niece, Lindsey for this. She actually did a wonderful job teaching me with pictures. She drew on her white board a picture of a gong, a woman, a hand fan, and a box of Chinese food. This translated phonetically into Gong She Fan Chinese. She told me that I needed to drop the nese from Chinese and I would have it. Gong She Fan Chi…see how easy that is? The correct spelling is Gong Xi Fa Cai. After a lot of practice with my niece – I took my new Mandarin knowledge on the road and started using it on Taxi drivers. One actually thought I could speak Mandarin…I quickly informed him that this was the only thing I knew how to say!
My sister invited me to a Chinese New Year luncheon with some of her friends. The purpose of the luncheon was to teach people about the traditions/meaning of Chinese New Year…it was a crash course for me…perfect! The first and most important thing to know about Chinese New Year is oranges are important! You will see oranges everywhere – always in groups of 2 – never alone – you always see them with a ‘buddy’. When you hand them to someone – you always hand them over with two hands and normally say Happy New Year at the same time. Why oranges??? It’s not that they are crazy about orange juice, it’s simply the word for orange sounds similar to the word for wealth…therefore you are wishing prosperity for someone when handing them two oranges. Cyndi and Frank have collected a huge bowl of oranges at this time of year…you really get so many that you can’t even use them all. If there was some way to make pie or brownies out of oranges – maybe we could use them up – but oranges are tough…orange pie is just not popular. Maybe my friend Ron (pastry chef) could whip something up and come to Asia and make it big! I think I just came up with an idea for the Food Network…they should do a special on how to use all of your oranges from Chinese New Year…I’m sure it would be a hit! I personally tried to make a dent in the oranges – but it was impossible…you can’t out-eat the rate at which they come in! Oh yea – and it’s considered very rude to re-gift an orange… you are stuck with them!
Photo: Yu Sheng Salad
At the luncheon we also learned about the meaning of the Yu Sheng salad. I had been seeing these colorful salads in grocery stores for a few weeks now. It’s not just a salad to have before dinner…no – this salad has special powers when tossed properly. When you toss the Yu Sheng salad it is a group affair. Everyone gathers around the salad with their chopsticks in hand and toss a bit of it up in the air with your chopsticks letting it drop back down to the container. When you are in the process of tossing – you verbally state your wishes or blessings for the coming year (think of it as blowing out your candles on your birthday cake). It was actually kind of fun…and messy! I hope that all of my blessings for my friends, family, and kitty cat made it all the way back to the states!
At this time of year you often hear the sound of drums…drums everywhere. In the neighborhood, in the mall, at the grocery store, at your favorite restaurant…it’s a constant ringing in your ears. With the drums come the lions….dancers that is. One of the most important traditions of Chinese New Year is to have a lion dance that wards off bad or evil spirits. The lion costume is made for two people – two very fit, strong, athletic people! The lion dances around the establishment to the loud beat of drums and grabs a hong bao (a red envelope with money – more about this later) that is hung up high. Normally it’s so high that the Lion has to do some acrobatics to get to it! The Lion also gets oranges as offering and quickly takes the oranges underneath their costume and peels them leaving them in some Chinese symbol on the floor. I saw many lion dances during the 15 days of Chinese New Year, but my favorite was the one that was done at my brother-in-law’s office! First off – it had been 6 months since I had been inside an office environment…as soon as I set foot in the cubicle maze, it made me panic a bit. The same gray walls, file cabinets, bad lighting – but halfway around the world…ugh. But the site of a lion and drums occupying the normal corporate office cracked me up! Everyone left oranges on their desks for the Lions. Maybe that’s what I was missing at my old job – a Lion Dance that would ward away the evil spirits…lord knows that my office could have used some evil spirit cleaning!
Photo: Frank in his ‘cleansed’ office with the lion!
Finally, one of the best traditions of the Chinese New Year is that it pays to be single…literally. Finally – I have found a way to make money on the road…Hong Bao! This basically means a gift of a red envelope filled with new money. Yes – it has to be new, crisp money…none of that krinkled crap. Hung Bao is given to all kids and ‘unmarried juniors’ during this time of year. Who knew that at 37 years old I would still be grouped with kids (yes – I am making the stretch that I’m a ‘junior’)…I guess it’s fitting since I still feel like one! Since the number 8 is considered very lucky – you normally find $8 in the envelope Granted – this won’t help me pay rent…but it does buy me a beer – and that’s really all an ‘unmarried junior’ like me needs!
Gong Xi Fa Cai to everyone…and to all a good night (I couldn’t resist)!!!