Celebrating Chinese New Year in the U.S. with your Chinese husband

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While 4 percent of the Earth’s population flocks to the countryside to celebrate Spring Festival (Chunjie, 春节), some cities in the U.S. will ring in the Chinese New Year with activities and events:

  • Chinese New Year parades featuring colorful costumes, floats, firecrackers and other attractions.
  • Various dances, including lion and dragon dances.
  • Chinatown fun runs or walks.
  • Balls and pageants.
  • Street fairs.
  • Firework displays.

Some organizations may hold special contests or make announcements to coincide with Chinese New Year. For example, some newspapers or magazines may announce the top 10 Chinese restaurants in a city or town on Chinese New Year.

For my Chinese husband and I, who live in North Dakota, thousands of miles from the nearest Chinatown or anywhere the holiday is observed, we’ve adapted the ways other Western Women Celebrate Spring Festival with Their Chinese Husbands.

It’s called Chinese New Year, not Spring Festival (Chunjie, 春节)

When we lived in China, we always referred to the holiday as the Spring Festival. In America, Chunjie is not a widely-known term, instead the holiday is called Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year. Americans may not know when Chinese New Year falls because it varies year to year. Chinese New Year is not a federal public holiday in the United States. It is under legal observance in California as of 2015.

New year, new zodiac

Americans are well-aware of the Chinese zodiac, though they may not know that Chinese New Year means the changing of the animal guard. Chinese New Year 2017 ushers in the rooster. For my husband and I, this has even more significance than usual as we will welcome our first child in May. The U.S. Postal Service issues commemorative forever stamps each year.

Displaying couplets

During our first year and a half in the states, my husband and I lived with my parents in New Jersey, in the home I grew up in. We wanted to retain as many traditions as we could, including hanging chunlian (春联), red couplets. Because we couldn’t find the traditional paper used by my in-laws, who usually purchased couplets from a calligrapher in the village or county town, we improvised and my husband served as the calligrapher. We used red construction paper fitted into the proper shapes, fastening them around the front door of my childhood home and on interior doors, too.

The red diamond-shaped fu (福, good fortune) hanging was something my brother-in-law would bring along to the family home in the Shaanxi countryside, usually obtained from the local supermarket or his place of employment. Again, we didn’t have these at our disposal so my other half wrote the fu character on red diamond-shaped construction paper. It was nice to see these pops of red in the middle of a white-washed landscape.

Eating fish, dumplings

We adhere to the tradition of eating fish and dumplings. Food is always my favorite part of celebrations, no matter where we’re living. My MIL would make coin-shaped dumplings, folding in a coin or two for us to find. The lucky recipient of a coin would be handsomely rewarded with hongbao (红包), red envelopes stuffed with money.

Why fish and dumplings? Fish isn’t readily available fresh in North Dakota, but luckily, there’s an Asian grocer where we’ve bought the frozen variety. The pronunciation of fish (魚yú) makes it a homophone for “surpluses”(餘yú), and the Northern CNY tradition that’s easy for us to make at home is dumplings. My husband will make the dough from scratch and we’ll wrap them together.

We cook other dishes, depending on what vegetables are readily available at the Asian and conventional markets in town. When we lived in  New Jersey, we traveled to H-Mart or another Asian supermarket to pick up groceries in order to prepare for the Chinese New Year meal.

It’s more low-key now that it’s just the two of us and doesn’t involve hours of preparation as it did for my in-laws.

The 2016 feast composed of garlic black bean pompano fish with kidney beans, fragrant chicken, and dumplings.

Virtual bainian (拜年) with family

We can’t be with Chinese family on the most family-oriented holiday of them all. When we lived in Xi’an, we would pile into a vehicle with younger brother in-law’s family, who also lived in the city, my husband and I and went back to his hometown in the Shaanxi countryside, northeast of the city. We stayed for several days and during that time would visit other relatives; first my FIL’s family and then my MIL’s. Our bainian is now comprised of signing on WeChat and video chatting with the family as I wish “新年快乐” (Xinnian Kuaile, Happy New Year) or “过年好” (Guonian Hao, Happy Holidays) to family members who appear on screen.

My in-laws and their extended family, even before I became the official 洋媳妇 (yangxifu, foreign daughter-in-law), would stuff bills in my pockets while we traipsed from house to house for bainian. If my husband and I succeeded in refusing the RMB, my MIL would still send me back to Xi’an with the essential ingredient in one of my favorite dishes: 玉面 (yumian, jade noodles).

玉面, front, is made from flour, shaped similarly to dough, thinly sliced and then drowned in garlic, soy sauce, chicken bouillon 鸡精, mandolin-sliced carrots and scallion, topped with coriander 香菜.

Sending digital red envelopes (hongbao, 红包)

Traditionally, red envelopes or red packets are passed out during the Chinese New Year’s celebrations, from married couples or the elderly to unmarried juniors. It is also common for adults or young couples to give red packets to children.

Thanks to WeChat, we can still participate in this tradition of sending and receiving red envelopes (hongbao, 红包).

In the U.S., we don’t exchange paper hongbao. However, we did receive a nicely stuffed red envelope from my former boss last year.

It doesn’t always prove easy to celebrate Chinese New Year in the U.S. with a Chinese husband, at least in the traditional sense. But if you have each other, then that’s all that matters.

Have you celebrated Chinese New Year outside of China? Share your experience in the comments’ section.

Marissa Zhang

Marissa spent four years in Xi’an, Shaanxi, China 中国陕西西安市 where she met, dated and married her Shaanxi husband. She's originally from New Jersey but now lives in North Dakota with her AM. She works as a copy editor.

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