Not Home for the Holidays: An Unusual Chinese New Year

The Chinese saying of “moneyed or not, return home for Chinese New Year” (有钱没钱回家过年, yǒuqián méi qián huíjiā guònián) endures as proof of the importance of the tradition of the annual holiday family reunion. And in years past, in the lead-up to the holiday, I would hear Chinese colleagues burst with excitement while talking about the tickets they purchased for trains or flights, the road trips they had mapped out, or even the vacation home in southern China where they could enjoy a little beach and sun.

This year, however, whenever I ask my colleagues about their Chinese New Year plans, they offer the same perfunctory response, delivered with a certain resignation and often a sigh: “I’m not going home.”

Like the world over, COVID-19 has ravaged people’s usual holiday traditions, even here in China, where the pandemic has been well-controlled. A number of areas in the country — including Beijing, Shanghai and a handful of provinces, mainly in the north — have seen small outbreaks with the arrival of winter’s chill since mid-December.

So, instead of encouraging people to make the usual journey home, which would only increase the risk of more COVID-19 spread, China asked its people to stay put instead, if they could.

Companies were urged to offer enticements, such as bonuses for people who chose to forego trips home. Cities, which would usually become quiet and empty from the exodus to rural areas, moved to increase the transportation on the ground and offer special holiday activities to accommodate the new reality. The railways and airlines provided refunds or changes at no charge to anyone who had already bought tickets during the usual holiday travel rush period. Plus, those still determined to make the journey home to a rural area would need to present a negative COVID-19 test result within seven days of departure, and likely have to quarantine for up to 14 days on arrival in their town or village, further stamping out any remaining enthusiasm people might have had for such a trip.

Fortunately, as someone who works for the media, where the news never stops, not even for the holidays, I’m a pro at spending Chinese New Year in the city, away from family. But even I’m bracing for change this year, with the expectation of busier streets and more pedestrians instead of the more relaxing holiday quiet of years past. It’s going to be one unusual Chinese New Year.

Here’s hoping for a safer, healthier and more prosperous time for all in the Year of the Ox!

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