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I’m back. Where have I been, you might be wondering? Floundering with my family through the winter doldrums in Shanghai. Battling illness. Hunting for groceries. We’re on an upswing, so I’ve found time to write again. I’ve got lots of ideas….but first, Chinese New Year. I must tell you all about Chinese New Year!

Chinese New Year is actually a misnomer. Although most people call it Chinese New Year (CNY) it is also called the Spring Festival. The holiday spans 15 days and is the longest Chinese holiday. This year it began on January 30 and ended on February 13. We were lucky to be here in Shanghai to celebrate. We decided that it was important to experience some of the Chinese holidays and not jet off to some sunny beach destination. At some points during the week, I doubted our decision (AQI over 400?!?!) All in all, I think we made the right one.

There are many ways the Chinese celebrate this holiday…most revolving around food, family and fresh starts. And money. There is a lot of emphasis on money. A lot. Did I mention that money is important?


In the days before the “New Year’s Eve”, families prepare by cleaning their homes. They want to sweep away the old to make room for new good fortune. They also buy new clothes, get haircuts…freshen up their lives for the new year. And they wear red underwear. We didn’t jump on the red underwear bandwagon. I had visions of all of our clothes being pink! Homes are decorated with symbols and a lot of red.

This is the year of the horse, said to be a year of great power. However, if you were born in a previous year of the horse (2002 – like my daughter) it’s not such a good thing. This year she must be very cautious in her decision-making and wear red everyday. Here is a lovely article about the year of the horse – the author adds that 2014 is actually the year of the “Blue Wooden Horse” and how that affects those born in 2014.  She also details how this year will affect the other members of my family, based on our horoscope:

Me: Dog – Irritation… Everything seems to be irritating a dog. You would like to break into the center of  important events, but it does not look like you will succeed. (Not far from the truth – at least the irritation part!)

Husband: Rat – Oops, but it looks like this year is going to be a catastrophic one for you in every aspect. Most probably you are going to be in debt. (YIKES!)

Daughter #1: Dragon – You are going to use every opportunity to be noticed. (True. So very true.)

Son: Rooster – Everything looks good to Rooster, as long as it is not going to affect his own interests. (Pretty true of any 8 year old I know!)

Fish are also an important symbol at the new year, the Chinese word for “fish” is homophonous with the Chinese word meaning “excess or abundance”. So, if you put fish around your home, you will receive an abundant amount of money in the new year.

Fish Decoration

Our new year started with the departure of our ayi for her hometown. There is an annual migration – of Chinese people – the largest mammal migration in the world! Although that sounds weird, it’s true. This National Geographic article details this phenomenon. This very cool heat map shows where the Chinese are heading to. It’s a great visual of this annual occurrence!

Many, many, many Chinese people return to their homes to be with family. For most, the journey is difficult and very expensive. This is summed up by a catchy saying: “Rich or Poor, Home for New Year” (有钱没钱, 回家过年). (New York Times) There were many photos on the web of disgusting train cars, due to the massive influx of passengers. This article containing gross photos says it all. (In defense of the accused messy Chinese passengers, I usually find it difficult to find a trash bin around town. Not sure if there are many – if any? – on trains. I’ve never traveled by train. Seriously, check out these photos. Unbelievable.)

spring-festival-2009-ninbo-china-buying-train-tickets-02 Crowds waiting to buy train tickets in Ningbo. Can you even imagine? Interested in more information? Watch The Last Train Home for more insight into this.

Our ayi is from Jiangsu, about a 4 hour drive from Shanghai. Before she left, we presented her with her hongbao – red envelope containing her bonus for the year.


It is sometimes this is called the 13th month, at least here in Shanghai. Most ayi expect an extra month of pay at Chinese New Year. (This should be discussed upon hiring, not a good thing to spring on your employer.) Some ayi will not return to work after the holiday if their hongbao is insufficient. The hongbao has it’s history in the Qin dynasty when the elderly would put coins on a red string to ward off evil spirits. That practice eventually evolved to the red envelope, maybe this is why money is tied so tightly to the new years customs? The amount of money contained in a hongbao should end with an even digit. 8’s are lucky. 4’s are not. (The number 4 “Sì” sounds like the word for death “Sǐ”) So, if your hongbao amount contains a “4″, round up. Please.

Honestly, I’m a bit confused about the whole hongbao thing. From what I’ve read, hongbao are the traditional gifts that adults give children. In practice, “children” can even mean young adults who are unmarried.  Children ask for hongbao by saying “Gong Xi Fa Cai, Hong Bao Na Lai!” It means Happy New Year! Give me a red envelope! I never saw this happen in Shanghai, and I’m quite glad as I didn’t carry around red envelopes full of cash to give to children. In Shanghai, it’s more of an employee thing? Drivers & ayis.

For Chinese New Year, we decided to stay at a hotel with some other families. We envisioned fireworks and festivities, a nice dinner…Instead we got 400+ AQI, firecrackers (not fireworks) and McDonald’s for dinner. Sigh. Live and learn. We learned a bit too late that the “real” fireworks happen at the END of Chinese New Year. The kids had fun in the hotel, but the smog was a real killer. (Pun intended.)

At our children’s school, the guards lit firecrackers to celebrate:

School Firecrackers

No, it’s not raining. That’s smog.


The view from our hotel room. More smog.


This was the lobby decoration at our hotel – lots of food that was looking at us. Deep into our souls.


The highlight of our CNY stay-cation was being invited to our drivers (Jason) parents home for lunch. What an honor to be the first “laowai” to dine with them in their home. After a serious pep talk to our kids – 2 are VERY picky eaters – we headed over to their apartment. It was a nice apartment, with a typical Chinese configuration. You entered through the kitchen, which was a narrow galley style with the bathroom at the end. (Didn’t use it, assuming it had a typical Chinese style squat toilet.) Jason’s father is a retired boat captain. He had spent the day (maybe days?) cooking for us. In fact, he kept cooking while we were there and the amount of food he prepared was astounding.

Here is the spread that Mr. Xie prepared for us:


Our kids and Jason’s daughter:


Mr. Xie feeding our son. Miraculously our son actually ate some of the food. I was proud of his maturity and respect. He’s 8:


Tang yuan – sesame ball soup. The red things are goji berries, just added for color:


Jason and his parents:



I had seen these rubbery/gelatin fish all over town before Chinese New Year. Jason told us that they are used for decoration and then eaten after the new year. Traditionally, the fish should be pointed toward the head of the table, to the person who should be the most respected. Mr. Xie and my husband kept spinning the fish to face one another throughout the meal. It was funny:


After our meal, the kids went out with Jason’s daughter and got ice cream and potatoes on a stick:


During our CNY holiday, we also visited the Insect Museum which oddly also housed some goats, guinea pigs and chinchillas. We stayed super busy – once the air cleared – and had some great adventures with friends (about 1,000,000 of them) at Yu Yuan Garden. It was a great CNY in Shanghai, next year we’ll probably be jetting off to some exotic location, but I’m glad we stayed this year!

Amazing decorations at Yu Yuan Garden:



Can you play “spot the laowai” in this photo?


An amazingly clear night in Shanghai:


This was truly an I Love Shanghai evening!