How foreigners celebrate Spring Festival in China
Embracing traditions
Published: Jan 27, 2023 11:11 PM
Foreign kids watch a lion dance performance during the Spring Festival in Beijing. Photo: IC

Foreign kids watch a lion dance performance during the Spring Festival in Beijing. Photo: IC

Editor's Note:

Chinese people are always hospitable and are willing to open their doors to guests from around the world, especially ­during the traditional festivals such as the Chinese New Year. The Global Times talked with a group of expatriates in China as the 2023 Spring Festival got under way in the strong atmosphere of the traditional Chinese New Year celebrations. Enthralled by the charm of the ancient festival and traditional Chinese culture, they went shopping for the festival, enjoyed typically festive meals and gave "lucky money" to children.

Australia, the US, Norway... expatriates from different countries around the world spent the first Spring Festival in China after the country optimized its COVID-19 response in early December. They celebrated the traditional festival with their ­Chinese friends or families in diverse ways in different places around China, but they could still feel the same warm atmosphere and unique charm of traditional Chinese culture.

A foreign student holds a 3D shape of the Chinese character chun, which means

A foreign student holds a 3D shape of the Chinese character chun, which means "spring," in Beijing. Photo: VCG

The 'mahjong master' 

Rebecca Williams, an Australian voice actress, has been ­celebrating the Chinese New Year (CNY) in China for the last 20 years. Yet 2023's celebrations followed by the overall Chinese societal return to relative normalcy after the optimization of the country's COVID response, have left Rebecca with the happiest of memories as she told the Global Times that she had such a good time she even forgot to take photos. 

Based in Beijing, Williams would generally celebrate with her fellow expatriates in China over the holiday break. Despite most of them being Westerners, through joining temple fairs and watching the Spring Festival Gala among other characteristically CNY traditions, they have adapted to the traditional Chinese festivities.

Williams told the Global Times that she took the New Year's Eve as "the main event of course," during which she had great fun watching the CCTV Spring Festival Gala and was thrilled about being able to see the fireworks display once again. 

"I now know how to make the dumpling wrappers and how to 'wrap' dumplings," Williams told the Global Times with glee. Making the wrap is often considered the most skill-intensive part in Chinese dumpling making. 

Williams told the Global Times her favorite pastime was playing mahjong with friends. It was not only just a very authentic CNY game, but a symbol of long overdue reunions since the optimization of the country's COVID response policy. 

"I've even taught some of my Chinese friends who didn't know how to play mahjong as well," Williams said. 

Aside from mahjong and her visits to temple fairs to both the Beijing Temples of Heaven and Earth, Williams noted that she had watched a Lion Dance on the fifth day of the first lunar month in Beijing.

"I wouldn't miss spending CNY in China."

US paleontologist Thomas Stidham (front left) takes a photo with his wife's family in a village in Pingdingshan, Central China's Henan Province. Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Stidham

US paleontologist Thomas Stidham (front left) takes a photo with his wife's family in a village in Pingdingshan, Central China's Henan Province. Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Stidham

US paleontologist visits Henan village  

Thomas Stidham, a US paleontologist who works in Beijing, packed up in anticipation of his planned 2023 CNY holidays in a village in Pingdingshan, Central China's Henan ­Province, after participating in the 2023 Spring Festival Symposium for Foreign Experts led by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing.

It was an exciting journey with mission for Stidham as it was the US scholar's first trip to meet his wife's family since the start of the epidemic three years ago. With slight trepidation, Stidham said he was greeted by his Chinese ­mother-in-law with a big feast ­including the most authentic Chinese village foods like sesame leaves and ­omelets. 

Stidham's visit to his wife's village showed him how the concept of "family bonding" is valued by the Chinese people over the CNY. He told the Global Times he had visited various members of his wife's family including her aunt and his father-in-law, and sent out red envelopes to his nephew and cousin just as would many traditional elders in the hierarchy of a typical Chinese family. 

"Yuanyuan [his cousin], entertained the group with her cute high jinks such as resisting her grandmother's attempts at slipping a red envelope into her little pocket."

Learning to make noodle dishes from his mother-in-law, making a 100-dumpling feast with family members and reading his wife's old schoolbooks allowed Stidham to taste authentic CNY culture. Meanwhile, Stidham shared his scholarly experiences with his wife's cousin Jiayan. The young woman plans to go to Harvard University (USA) for a postdoctoral research position once she has finished her Ph.D.

He was impressed that his wife's grandmother, an 84-year-old woman, still engages in subsistence farming activities like raising chicken, after recovering from her fight with COVID-19. 

"In addition to the typical family gossips, much of the talk when visiting various family members was about me, and my participation in the meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, just before the Spring Festival," he said.

A 'moon and rabbit' artist  

The US photographic artist Michael Cherney celebrated his CNY in an artistic way. Without "hanging out" too much, Cherney brought his ­expertise of taking black-and-white photos to give the 2023 CNY a poetic rabbit interpretation. 

To mark the arrival of the Year of the Rabbit in Chinese culture, Cherney took a photo of his daughter using hand shadow art to mimic the rabbit shape against a huge round moon in the night. The photo is unlike many festival photos that are colorful; it was dark and solemn showing Cherney's composition inspiration from traditional Chinese ink painting. It took inspiration from Chang'e Ben Yue (Chang'e flew to the moon), an ancient mythical Chinese literary quotation that shows Chinese people's never changing sense of hope. 

"I think people tend to associate the word chuantong [tradition] with the past, but actually it's past, present and future," Cherney said.   

"Sooner or later, everyone will come to visit Beijing, either from China or other parts of the world." 

Foreign students write Chinese character

Foreign students write Chinese character "Fu" and Spring Festival couplets during an activity in celebration of the Chinese New Year in Lanzhou, Northwest China's Gansu Province. Photo: IC

'I feel lucky to explore'

Three days before the first day of the Spring Festival holidays in 2023, Lena Nilsen (Li Na), a 33-year-old Norwegian national living in China, embarked on her long-distance self-chauffeured road trip for the CNY all the way from Beijing to Dali, Southwest China's ­Yunnan Province. 

The year 2023's festivities were slightly different for her: She came to work in China from her hometown at the end of 2019 and was caught up in the whirlwind of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Yet she didn't realize that this protracted domestic epidemic battle could delay her exploration of China for such a long time pushing it into 2023.

"So far this has been a very exciting experience for me and I feel so different. At present I have experienced a lot of things many of which I can't really name, but I went to the temple fair in Xizhou Ancient Town," the industrial designer told the Global Times from Dali on Thursday. 

The ancient town of Xizhou is one of the best-preserved Bai ethnic group gathering places in Dali, Yunnan Province. During the Spring Festival every year it is crowded with people, and a special Chinese New Year's goods collection fair ran throughout the entire holiday.

After experiencing local traditions including bits of intangible cultural heritage such as tie-dye and tile cat making techniques, watching the local gala in which traditional folk art and modern music merge and ­trying the delicacies, Nilsen told the Global Times that her feeling toward the CNY has completely changed, a big difference from her imagination as she used to have.

In the past, the Chinese culture lover has witnessed Spring Festival celebrations in London, the UK. "There were street performances there. But here, I feel the enthusiasm of everyone - lively parties during the day, fireworks across the city at night," she said.

Nilsen was an exchange student in China for a year in 2010. "But because I was not familiar with the customs here during the Spring Festival in the first year, I was surprised to find that all the shops were closed, and I had to feed myself with Chongqing noodles near my college for a week."

Even so, this experience still exceeded her expectations: In the last two years, she celebrated Spring Festivals no different to the global New Year by attending a party and having a meal with her friends as the festivities around the occasions were far more subdued, but this time, "I didn't expect such an enthusiastic vibe when I and my friends hit the highway on a three-day road trip with my dog. I feel lucky to have a chance to explore all that and finally I got something from this ancient festival to share with my family back home," she chucked.

Immersed in authenticity

"Of course celebrating the Spring Festival in Beijing is a lot fun. I have been to many temple fairs here - a Beijing special - but I wanted to experience the most authentic customs in different regions," Sam, an English teacher from Australia who prefers to go by his first name, told the Global Times on Friday.

The 31-year-old was just one of many foreigners to share their experiences of celebrating festivals across the country on social media during the CNY. They ­traveled to other cities with friends and partners to reunite with family, and some went to mountainous villages to explore a tradition far away from the modern city. 

In Qufu, best known as the birthplace and residence of Confucius, in East China's Shandong Province, Sam made his dream come true. 

He traveled to Shandong with his friend who returned to his hometown to celebrate the Spring Festival. The two went to the well-known former residence of Confucius - a series of folk activities unique to Shandong were held there - all according to Sam's dream of, one day, experiencing such culturally authentic activities. 

"I remember there was someone writing Spring Festival couplets there, and selling their local steamed flower-like buns and sticky candy, which is exactly what I imagined the Spring Festival to look like," he recalled. 

Yet for him, what he feels the most is the enthusiasm from friends and family members after arriving to his friend's hometown in the countryside, where people prepared a lot of dishes during the CNY, after which everyone sits around a table and hands out red envelopes to the young ones.

"Every custom of the Spring Festival tends to gather people to do one thing together at the same time, which is completely different from the New Year in the Gregorian calendar where people say goodbye to the old and welcome the new. Here the very custom the Spring Festival has points to one notion - reunion," he said.

"By the way I lost sleep for two consecutive days because of the fire crackers."