It’s Chinese New Year, so we got self-proclaimed banana Joanne Lau to give us the lowdown.
Chinese New Year is a major cultural holiday steeped in traditions and customs passed down for centuries. To understand this complex and intricate occasion fully, I’d recommend sneaking into a morning Tai-Chi class at the park, laying down a trail of mah-jong pieces and abducting someone’s awesome Chinese grandmother to explain it all to you. Failing that, you’ll just have to settle for this banana’s guide. Sure, I was born and raised in Canada, but I promise I come from a long line of Chinese grandmothers. Proof: Er… Look at my author photo.
When is Chinese New Year?
Grandma would say: The first day of the Chinese lunisolar calendar. This year it falls on February 19, 2015.
This banana says: Like the location of a mythological island on the back of a giant turtle, the exact date of Chinese New Year is revealed only by mysterious astronomical alignments and is never in the same place twice.
Personal tip: If you ever want to shame a second-generation Chinese immigrant kid, just ask, “When is Chinese New Year?” Then take away their smart phone.
Grandma would say: Red envelopes of money given by married couples or the elderly to children and younger unmarried adults. It is customary to wish the givers a Happy New Year and good health before receiving the red pocket.
This banana says: Nothing beats the joy of having a bratty, entitled child stroll up to you and ask for a red pocket and you being able to shout in his face, “I’M SINGLE. SCRAM!” It’s what Chinese New Year is all about. There’s nothing wrong with spending the rest of the year Bridget Jones-style with a bottle of wine on your sofa, but for Chinese New Year, learn to say “Kung Hei Fat Choy”, then go out there and meet up with all your smug married friends because it’s INVOICE TIME.
Personal tip: As an added bonus of living alone, you can empty your red pocket haul over your bed and pretend you’re in an Enrique Iglesias video by spooning your cat, rubbing handfuls of cash over its belly, and singing, “I CAN BE YOUR HERO BAAAABYYYY….”
Grandma would say: Family banquets are thrown and certain foods are consumed as symbols of luck, longevity, and prosperity.
Fish – a homophone for “abundance/surpluses”
Mandarin oranges – a homophone of “fortune”
Sea moss – a homophone of “prosperity”
Chinese Candy Box – dried melon, longans, kumquats, coconut, lotus seed, lotus root, and melon seeds, each representing various good wishes such as togetherness, prosperity and fertility.
Noodles – served as long as possible and uncut as they are a symbol of longevity
This banana says: DRIED LOTUS SEED IS NOT A CANDY, GRANDMA. It is a pretentious chickpea gone very wrong!
Personal tip: During the big family dinner, try not to accidentally snip grandma’s noodles with your chopsticks. The rest of the meal can get pretty awkward after that…
Upside Down Luck
Grandma would say: The Chinese character for “fortune/luck” is printed on a red diamond-shaped paper and hung upside down in the home. The Chinese word for “upside down” is a homophone for “arrival” so hanging the word upside down means the arrival of blessings and luck.
This banana says: Is this true or are you just trying to cover-up the early signs of dementia, grandma?
Personal tip: The Cantonese pronunciation of the word is fuk. This is handy when you need to cover up any expletives you shout when eating a dried lotus seed by accident.
The Lion Dance
Grandma would say: The rainbow lion costume is made up of two dancers – one as the head and one as the tail. Dancing to loud drums and cymbals, the lion will hesitantly approach, then consume an auspicious green vegetable, such as lettuce, tied together with a red pocket. The lion then keeps the envelope and spits out the lettuce. The loud drums and lion are said to scare away evil spirits while the lettuce and red pocket are for luck and prosperity.
This banana says: I’m pretty sure this is what a cat thinks is happening when it is high on catnip.
Personal tip: If you imagine the dancer playing the head of the lion has just passed wind, it puts a whole new light on the constant arm-flapping motion of the dancer playing the tail.
Grandma would say: The house is cleaned from top to bottom before the New Year to sweep out bad luck from the last year and make way for incoming fortune. Sweeping on New Year’s Eve and Day should be avoided as it will sweep away new luck. Buddhists will eat “Jai”, or a “Buddha’s delight”, as it is traditional to purify oneself by consuming a vegetarian diet for the first five days of the New Year.
This banana says: Eat my vegetables and clean my room for good luck? NICE TRY, MOM AND DAD.
Personal tip: If you’re gluten-intolerant, “Jai” probably won’t be a “Buddha’s delight” for you.
Grandma would say: New clothing is worn from head to toe to symbolise a new start. Hair is cut, but never on New Year as the word “hair” is a homophone for “prosperity”.
This banana says: If you’re a kid, this is the time to hit up mom and dad for some money and head to the mall. If you’re an adult, this is the time to hit up mom and dad for some money and head to the mall.
Personal tip: Get your NAILS DONE, HAIR DONE, EVERYTHING DID…
Grandma would say: Nian was a monstrous beast – half-dragon, half-unicorn – that would come on the first day of the New Year to eat livestock, crops, and children. To protect themselves, the villagers lit firecrackers and hung red lanterns to scare away the beast, which had an aversion to loud noises and the colour red. Though Nian has never appeared again, the tradition continues to this day.
This banana says: You had me at half-unicorn. The pyrotechnics are just an added bonus.
Personal tip: If your child asks if Nian could kill Santa Claus, don’t go into a lengthy discussion weighing Santa’s lack of mobility due to his obesity against the protection of his red suit and then conclude with “Probably. Yes.”
Joanne Lau is that tired-looking Chinese-Canadian girl on the tube scribbling in her notebook and staring into space a lot.