Navigating Chinese New Year with my Relatives in Beijing

Project Pengyou intern, Tammy Tian writes about her experiences navigating Chinese New Year as an American with her Chinese relatives.


I spent my New Year with Old Beijingers.


If there’s one holiday I enjoy, it’s Chinese New Year.

My family, being an immigrant family, functioned on a different calendar than most of America, and because we ran a restaurant we didn’t have the time or means to celebrate in full holiday cheer. Chinese New Year celebrations were a simple matter: our family together at one place, one night, one dinner usually at my aunt’s place in Chinatown, Chicago.

The Politics of Family Holidays

This year, my family gathering was different. I spent the holidays in Beijing with my extended family – my grandpa’s brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews – most of whom I haven’t seen in seven years. They’ve been in Beijing for at least four generations.

About a week before the end of the Lunar New Year, I called my mom to ask who I was supposed to visit, what I should bring, if there was anything they’d like me to say. My mom began to list off a few relatives that I should visit:

“You should visit your grandaunt. She helped you settle into Beijing when you first arrived. And you owe her some time, you weren’t able to make that trip with her during National’s Day. But then again, she has the other side of her family.”

“Yeah, I’ve left her message, but she hasn’t gotten back to me yet. She must be busy,” I said.

“How about your uncle, uncle and your cousin? They have been so welcoming throughout your time in Beijing so far, always treating you out to eat, taking you to see the city. Or what about other uncle, you haven’t visited their house yet. Auntie said she wanted to take you out to eat.”

It quickly became apparent that mom was just about as clueless as I was when it came to who I should celebrate the first meal of the year with. The holidays with a Chinese family can be a bit of a political act. After a while, she paused. My ignorance as an American should excuse whatever faux pas I might accidentally commit, right?

I decided to call my younger cousin. Born and raised in Beijing, she would know what to do. I explained my situation and it was decided that I would celebrate with her and her grandmother!

A New Year’s Feast

Beijing Style hoptpot dinner
There was a third bag of meat not pictured on this table.

Around six pm, we ate a dinner of Beijing style hotpot. Plate upon plate of prepped paper thin sliced meat, fish fillets, shrimp, crab, eggs, meatballs, tripe, liver, tofu, mushroom, cabbage, bokchoy, spinach, cilantro, noodles — just about anything that can be thrown into a pot, boiled and eaten.

We went through at least three plastic grocery bags filled, thick, savory sesame paste as dipping sauce, cloves of sweet, pickled garlic, a few less slices of veggies, even less seafood, and a bottle of hard rice wine to balance the gaminess of the lamb – though that rice wine might be primarily for my uncle.

In the dining room, we have a fold-able table pulled out that seats six. At the center is the hotplate with a pot of hot water on top. A chunk of ginger and a few goji berries bob up and down as the water roars to a boil.

Preparing to toast for New Year's Eve Dinner
Mentally preparing myself for the medicinal-flavored rice wine.

The meat goes first, with the first batch of meat cooked through within seconds, and I add in a second, a third, and the fourth. Slightly appalled, I looked into the empty bag; no more than ten minutes could have passed.

My uncle notices and raises his glass of liquor.

“Cheers, to a new year, everybody have a happy year. And you, study hard.”

While chatting with my uncle, who recently returned from a trip to the states, we often compare contemporary issues between China and the States. I asked him how he liked it in the States, but he was more interested in what I see in China, as someone who was raised in the States. I told him it’s a love hate relationship.

I’ve only lived in China for a few months as a student in a secluded part of Beijing where I’m treated almost too well, and as a result, I hit a lot of information barriers. The complexities that I would normally examine when forming opinions on issues in the States aren’t available here; I’ve barely scratched the surface. I still don’t have all the information to form complete image of China.

Finally, my aunt scoots us out of the dining room.

Dumplings, a Gala, and E-Hongbaos

The pan of dumplings I made during New Years Eve.
Dumplings are eaten during the New Year, the reason I’m told, is somewhere along the lines of good fortune, good skin, and a play on words.

Around 8 pm, we went to the living room to make dumplings! My cousin set up a makeshift station with a large wooden cutting board set on top of a chair and a large tin bowl with filling for the dumplings. The television was on in the background, with commercial smiles and festive red.

Every year, China’s main broadcast network, CCTV, holds an extravagant New Year’s program to celebrate. China’s biggest names in music, film, and TV gather to put on a performance. There is live comedy, traditional dances, patriotic songs, and children performances. It is the most watched program in the world, and nearly every Chinese household tunes in for at least a few hours while they celebrate; mine is no exception. This is also the time of the evening when many families will make homemade dumplings to eat that night and the rest of the week.

As the show played in the background, my cousin showed me how to roll out the dough for dumping skins.

  1. Cut out a piece of dough and knead it into a ball
  2. Roll the ball into a round rod about one-and-a-quarter-inch in diameter.
  3. Cut about a half inch of dough from the rod and use the palm of your hand to flatten it out.
  4. Dusted some flour onto wooden tray
  5. Use a small, tapered wooden rolling-pin to roll out the edges of the dough into a something of a ravioli shell about the size of the palm of your hand. The edges should be thinner than the center so as to have a consistent thickness once the dumpling is sealed by pressing them together.

I did my best to imitate my cousin’s motions, and after a batch of dumpling skins were ready, my cousin showed me how to fill the dumplings! Place a quarter-sized dollop of filling in the center then four pinches around the edges and the familiar pleats magically appear.

Four folds and a few pinches to seal…Four folds and a few pinches to seal…Four folds and a few pinches to seal…

Tammy making dumplings
My cousin was opening lucky pouches of money on WeChat.

Throughout all of this, my cousin was glued to her phone. She was sending money on to her friends through cute, interactive e-cards on WeChat, China’s main social media platform. (During Chinese New Year, people exchange red envelops filled with lucky money much like the way people exchange gifts during Christmas in the States). A few times, she stopped to shake or tap her phone and send voices messages to her friends. A few moments later, my Aunt walked in and began doing the same.

New Year on WeChat
This was how New Year’s was spent on WeChat.

The Gala show was running a promo for China’s online payment services, Alipay (Alibaba’s e-commerce service). Throughout the show, my aunt and cousin had their phones queued up for the next round of Alipay prizes.

At one point, my cousin looked up from her phone:

“Oh, god. Brainwashing shows,” she said.

“And you still watch?” I asked.

“I feel like I have to,” she said. “No, it doesn’t really matter what’s on TV, I’m just watching for the money bags on Alipay. There are so many to watch! QQ, Alipay, and WeChat. My god.”

QQ and Wechat are under the Chinese tech giant, Tencent, the biggest e-commerce competitor to Alibaba and Alipay. They too, were running new year promos.

By the end of dumpling making, my aunt raised a total of about 24 RMB, that’s about four U.S. dollars. My cousin gathered about 12 RMB. I found less than 6 RMB.


New Year's fireworks fired off the streets of Beijing.
New Year’s fireworks fired off the streets of Beijing.

It was a just a few more minutes to midnight when we finished making the dumplings. My uncle held a mysterious black bag out of which he pulled a red and yellow box about the size of a basketball. We were going to let off fireworks!

I quickly grabbed my coat and followed my uncle outside. The residue from the fireworks dusted the air. Booms could be heard in the distance. Flashes of colorful lights filled the skyline.

My uncle smiled as he lit up a cigarette.

We set up our fireworks in front of Granny’s door. We first lit up the traditional firecrackers. My uncle handed me the butt of his cigarette to light the fuse. I felt a pyromaniac in me come alive.

Traditional fireworks were set off to keep bad luck at bay.
Fireworks were set off to keep bad luck at bay.

I held it close for a few seconds and waited for the fuse to turn orange.  My heart was fluttering (I doubt this would ever be legal in the States). Then barrels of gunpowder began to snap and whip all over the ground as I retreated to the nearest doorway for cover!

The big box was the next to be lit. Again, me uncle took his cigarette butt and held it to the fuse.




These dumplings were the first meal of the year.
These dumplings were the first meal of the year.

The first barrel of gunpowder whizzed into the air. My eyes tried to follow it, but by the time my head faced up, it had already burst into sparkles of gold right above my head. I had never been so close to fireworks!  The next barrel shot up and there was a loud boom. There was a moment of black, then fiery bits of red and green confetti danced in the sky.

I walked over to the main street where other people were also setting off barrel-style fireworks. The big boxes were being let off in the middle of the street. Cars that were driving by had to wait for each bundle of fireworks to be lit before driving down the next segment of road.

This disorganized, sporadic boom of light and crackles of sound in the sky became an organic fireworks show of its own. By the time we finally came back, it was a quarter past midnight. We ate our dumplings and headed home. All in all, it was quite different from the Chinese New Year I celebrated in the US with my family!