Category Archives: Holidays and Festivals

Birthday hong bao

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Ben’s daughter turns 1 today!! and we wanted to give him a hong bao (red envelope with money). Gift-giving in another country, especially one as different from America as China, presents a dilemma or four.

Dilemma #1: Is it OK to give a hong bao for a birthday gift to a one-year old? I don’t know, but I’m going with the “I’m a stupid American and therefore you have to excuse my stupidity” excuse. It comes in handy for a lot of things and the Chinese seem to accept it. 🙂

Dilemma #2: Is it acceptable to give “old” money? For Chinese New Year when giving RMB one doesn’t give anything but new money. It’s easy to get new money in January or February but not so much the rest of the year. So…I was worried that perhaps that tradition/superstition applies to any gift of money. I ended up giving the newest old money that I had.

Dilemma #3: How much to give? Originally I thought I would give 500 RMB. It seemed like a good number and I had it ready. As I was researching dilemma #2, I learned that it needs to be an even number. OK, I know technically 500 is an even number but the 5 bothered me. I was going to give 400 RMB but the number 4 is similar in pronunciation to the word for death so NEVER give anything with the number 4 in it or 4 of something! 666 RMB fits the criteria of acceptable but nope, can’t do that. It was decided that 600 RMB it is: no death, Satan, or odd number.

Dilemma #4: Which hong bao to use? Way back when we first moved here I bought a variety pack of hong baos. They have different characters on them and I have no idea what they say. The characters are not simplified script either so I was really at a loss. In the past I’ve asked my Chinese teacher but I didn’t plan and I needed to give it to him this morning.  That was easily solved, I made my own. It’s about time I used all the scrapbooking supplies I hauled 8,000+miles. 😉

Holy cow! I learned something today. I have been misspelling dilemma my whole life. I always thought it was dilemNa and when I spell-checked it came up dilemMa. I immediately went to that great, reliable resource Wikipedia 😉 and learned that dilemMa is indeed correct. The article also mentioned that is has been commonly taught incorrectly in parts of the US. Well I guess I lived in one of those parts. This is quite a revelation for me. Am I the only one?

3PM – 95°

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Duanwu Jie explained

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As promised here is a brief history of the Dragon Boat Festival.

Duanwu Jie does not translate to Dragon Boat Festival. It actually means Double Five. The festival falls on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese Lunar calendar. In 278 BC, Qu Yuan committed suicide by throwing himself into a river to protest government corruption. Qu Yuan was a poet and scholar. To prevent his body from being eaten by the critters that live in the river, people raced their dragon boats and banged drums to scare them away. They also offered rice dumplings (zongzi) as food sacrifices so that they would eat the zongzi instead of his body. It’s also common to drink realgar wine as well. What, you never heard of it? Me neither and all my Chinese teacher could tell me about it was that is was made from a poison. She didn’t know the English word for the poison. Well, it’s arsenic! Yes, drinking arsenic laced alcohol is a tradition. It helps to ward off mosquitos and people  dab it on their skin as an insect repellant. I ate the zongzi but did not partake of any arsenic wine!

Because it’s basically Chinese summer solstice there are some other traditions. Standing an egg on its end at noon will bring good luck for the coming year. NO good luck for me because I failed 😦 People wear little bags that contain herbs to ward off mosquitoes, they hang herb wreaths on their doors, and make bracelets with 5-colored thread.  The 5-colored thread has its basis in Feng Shui. Red, white, yellow, black, and green all relate to the 5 earth elements and the 5 points on the 3-dimensional compass (I know I haven’t explained that correctly but I don’t know how else to say north, south, east, west, and the Chinese include the third dimension of center). There’s more to it but it gets very involved and I can’t possible explain it easily in a blog post. I will say though that it’s fascinating.

Red =fire & east (think of the sun rising)

Black=water & north

Green=wood & south

White=metal & west

Yellow=earth & the earth’s axis (It’s not called the Yellow River for nothing)

“D”, Anders’ wonderful admin, made zongzi and sent 2 home for us to try. I don’t know if she’s psychic or not but Berlitz offered a cultural class on the history and traditions of Duanwu Jie. Ben handed them to me after he picked me up!!!  Zongzi are rice dumplings with a sweet or savory filling. They are then wrapped in leaves and steamed. The ones that we had were made with a red bean paste filling. They were bu hao, bu huai (not good, not bad). It was very kind of her to think of us!

Anders and I did not make it down to the river for the finals. So sorry! It was hot and it was “some crazy”. There were a lot of people and not much room because the grandstands took up so much of the available viewing space. That’s OK though because we had front row seats for the prelims.

10 AM – 88°

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Duanwu Jie!

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June 23 was Dragon Boat Festival in China. We had planned our trip to our friends’ wedding so that we would return in time to watch. There was no way I was going to miss it! We arrived home the week before it started and I was pleasantly surprised to see a dragon boat “parked” on the river across from our apartment. The joy didn’t last past the next morning though because at 7AM as they departed for practice they set off a bunch of firecrackers, continuously, until they were out of sight down the river! Normally that’s not a problem as I’m awake long before that but I was a tad jet-lagged.

Saturday came and we were awakened not only by firecrackers but drums as well. I was like a kid at Christmas, I couldn’t wait to get down to the river to see what was going on. Neither Anders nor I were even sure where the races were to take place on the river but we lucked out. The finish line was just across from our apartment complex!! I think. 😉 Like most things in China, it seemed to be organized chaos, heavy on the chaos, light on the organized. There were a few times that 2 or 3 boats came down the river and it was obvious that they were racing. Other times 2 or 3 boats came down and it looked like they were out for a leisurely ride on the river. And then there were times that a single boat came down with the occupants paddling furiously. This went on all day. I couldn’t begin to guess who won their heats, who was a serious competitor, or who was even trying to win. It didn’t matter one bit, it was exciting even without having a clue.

At lunch time several boats pulled up right in front of us and their support team either helped them out of the boat to get lunch or they dropped lunch into the boats for those that didn’t want to climb the ladder. I have to say, their lunches looked and smelled quite good. Of course, it was also prime time to get those smokes in. Lunch was over, back in the boats and they were off for more non-racing. 🙂

Around 3:00 the skies opened up and it started to rain. I held out as long as I could but then it started to pour and there was a thunder-storm. I left and evidently so did the boats. Even the Chinese respect the power of lightning and water.  (I’ve seen on more than one occasion, people welding without safety gear AND a cigarette hanging out of their mouths!!!)

Some how, some way, some one was able to figure out who the heat winners were and the finals were to be held last Saturday.Unfortunately we had a typhoon warning last weekend and they were cancelled. It was the typhoon that wasn’t because we experienced wind, blue skies, and gorgeous clouds. My very reliable source informed that they are to be held tomorrow. Not sure I’ll make it for the final but I might mosey over to the other side of the island (grand total of about 1/2 mile) where they have grandstands set up. Only VIP’s get to sit there and I ain’t no VIP. I suspect it will be more organized chaos but on a bigger scale.

Next post will be about the history of the Dragon Boats. There is a story for everything associated with the holiday and its origins date back to 278 BC. Of course food is involved!

5PM – 97°

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Tomb sweeping day!

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Yesterday was Qingming Jie. Literally it means pure bright festival and is similar to our Memorial Day. Yes, the Chinese actually go and sweep the tombs, clear out weeds, and do a general spring-cleanup. I remember doing that with my mom every year. The added Chinese element is that they take offerings of food, wine, paper money, and incense. These things insure that the loved ones have what they need in the after life.

In GZ, the traffic headed in the direction of the cemetery was heavy last weekend and will be this weekend as well. There is a 3-day holiday and a lot of people take an additional 2 days off to make it a whole week. This holiday and CNY are the holidays when people go back home. Like Chinese New Year, a lot of people return to their hometowns. Not quite the mass exodus of CNY but things were quiet around GZ this week.

Ben told us that about 5 million people in GZ will be headed to cemeteries and mortuaries to pay their respects over a two week period.  Mortuaries in China are more popular because where do you bury 1 billion people? He asked me a while ago to take April 8 off so he could go with his daddy and uncle to the cemetery and then they were going out to lunch. We told him to take the whole day off. Usually he makes a fuss and tells us, “It OK. I juss need morning and afternoon until fee o’clock. I drive after that.” Anders and I were pleasantly surprised that he just thanked us and nodded and smiled. For him to do that, it must mean a lot to his family.

So in the spirit of Qingming Jie, may you all go out and sweep tombs and pay respects to your loved ones. Whether or not you take offerings is up to you.

4PM – 72°

Hong bao

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When I started writing this post, Anders was at a luncheon with his team handing out hong bao. What? You don’t know what a hong bao is? It’s a red envelope that contains MONEY! It’s very traditional in China to give gifts of money for weddings, funerals, and Chinese New Year.

Before we even moved here Anders received some coaching from a Chinese friend about the hong bao practice for Chinese New Year. Different cultures have different gift-giving practices and it can be a minefield. Hong bao are always given and received with both hands.  Numbers play a very big part. It’s considered good luck to include an amount with an 8 because the pronunciation of 8 in Chinese sounds like the word that means to get rich. You NEVER include a 4 in the amount as that is similar in pronunciation to the verb to die. Only new money is given. ATM’s in the city actually ran out. I don’t know what the people did that withdrew old money. One simply does not give it. I’m sure that if you do all kinds of bad things will happen. D and her mother, yes her mother, started getting new money for Anders a while ago.

I’m going to keep this post about hong bao at the office.  There is a lot more to it for the rest of China but I don’t have to know about that. Evidently it causes a lot of stress for some people because they are expected to give out so many and it can be financially draining. China is a very reciprocal society.

We were told that a lot of secretaries have hong bao stuffing parties! Their bosses give them what they need and they use it as an excuse to get together and eat and gossip. See? People are the same everywhere in the world. Anders and I didn’t think it was as meaningful to have his admin fill them. This is a gift from him! So we spent about an hour counting, folding, and inserting RMB in red envelopes. I folded and inserted my RMB with Chairman Mao facing up. 🙂

For 15 days, from the first day of the Lunar New Year until 15 days after, people at the office can ask anyone higher up for a hong bao. Now they don’t just come up, hold out their hand, and say give me. They approach the boss, say, “Gong xi fa cai”, and are rewarded with a red envelope. It’s that simple. This is Trick-or-Treating for Chinese adults. However  no jokes need to be told, no songs are sung, and there are no costumes. Gong xi fa cai  means, “wishing you a wealthy year.”

Anders had to have hong bao for all the people who work on his team. There are about 40. He was very diplomatic in that he kept the amount the same for everybody, other people gave according to position. Keep in mind you only give to people who are lower in rank and you only ask to receive from people who are higher in rank. The Chinese are very hierarchical as well. I’ll answer the question right now:  Anders did not ask anyone. You get to a certain point and it’s just tacky. He’s at that point and he’s not tacky. 😉

He was also told that people he barely knows at P&G will ask him and he needed to be prepared. So how do you handle that? He had a lucky draw. He had an additional 100 envelopes or so prepared. The RMB amount varied from 5( 80¢) to 100($16). There were only 3 of the 100RMB hong bao so it’s just a matter of luck.

The office was closed for the week from Jan. 23-27 so he only started handing out the hong bao last Monday. He said that it was fun. 2 or 3 people usually approached his desk and if they were women they giggled. I also bet that if they were giggling their hands were covering their mouths.  And sure enough, people that he barely knew asked him. Most everyone was back to work today after a 2-week holiday and that’s why there was a luncheon. One cannot ask for a hong bao after today so D asked Anders if he wanted to have a lunch with his team to hand out red envelopes to those that were away and to celebrate the New Year. 

Our first Chinese New Year comes to an end today. People are back to work and school, shops are open, traffic is back to normal, and the hong bao are gone until next year. I wonder if I can buy them at 50% off. 🙂

PS – Ben got a real nice hong bao.

3PM – 75°

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Xin nian kuai le!

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Happy New Year!

As you may have guessed, Chinese New Year is a huge holiday in China. 😉 Most ex-pats make fast tracks out of the country for 1-2 weeks. They take advantage of the 2 week school break and head home or on vacation. We didn’t. In the month and a half before CNY we were in the US for 3 weeks and then had Andrew visiting for 2 1/2 weeks. From the time we moved here I said I wanted to experience one CNY. It just happened to be our first and I don’t think it’ll be our last. Most of our ex-pat friends told us we were nuts to stay. The city empties out, nothing is open, and it’s like a ghost town. So? I’m not sure I see the negative in that scenario. CNY is the one time that most Chinese can return home and they ALL  return to their hometowns/cities/villages/farms for 1 or 2 weeks.  There are millions and millions of people all trying to get on every last train, plane, bus, and car back home. The photos on the  news and in the papers would be enough to frighten any non-Chinese back to their apartment.  Even if I was Chinese I’m not sure I’d make the exodus back home.

So Anders and I bucked the trend and decided to stay. We had plans, big plans. On the first day of his vacation we had a Pub Day and made a list of all the things we wanted to do while we had GZ to ourselves. We were going to take long walks, play badminton, exercise, work through my computer photo disaster that has been building for 9 years since I got my first digital camera and whose files take up about half of my memory space, play board games, sightsee (I wanted to show Anders all the places I discovered with Andrew), and so much more. Well…the weather did not cooperate for any of the outdoor activities with the exception of one long walk on the eve of CNY. Jan. 21 was the last day we saw the sun until Jan. 31.  Not only did the sun not come out but it either rained, was cloudy, or  foggy EVERY SINGLE DAY. And you know how humid it is in the summer? Well, that same humidity translates to bone-chilling damp in the winter. The temperature hovered around 45° the whole time, day and night. So this meant that there were no outdoor activities. I feel like the Grinch came and stole our Christmas. We tried to go to the Guangdong Museum one day and there was a line out of the building. I thought everyone was supposed to be gone?!?! So we took a brief walk around the amazing park in the area but it was freezing so we walked quickly, I took a few photos, and we called Ben.

In the days leading up to Jan. 22 and 23 (CNY eve and CNY) I could sense the excitement and energy building. People were bustling and everyone was buying special food. On the Friday before I had to go to the store to stock up on toilet paper and milk because everyplace was going to be closed for the week (we were led astray – I guess by people who have never actually stayed here!). We went to one of the “Flower Streets” on the 22nd and loved it. I would stay here every year just to experience that. Almost every neighborhood has one and there are a few very large ones. Several streets were blocked to traffic and flower stalls were set up selling traditional CNY flowers. There were also booths set up with CNY trinkets and they were so colorful. The whole affair looked like a rainbow exploded. So many people wished us Happy New Year in English and we wished it right back in Chinese. The TV tower was all done up for the celebration as well. It has a special light show of red and gold. It’s very pretty, has lasted since the beginning of the break,  and I suppose Monday night will be the last for it.

Chinese New Year night was the night that they had the fireworks. Anders and I were planning on walking the mile or two to get a good vantage point but it was too miserable so we took our chances and stayed in the apartment. It paid off because we had a great view and they lasted for 30 minutes. It was the best fireworks show I’ve ever seen but I kind of expected it since the Chinese did invent them. 😉 Every night since CNY eve there have been individual fireworks and firecrackers shooting off. We’re coming up on 2 weeks now and they’re still going off at night. It’s funny because it’s illegal in GZ to do it but everyone does. I thank them for it too.

There will be another festival on Monday to officially end the CNY celebration and things will be back to normal. Looking back we had a very relaxing week at home despite the weather keeping us in the whole time and I think that the ex-pats that leave don’t know what they’re missing.  AND I earned a Starbucks coupon from Berlitz because I was able to keep up my Chinese lessons!

5PM – 60°

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Asian Christmas tree

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I did indeed end up getting a Christmas tree. I went back on the weekend to a different part of OneLink (Crap Market). Ben had pointed it out the first day but said the selection wasn’t nearly as big as the main part of the market. If you remember the first and only tree that I priced was 900RMB then went up to 1,000RMB. Well…I ended up paying 190RMB!!! It even included 2 strands of colored lights. They promptly ended up in the trash. I put them on the tree and when I plugged them in one strand made a sizzling sound. You would have thought I put a steak on the grill. Upon further inspection the plugs were basically hollow, partially made of plastic,  wobbly, and bent in half with barely any effort. I had bought other lights (with an American plug but they won’t be making the trip back in a few years) and Chinese lantern lights on the first day of tree hunting. They are meant for Chinese New Year but as I had decided on doing an Asian tree they were perfect for my Christmas tree. Years ago we started adding origami water bombs to our trees to add color. Then when we were in Switzerland and had much smaller trees Andrew, one of three best people in the world,  thought we should do a separate small tree with only white lights and water bombs. We made them in earnest and have photos of friends that were visiting at Christmas time and were put to work helping us make them. (That means you ML in Paris ;-)) Because of limited storage space here they are the only tree decorations I brought with us. While I miss my American trees I have to say that I’m very pleased with the way this one turned out. It’s very Chinese: bright, colorful, and a bit over the top. The best thing is that we now have a storage room and all I have to do is transport the tree onto the elevator, stand it in the corner of the room, and next year I have instant tree. This is my first artificial tree but I have to say there are some advantages.

The antlers that are seen on the front of the tree are courtesy of Andrew. We went out to eat on Friday night and the waitresses were all wearing them. It was pretty darn cute to be sitting in a French restaurant (peasant food not haute cuisine) and seeing these adorable Chinese girls with them on. At the end of the meal our waitress gave them to Andrew and had her photo taken with him. He made her night. I know they’re not Asian but because we got them here and were more than likely made here, they count.

 PS – Ben was impressed when he saw the tree. When I told him that I paid 190RMB he thought I got a small tree. He said I did “Some good” paying what I did.

7PM – 66°