It is hard to believe that another year has gone by so quickly. Chinese New Year is on Wednesday, and festivities are already beginning. As I wrote last year, every year at this time in China we witness the greatest annual human migration. And once again, hundreds of millions of people will be moving across China, taking approximately 3.6 billion travel journeys.
This year I’m keeping it domestic, traveling with my girlfriend to her relatives’ home in Hunan and Jiangsu. For those of you traveling in China for the holidays, here are five tips to make sure you survive and have fun!
1. Be Vigilant!
The U.S. Embassy has recently issued a warning to be wary of potential terrorist attacks being planned around Chinese New Year. Although the odds are low that you’d be in the midst of something terrible like this, just please be vigilant as you are traveling this season. There has been an uptick in violent acts in public places recently throughout China, so be sure to keep your eyes open while you are shifting through huge crowds of travelers.
If you haven’t yet, take the opportunity now to register yourself with the state department if you are traveling abroad: https://step.state.gov/step/
2. Brush up on your local dialect
Since over half of China’s population now live and work in cities, the Spring Festival is an important time when families will leave the metropoles and return to see their families in their laojia, or hometown. Although the common language of Mandarin is spoken throughout China, more often in smaller cities local dialects are almost uniformly spoken. Make no mistake, local dialects are so different than Mandarin that even Chinese people cannot understand local dialects from outside their hometown.
Do what you can to brush up on a local dialect before your trip, but generally just reside yourself to nodding and smiling for most of your trip.
3. Get Ready for China’s Super Bowl，the famous “春节联欢晚会” Spring Festival Gala
In the U.S., we like to think that hundreds of millions of viewers watching the Super Bowl every year is a big deal. China has us beat. The most widely watched television program in the world occurs in China every year. It is called the “Spring Festival Gala,” or “New Year’s Gala,” and it is broadcast live on China Central Television (CCTV) every Chinese New Year’s Eve.
Last year, the show garnered over 800 million viewers! According to statista.com, that’s almost as many as the number of people that watched the Super Bowl in the entire 1990s combined.
If you are spending the Spring Festival somewhere in China with friends and family, the tube will most definitely be turned to this on New Year’s Eve.
4. Get your excuses ready to turn down Baijiu
Baijiu, translated as “white liquor,” is the famous national Chinese liquor. It tastes a little bit like lighter fluid mixed with bubble gum. For those of us that have spent years in China, we’ve been able to develop a tolerance, perhaps even a likeness, to the “devil’s juice.”
But Chinese New Year is a whole different animal when it comes to Baijiu. If you are spending this time in a Chinese city, you have to be prepared to be tempted to cheers to baijiu again, and again, and again.
If you can’t handle it, don’t be embarrassed. Make sure you come prepared with excuses to turn down the frequent clinking of the little glasses. A real man can handle a little cajoling from the relatives better than he can handle copious amounts of the liquor itself. Trust me, your liver will thank you later.
Some of the best ones:
“I’m an American and Chinese New Year is not a holiday in America, so I have work to do and can’t be drunk.”
“I’m preparing for a decathlon.” (Bring athletic gear to really sell it on this one.)
5. Go Native
Wherever you might find yourself in China this Spring Festival, you’re going to find yourself with plenty of opportunities to share in local traditions. As the Chinese say, ru xiang sui su – “Do as the Romans Do.” Eat all the weird food. Get up early and join in the sometimes quirky “family exercises.” Keep offering to help cook the meal and clean the dishes, even though you know that they’ll never let you.
Whether you can speak Chinese or not, these efforts will be endearing and are the best way to show your gratefulness for being invited into their home for this all-important holiday. Plus, going native is the sure fire way for you to grow and learn the most during this time.
Happy New Year!