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A Mexican experiences Chinese New Year in rural China

Editor: Qian Ding 丨CCTV.com

02-08-2017 16:51 BJT

By Héctor Zavala, master student in Yenching Academy of Peking University

Through this piece, I would like to share my experience of taking part in the “Homestay in Jinhua’s Historical Villages Project,” which gave me the opportunity to spend the Chinese New Year, or the Spring Festival, the most important traditional festival of China, with a family from a rural part of eastern China’s Zhejiang province.

I’m originally from Mexico and was born and raised in Mexico City. I first came to China in 2015 to study a Master’s program in China studies at the Yenching Academy of Peking University in Beijing. I was supposed to stay just for a year and then return to my country to start my career. For several personal, academic and professional reasons, I opted to stay for a second year. Most of all, I had become fascinated by China and wanted to keep exploring this amazing country and its  culture.


During my first Spring Festival in China, while many of my international classmates organized trips to several destinations in south Asia or even returned home during the holidays, I decided to stay in Beijing to experience how Chinese people celebrate their New Year. Although I had a good time with my best Chinese friend and some friends from other countries, I was a bit disappointed because I saw much less activity than I expected. Many people went back to their hometowns to gather with their families, and I didn’t feel that I had fully experienced the atmosphere of most important festivity in China.

This January offered me a second—and maybe last—opportunity to join a true celebration of Chinese New Year, and I was determined to make the most of it. So when the Yenching Academy introduced to me the Jinhua homestay project, calling for applications from international students of well-known Chinese universities, I sent my application to the organizers and, days later, I received confirmation that I had been accepted to join the program. That was how several of my friends from Peking University and I started this adventure, hoping to enjoy a family atmosphere during the week-long the Spring Festival.

Before my arrival in Jinhua, I spent four days exploring the nearby large city of Hangzhou with my brother, who was traveling around China for some weeks. I was already in the family mood on and I was ready to meet my new host family that was going to welcome into their home for seven days. Together with some friends who joined me in Hangzhou, we arrived at Jinhua railway station on the evening of January 23, where the happy faces of our dear volunteers welcomed us. A few hours later, we were admiring a show of dragon dances performed by local people, which was followed by the allocation process with the host families.

Once at our new home, the parents kindly prepared a delicious dinner including traditional dishes of the village for the Chinese New Year season; I noticed a wide range of different meats, vegetables and several types of tofu. During the dinner, we were offered  the typical Chinese liquor, Baijiu, and we were urged to toast with each other many times to show that we were enjoying the company of friends.

My initial impression of the homestay project exceeded my expectations and this first day in Zhiyan Village made me curious about the activities of the following days during the homestay.

When I first arrived in China,, I noticed the differences in the meals schedule in comparison with Mexico. In Mexico, we usually have breakfast between 9:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m., lunch at 2:30 p.m., and dinner at about 8 p.m.. In Beijing, people start having lunch at 11:00 a.m., which means that it isn’t possible for me to have breakfast at my usual time. I find that having breakfast at local times, between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m., is too early, so I rarely have breakfast in China and I just wait for lunch time.

While staying in Zhiyan village, I enjoyed the kindness of my host family who always prepared Chinese-style breakfast for us. Their morning food was different than what I was used to eating. In Mexico, we usually have eggs with ham, sausages or bacon; quesadillas, corn tortillas filled with melted cheese; chilaquiles, corn chips with meet, cream, cheese and spicy sauce, and we wash it down with orange juice, milk, hot chocolate or coffee.

In Jinhua, I enjoyed rice porridge, boiled eggs, tofu, different kind of nuts, and my favorite, the rice cake, which we were invited to cook by ourselves under the guidance of the host mom—a unique opportunity to learn traditional Chinese cooking.

During this week, I observed that for a Chinese family, the Spring Festival is not just about dining on the last night of the lunar calendar, as is the case in the West during December 31. At least in this village,  Chinese New Year represents hard work during several days before the last day of the year to prepare the food; decorate the houses with red lanterns, figures of Buddha or calligraphy works wishing happiness, prosperity, and health; and, in our case, it meant some hours dedicated to rehearsals for the performances that we offered to the other participants, the host families and the leaders of the village. But this hard work is combined with entertainment activities like shows of Dragon Dance, majiang games or hikes to the nearby mountains to witness the sunset.

The most important local traditions that I could observe, was the emphasis that Chinese people put on the importance of family and friends. Throughout the homestay, the doors of the house were always open and any neighbor was welcome to pass by to say hello, play some cards, help with decorations or just to chat with the family members. I found it quite intriguing that every day different people joined to have lunch and dinner, and in most cases the host family wouldn’t eat with us to give their seat on the table to the guests.

Another very ingrained tradition during this holiday is the moment of delivering hongbaos, the red packets. In the West, many people exchange presents during the holiday season; in China, the tradition is to give a red envelope with money inside to show the best wishes to the recipient. Besides hongbaos, during the New Year’s Eve the families gather together to watch China Central Television (CCTV) New Year’s Gala, light fireworks and, during the next morning, go to the temple to pray for the ancestors.

Besides the enriching experience that we got by spending time with a local family, during this project we were also encouraged to join cultural activities outside the host house to get a deeper knowledge of Chinese culture. We visited the Jinhua Museum and Pavilion of Eight Odes. The Jinhua museum was one of the most interesting and exciting museums that I have ever explored. It allows visitors to really appreciate the lifestyles of previous generations of local people in themes such as music, art, war and society. The architecture of the Pavilion of Eight Odes was also well worth seeing; it reminded me of the design of the city of Lijiang in China’s southwestern Yunnan province, which I  visited last year.

Among other cultural activities that I really enjoyed was a Chinese calligraphy workshop, in which we learned from a master in this antique art how to draw a rooster and how to write the Chinese character for rooster in different styles of writing, I consider it to be important to note that it was decided to draw a rooster since this is the Zodiac animal for 2017 in the Lunar calendar. We were also invited to try dragon dancing, which was actually not as easy to execute as one might  think.

But not everything was about analyzing Chinese rural culture during the Spring Festival. Throughout the program, I had the honor of getting to know the other participants, who came from many provinces of China, everyone with their own story to tell and their own personality to share. I consider myself fortunate to have had the chance to meet these outstanding students and I am sure I will keep in contact with  them.

I would like to thank all the organizers of this program, because it was obvious that the great team worked very hard  to enable us to have a terrific experience, learn as much as possible about Chinese culture, interact with the local people and witness local traditions. As the officials of the Jinhua Foreign and Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, Lanzi City Foreign Affairs Office and Huangdian Town government said, this project has great importance because it gathers outstanding foreign students from all around the world interested in China and enables them to get a deeper understanding of the country, its culture and society.

I am sure that all of us were fascinated by all the new knowledge that we gained during the homestay, and will be playing the role of ambassadors of Chinese culture, traditions, economy, and many other fields in our home countries, promoting communication between China and the global community and improving ties of friendship and mutual understanding between peoples.

(The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Panview or CCTV.com)

Panview offers a new window of understanding the world as well as China through the views, opinions, and analysis of experts. We also welcome outside submissions, so feel free to send in your own editorials to "globalopinion@vip.cntv.cn" for consideration.

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