As the winter is at its peak, China experiences a mass migration compared to which even the great migration of peoples is but a shadow. The trek home for a family reunion at Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) is one of those things that have to be experienced, and which are pertinent reminders of cultural values.
Here at university, the importance is easily apparent.
In contrast to Europe and the USA, where spring break is also important, but has nothing to do with that “family” festival of Christmas (let alone New Year’s), Chinese students’ spring break can end up being as long as summer break; it is the time for family reunion in celebration of the new year, and marks much more of a turning point in the annual cycle.
A small sign of that is how students can get train tickets to get back home a bit more easily than others. This is what we can see in the “20 sec China” video: As the local train station is not in operation now, ticket booths were opened on campus itself.
It is not just students, though. Everybody who has family will try to get together, even if it means a long journey on crowded transportation. And that’s if you get lucky enough and get a ticket. Indeed, everyone is expected to get back home, back together with their family, in one of the typical Chinese “scripts” for life (which will be further explored in a later post).
Foreigners who stay in China during both Christmas and Spring Festival are seen with some puzzlement. True, Christmas and New Year’s holidays are basically one, and Westerners do like to get together with their families for exchanging gifts at Christmas, and to visit relatives around Christmas or New Year’s. Chinese oftentimes seem to get misled by the proximity of the two events in time, and the similarity with Chinese New Year in appearance, though. This is evident in how Christmas banners in Chinese stores may be wishing Merry Christmas in English and a Happy New Year in Chinese, and often stay up until Spring Festival is over.
Whereas Christmas, as a religious celebration at heart, is actually not a festival shared by all members of Western countries, Chinese society is much more uniform.
As a result, Spring Festival produces the well-known virtual stand-still – and war zone-like sputter of fireworks – all over the country. Where it is much more of a personal decision how (or even whether) you celebrate Christmas, it is a matter of course that Spring Festival will be celebrated by all. And where the meaning of family, when it comes to Christmas, is mainly connected with parents and young children – so that young adults are at least as likely to celebrate with their parents as they are to just get together with friends or their partner, – family in China is still a very strong unit, in thought and in practice. (In fact, although there is more thought about oneself as member of a group in China than in the West, it may be more appropriate to talk of a Chinese “familialism” rather than collectivism.)
It is, thus, also a matter of course that students and even young couples would be getting back home to their parents. For migrant workers, Spring Festival may even be the only time in the year when they return to their home province, their parents, even their children. It is also the time when workers oftentimes decide whether they will stay at home, return to their former work, or take up new employment.
Christmas and New Year’s, in the end, have many things in common with Spring Festival: there are traditional foods, there are gifts, there is the idea of families getting together, and they both mark the change to a new year. These commonalities, as is so often the case between China and the West, can provide links to understanding. They can also easily be misunderstood and lead us to think we know each other when, in fact, we do not truly understand. These differences are far from insurmountable, but it takes an open mind and a careful consideration of the respective “other.”