Lunar New Year in China

Photo: Supplied

Being back home in China for Lunar New Year feels different 

An undutiful daughter's atonement trip after four years.

When my mum asked me to bring a king-size wool quilt on a flight back to China, I was hit with a strange familiar feeling – time for Lunar New Year again.

It was a gift she wanted for one of my grandmothers (her aunt). In this exchange she's fulfilling her role as a dutiful niece, and I am unable to refuse her request because I, too, must fulfil the role of a dutiful daughter. Nestled in between the quilt were other gifts – for nieces, nephews, aunties, uncles, grandparents and cousins. 

With a rigorous lockdown in China having lifted and the COVID border closure being eased, for the first time in four years I no longer had a viable excuse to leave my parents alone for this crucial festival. This time, I have the chance to make up for the guilt of not being a 'xiao shun' – a loyal child to the family unit in Confucian thought. 

As the only daughter who has dared to leave home for years without attending Lunar New Year celebrations, I've been deemed disrespectful to my family.

Everyone has to go home for Lunar New Year. It’s an unwritten law. A tradition that can’t be broken.

As the week before Lunar New Year Eve approaches, an ancient code in Chinese DNA prompts billions of people (many scattered all over the world) to return to their hometown to partake in the festivities with family. Some may resort to creative measures like motorbike journeys to traverse the land, as they aren't lucky enough to secure tickets by flight, boat, train or bus.

We call it "Chun yun", which means the spring festival travel rush. Some scholars refer to it as, "the largest periodic human migration in the world". Local media estimates that there will be approximately nine billion visitors travelling on China's public transport system in the 40 days following the start of February in 2024.

I'm one of them, with luggage stuffed with bits and pieces of authentic Australian gifts – lanolin, vitamins, chocolates, milk powders, and, yes, a king-sized wool quilt. As I land at the airport, barely recognisable because I'm obscured by so much heavy luggage, I see my dad holding his phone and filming me as I get out of the arrivals gate.

He doesn't know how to hug. That’s too difficult a display of emotion for him. To show his affection, he can only smile warmly and squeeze my shoulder very hard, which almost hurts.

The chilly and humid air from this long-time-no-see southeast coast town pours into my nose – I'm home.

My parents always say that the festival feels 'cold and cheerless' when I'm away. 

Meanwhile Melbourne is rather warm and bustling during the festival. Anyone can easily step into the red and bright Lunar New Year decorations associated with yearly dragon sales promotions. 

I've seen far more lion or dragon dances in Australia in the last few years than I have in my entire 23-year life in China. 

As a journalist, I have felt exhausted reporting about the same cliches every year. Dragons, lions, the colours red and yellow, dumplings, arguments about the proper name of the festival. I sometimes have the illusion that I wouldn't be considered Chinese enough if I don't wave the flag to defend these traditions I never cared about before I came to Australia. I don’t even eat dumplings!

To remain calm. I rationalise with myself – the empty festival chaos will soon be over.

When I was in Australia during past Lunar New Year celebrations, I was hesitant to greet my parents on the phone during this time because I knew they felt, 'cold and cheerless'.

As family gatherings begin about a week before Lunar New Year’s Eve, my parents have previously had to witness other relatives of the same age surrounded by one or two generations of offspring, while they could only show pictures of me on their phones.

The bitterness lingered for over half of 'Zheng yue', the first month of the Lunar New Year. According to tradition, Lunar New Year celebrations conclude only after the 15th day of 'Zheng yue'. 

During this torturous period, questions bombard them like a spray of bullets: 

“When will your daughter return?” 

“Why hasn't she returned?” 

“Why don't you just ask her to come back?”

“What is she doing overseas?” 

“Why would you allow your daughter to leave like that? Is she dating? When will she bring home a son-in-law?”

I'm aware of all of this, but I'm too weak to confront it, so I opt to ignore them.

During the pandemic, no one dared say whether we would ever have the possibility of travelling freely again or speculate when family might be able to reunite. At that time, nobody knew when the lockdown would end and didn’t want to articulate their worst thoughts – fearing they might become a reality.

The fear finally settled down when, four years later, my mum proudly showed me a fridge stuffed to the brim when I arrived home in the middle of the night. It was filled with food waiting for me to eat, probably enough for 10 of me to finish in a month.

The initial days at home are filled with delightful food-only communications. Then, the exultation is soon replaced by drama. An authentic Lunar New Year wouldn't be complete without it. Like all family festivities, drama is part of the tradition.

I notice there's a strange, tense atmosphere between my parents – they haven't talked to each other much and appear to regard one another with coldness. But Chinese people never discuss the problem directly, instead, we probe through speculation and sideways enquiries.

In our urban neighbourhood, we skip elaborate rituals, opting instead for grand feasts with relatives. We hold four main family dinners, each attended by relatives from one of my four grandparents' sides. Additionally, on the eve of the festival and the subsequent night, we organise intimate family dinners with each of my parents' respective sides.

Picture reliving a dramatic family Christmas six times in two weeks. You can imagine how that scenario might spell drama.

On the second day, I don't have to imagine. Loud as the roar of a jet engine, I overhear my mum, expressing her frustration to her younger sister about their older sister’s lack of assistance in organising the family dinner.

My dad, as an obedient son-in-law, ends up taking on her responsibility. Gathering information through enquiry, it becomes apparent that conflicts with my older aunt had been brewing since the beginning of the year. My dad also feels she is ungrateful for their efforts. 

Family responsibility disputes will always ultimately make their way into arguments in the smallest unit – the relationship between spouses. Bitter words and looks are traded across the kitchen table, as husband and wife take sides.

These family dramas have been on repeat every Lunar New Year festival for as long as I can remember.

As a kid, I enjoyed going to my grandma's for Lunar New Year, because I'd leave the table early with my cousins to play. Often, after a game, when we felt tired, we'd hear yelling from the adults' table. We'd glance at each other and say, "Your dad's drunk."

Sometimes, we'd hear the yell soften with peaceful words. Other times, it escalated. One year, for instance, the dinner table was overturned.

I never knew what triggered it, but I vividly remembered both aunts crying and yelling while holding onto their husbands to usher them into the cab. At the time, both uncles wore red, sullen faces evidently trying to suppress the urge to raise their fists.

Years later, one uncle divorced my older aunt and left the family, but the fire raised from this incident still burns.

"She always says my family has no one left," I overheard my mum angrily saying on the phone. I immediately understood that she was referring to my absence. My parents are seen as having no descendants. A curse in many Chinese cultures.

In an agricultural society, a family's size symbolises its strength. A couple with just one daughter, like my parents, is already deemed to have no descendants. As they age without adult children or grandchildren around, they confront a potentially lonely and miserable later life.

I must confess, I can't help feeling a mix of sorrow and anger towards my aunt, and feel sorry for my parents.

In China, the contrast between one's real life and the perception of it by others can be paramount and dizzying. This type of perception reaches the peak of its significance during Spring Festival, when one showcases their life to relatives for a brief window of time once a year. Rumours about your life can circulate within this cluster of close and distant family contacts until the next update the following year.

Young adults like me can escape this inevitable pressure by flying off to live lives in far and distant lands. It's my parents who bear the brunt of these judgments, although they rarely mention them to me.

At this point in my life, it’s become clear to me that I have the right to pursue my life how I see fit, and most of these relatives don’t actually care about me or my parents. But still, I can't help feeling grief for my parents having to endure this routine cross-examination. 

It doesn't mean I'm willing to get involved in the drama. I take the path of least resistance by politely exhibiting good daughter behaviour at the dinner table.

If you were to ask me what the significance of returning home is for me nowadays, it's simply to help my parents navigate through these tedious and superficial family gatherings over the next half-month. 

In this festival season, when relatives ask deeply personal questions about my income, marriage status and future plans, I protect myself by warmly shielding them from the truth. They would never understand or approve of the life I am living in Australia, anyway. I have learnt the most effective method to take the sting out of these questions is to kill them with kindness and brush them off with empty chatter. This allows everyone participating in this ritual the opportunity to comfortably finish off their meals inside a dull facade of harmony. Family in name but in reality, almost strangers.

Like all of my extended cousins sitting around the table, our generation is witnessing the decline of this loose relatives acquaintance society. It is crumbling before our eyes and by the time we reach middle age and become the backbone of our respective families, many of these Lunar New Year customs inherited and sustained by an agricultural society will be a thing of the past.

We are here, for the sake of the people we truly care about, upholding fading traditions. 

If Confucius says this is not enough to make me a dutiful daughter, then to hell with Confucius.