Chinese New Year, Year of the Dragon

Thursday, January 19, 2012

I get 9 days off from school for Chinese New Year (which is officially next Monday, January 23rd, but the holiday begins at the end of the school/work day tomorrow) ... NINE! In the Chinese classes I took in college, I heard about this mystical Chinese New Year celebration where the entire country was off for upwards of two weeks, and I thought, "Wow ... that would never happen in the U.S." 9 days isn't upwards of 2 weeks, but already I'm anxious about the celebration. I heard that nearly all of Taipei shuts down as everyone hurries back to their hometowns to celebrate the new year (the Year of the Dragon) with family.

Back home in the U.S., I hardly ever celebrate Chinese New Year. In elementary school during the uber multicultural 80s and 90s (or was that just the NYC public school system), we learned about every major culture under the sun ... I think I learned some Romanian and I definitely learned my fair share of Swahili. And Hebrew ... I think to this day I know more about Jewish traditions than I know about Chinese traditions. Back then, we celebrated Chinese New Year in school. I remember one especially harsh winter in the third grade, more than half the class did not make it to school, so my class spent the entire day working on our cardboard box dragon for Chinese New Year. In the third grade, our end-of-year Dance Festival had us doing the Chinese Ribbon Dance.

In any case, at home with my parents, celebrating the Chinese New Year meant making sure we were neatly dressed and bathed, getting a red envelope with a little money in it from family, eating Lucky candy (which I've been looking for all over here in Taipei but haven't been able to find!) and eating fish. The word for "fish" sounds exactly the same as the word for "fortune" in Mandarin, which is why fish is traditionally eaten. Man, the Chinese are superstitious ...

So this is my first time properly celebrating the Chinese New Year. I don't know what to expect, but my local friend brought us to Dihua Street, which becomes a huge food market for foods eaten during the Chinese New Year. We went on the second day the market was open, on a Monday afternoon, and still it was packed. Vendors allow you to sample anything you want, and you can eat more than a meal's share of foods just walking through the market, sampling things.

My Taiwanese-American friend told me that I should be buying things in large quantities, because the reason people shopped at this market was to stock up on foods during the new year celebration, when all the supermarkets would be closed. I left the market with a bag full of gummi candies (about $1.66 worth) and a lot of nougat (nearly $7's worth). Not exactly healthy food that will sustain me for 9 days. I can't resist nougat, though the Taiwanese version isn't exactly the same as the Italian kind I love so very much.

I bought some standard almond and pistachio ones, some cranberry and cashew ones and the darker ones have a date base with walnuts, which is less sweet and actually pretty tasty.

Both my teacher and my Taiwanese-American friend have told me that for all 9 days of the Chinese New Year celebration, you eat very, very, very well (I'm not sure what that means in my particular household, as we already eat what I consider to be very, very well) at each meal of each of the 9 days. And between meals, people snack on candies and cakes and cookies while playing mahjong and other family-centered activities. My friend said that many people gain 10-15 pounds during the break. 

Please, don't let that happen to me.

My family hasn't revealed what they are planning for the holiday, but I can tell they've been stocking up on fruits and foods. They're saving the strawberry wine I bought in Miaoli for the New Year. I've filled my hiding spaces full of snacks I know I'll enjoy, since it's unlikely I'll enjoy eating fish 3 times a day for 9 days straight.

I'll report back.

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