A 36-year-old fainted in the train headed to his hometown for Chinese New Year when he came to know that his parents had — for the nth time — fixed up blind dates for him; and a mother put out an ad in a Chinese newspaper in Australia beseeching her son to come home for New Year, promising she wouldn’t pressurize him to marry.
Such are the tensions of what was once an occasion for a joyful family reunion. Pictures of Spring Festival (as the New Year is known) celebrations in the 1950s and the 1960s show happy faces enjoying street performances, shopping for fruit, and children showing off their skills to fond neighbours. But there was no large scale migration to cities then, no separated families and no one-child norm. These three factors have made the Spring Festival a stressful time across classes. The poor must brave all odds, including unpaid wages and the weather — this is always a time for snowstorms — to make that long journey home, carrying tonnes of luggage for the deprived folks back in the villages. Overcrowded trains, where three sleep on a berth, and overloaded buses on jam-packed roads are the only ways for migrant labourers to go home. But even they are better off than those mothers, many of them the sole breadwinners, who haven’t been able to go home for years because they work in essential services, like railway cleaners. They can only speak to their children on the phone.
The rich have their own tensions — thinking up ways to fend off family pressure to get married/ have children (the pressure this time is to have a second child, since the government has relaxed the one-child norm)/ find a good job/ excel in university. Hiring partners is now passé; still, this year, an ad offering one-million-yuan for a PhD girlfriend, with a bonus if she was a virgin, caught everyone’s attention.
A recent New Year trend is ‘reverse migration’, where parents come down to the cities to spend Spring Festival with their kids. This is a win-win situation for all: tickets to the big metros are easier to get and cheaper; cities are less crowded with half the population having gone home; and even Beijing’s cold is preferable to the harsh winter conditions in small towns. But this again is an option only for the well-off. Also, whose parents get to come down is as difficult a question to decide as whose parents get visited. Earlier, it was taken for granted that the husband’s parents would be the chosen ones; but today’s wives are not willing to miss their only chance of meeting their parents. Apparently, this is one reason parents disapprove of their daughters marrying boys from other provinces!
The new president and prime minister followed the tradition of spending New Year with those living in the harshest conditions. But the president’s anti-extravagance drive had some unusual spin-offs. Garbage dealers complained that with the reduction in gifting of luxury goods, the amount of “quality garbage’’ had dropped by half. Mid-level government functionaries posted in popular tourist destinations could go home for the first time in years. Earlier, they had to spend New Year attending to the needs of senior officials who would descend on these destinations for a bash. But the latter were not completely deprived of New Year benefits. A Beijing survey showed that children of senior officials received far more “lucky money’’ in Red Envelopes (gifting cash in red envelopes is a New Year tradition) this year than before.
Traditional celebrations were affected this time by another factor — pollution. Children wore masks while lighting firecrackers, considered a must for New Year. Some cities banned firecrackers, in others, the ban was self-imposed. Pollution also put paid to the tradition of hanging out salted chickens to dry — a New Year delicacy!