For many international students who arrived in Shanghai this past year, this was their first year celebrating Lunar New Year, also known as Spring Festival, in China. One of the most important holidays in Chinese culture, Lunar New Year is a time to gather with family and partake in a variety of festivities and traditions. This year, a number of international  students at NYU Shanghai were graciously invited by national friends and roommates to join their families in celebrating the festival. Those who have already taken Intermediate Chinese II  have learned about some of these traditions in the first unit of the class, and now they can boast of having experienced them. 

Spring Festival in Shanghai: Talitha and Jess

Jess and I first met in our freshman year during the Design Your NYU Shanghai one credit course that everyone in the Class of 2025 was enrolled in their first semester. At the time I was studying in New York and she was in Shanghai. We spoke frequently over video calls throughout that Fall semester. When I arrived in Shanghai in the following Spring semester we met in person for the first time. Since then we have become really good friends, having the opportunity to take some classes, participate in the Peer Language Mentor program, and even travel together. Thus, I was very excited when Jess invited me over to spend Lunar New Year with her family. 

I arrived at Jess’s house in the afternoon of New Years Eve, the time when the festivities generally begin. Her dad was already busy in the kitchen starting to prepare for the big New Years Eve feast, known as 年夜饭 (níanyèfàn) in Chinese. Upon arriving, the first thing we did was hang up big red couplets on her front door. After a while her grandparents arrived and we played cards before preparing to eat dinner. Over the feast which included an assortment of vegetables, meat, and fish, a must have to wish in abundance for the new year, we raised our glasses to wish each other good health and fortune in the new year. 

At the conclusion of the meal, we gathered around the TV to watch the Spring Festival evening program, which begins at 8:00 p.m. and carries on into the new year. The program has a variety of singing and dancing performances as well as short comedy skits featuring famous singers, actors, and celebrities. At midnight we sent a mix of stickers and messages to friends to wish them a happy new year. Jess’s parents gave each of us a red packet, or 红包 (hóngbāo) in Chinese, and we also sent digital red packets to friends through WeChat. 

On the first day of the new year the following day, the morning was fairly relaxed, spent sleeping in, eating breakfast, and reading. Later in the day we headed out to the Yu Garden to view all the lantern decorations. There were lanterns of every shape, size, and color imaginable. Some hung over pathways, while other larger ones acted as centerpieces. Notably, in front of the Shanghai Temple of the God there was a two story tall rabbit lantern with a whale at its side to commemorate the year of the rabbit. In the waters surrounding the Jiuqu Bridge located in the center of the plaza was an impressive display of flowers and mythical creatures. To view it, we had to stand in a line that wrapped around a few blocks for about an hour, pressed at all sides as people eagerly pushed forward. Amidst the crowd and lanterns, you could really feel the spirit of celebration. 

Although the main festivities were held on those two days, the following days saw a continuation of gatherings and activities. The feeling of gathering with family and participating in traditions felt similar to celebrating Christmas back home. Having learned about some of the ways that different families celebrate Lunar New Year, it was really special getting to actually experience it with my friend and her family. 

Spring Festival in Qingdao: Sam and Tokio

I glided into Qingdao’s new high speed rail station, got my bags, and walked out to see Tokio and his mom waiting for me. Tokio, my roommate for the first semester, had invited me to spend 春节 (Chūnjié, or Spring Festival) with him and his family in his hometown. It was late, so Tokio’s mom had made some braised pork, or 红烧肉 (Hóngshāo ròu), for dinner and we went to bed excited for the days to come.

The day before New Year’s Eve, just like we learned in Intermediate Chinese 2 “贴着福字” (tiēzhe fú zì) meaning hang up the word “Fu”, we hung up a big red 福 (fú) character on Tokio’s front door to signify good luck and fortune. We also hung lights on the windows, red packets, or 红包 (hóngbāo) on the plants, and 核桃(Hétáo, which means walnut), Tokio’s dog, got the cutest little new years outfit. At first, Hetao refused to move a muscle when it was on, but as New Years went on, he got used to it.

On new years eve, I got my first taste of fireworks for the season. It was the first time in five years that fireworks were legal in Qingdao so everyone went all out. Tokio drove us along the coast, the sky was filled with them. There was never a silent moment because so many people were setting them off. Little kids ran around cheerfully with sparklers, middle schoolers set off mini flying discs, and the adults were setting off the big boxes.We would use incense to light the fuse then sprint away in an “Oh no, this is about to explode,” fashion. While this may be normal for lots of people, coming from San Francisco, where fireworks of this size are illegal, it was crazy to experience them. 

After the fireworks, we headed home to make dumplings. I had tried Tokio’s mom’s famous dumplings once before when she sent him some during shanghai’s quarantine, but this time she taught me how to mix the filling, roll out the dough, and (attempt) to wrap them neatly. Mine were, let’s just say, subpar. After we boiled them, it was painfully obvious which ones were mine based on how empty they looked. Tokio did not miss out on the chance to point out that he could always recognize which ones were mine.

For the first day of the New Year, we went to Tokio’s great aunt’s house. She lived in a traditional courtyard style house, and we played cards, chatted with the other family members, drank some báijiǔ (白酒), and relaxed while eating amazing food. Qingdao’s specialty is seafood, meaning there were clams or oysters at every meal. As we sat in the living room we played Chinese poker, however it became clear that Tokio’s mom was very good and beat us quite a few times before I went outside with his younger cousin to set off the remaining fireworks. We also visited his grandparents the next day for lunch. Spending time with the whole family was one of my favorite parts of the holiday because it reminded me of Christmas or Thanksgiving back home. Three or even four generations of family and friends all getting together, eating amazing food, giving 红包s and gifts, and just chatting. It really gave me a sense of what Spring Festival is all about: spending time with family. So I want to say thank you to Tokio for inviting me to be a part of his family during this special time of year. It truly was an unforgettable experience with so many firsts and a lot of memories!