都说年味在乡村最浓，但从我记事起，爷爷奶奶搬出了世代居住的祖屋，搬到了县城。于是，一大家子人热热闹闹挤在那栋瘦高的水泥建筑里，就成了我最深刻的“年味”记忆。 奶奶生了六个儿子，在最齐盛那些年，除夕头一天，六个家庭就从四面八方汇聚，小小的屋子顿时炸开了锅。那时我还小，不明白为了这一天，两位老人会提前整整一个月开始收拾屋子、采购食材、准备米酒年糕炸鱼、购买一车的金银纸钱去寺庙祷告。也不明白，在短短相聚的这几天，近30口人的吃饭、睡觉、出行需要多少复杂、繁琐的安排、准备与劳作。 孩童的无知伴随着幸福。身边的大人们熙熙攘攘，做大锅菜、打麻将、去寺庙、拜祖宗，忙忙碌碌。而小孩就像鸟儿放出了笼子，没有作业，没有父母看管，自由自在，莫名亢奋。记忆中的自己脸蛋通红，幸福得有些眩晕，空气里满是香甜。
Listen to Liang Li talk about what her family did on New Year's Eve (mostly in Chinese, interspersed with English). Intro music: "Send Him on His Way / 送那个人走“ by Li Daiguo. 10 min
Adapted into English in April 2016 by Hannah Lincoln with original author's guidance.
Everyone says the feeling Chinese New Year is strongest in China’s countryside, where sprawling extended families congregate for a week of feasting and fireworks. But my grandparents left the countryside long ago. All my early memories of New Year happened in a cramped apartment in a tall concrete building. This is what “the New Year’s feel” feels like to me.
My grandmother had six children. Our New Year holidays always had nearly 30 mouths to feed, most of them children running around while hot pots boiled, uncles drank, and aunties chattered.
Throughout my childhood, these rowdy New Year feasts slowly boiled down to just our immediate family. Looking back, this shift was much less my family’s personal decision and more a result of China’s societal changes.
As China rapidly urbanized in the 1990s, families everywhere split into their own atomized apartments. Not only did extended families split across cities in search of jobs, but immediately families split in half as parents went to work in one city while the children stayed home with grandparents. At all levels of society, the idea of "family" as including more than 7 people (4 grandparents, 2 parents, 1 child) was bowing into the past.
My mother was actually a big proponent of this trend in our family. She didn’t want the full 30 getting together every year. It’s not until recently that I’ve begun to understand my mother’s sentiment. This is the second change: a rise in individuality, replacing traditional family roles. In traditional Chinese culture, a bride marries into a new family and leaves her birth family behind. At New Year’s time, she shows her worth to her new family by cooking for the whole clan.
But today, Chinese people are marrying for love, not obligation. There are notable exceptions to this trend, but compared to traditional China, the difference is enormous. Marrying for love means the husband and wife have a more equal relationship, on the basis that they are both individuals fulfilling their dreams and not component parts fulfilling their roles. It means the wife can keep her old family while starting a new one – but in no way becomes a servant to her husband’s clan.
Between urbanization and the relinquishment of traditional roles to modern individuality, Chinese “clan mentality” has nearly entirely shattered into disparate nuclear families. Large of family tree branches have split into smaller twigs that don't touch.
I’m from the capital of Fujian province, Fuzhou, a humble city of about 7,000,000. After university, I ended up in Beijing, where I now work in consumer market research. My boyfriend and I live together, making hand-crafted furniture and hosting an AirBnB. I do community art projects and sometimes I blog. I don’t have any plans to leave Beijing.
Like many people in my generation, I used to dread going home for the New Year. The problem with celebrating a holiday with only your immediate family is that it’s only enjoyable if you have a close and real relationship with them. Many of us Chinese youth have a perfunctory relationship with our parents. We grew up under such drastically different circumstances that mutual understanding is extremely difficult. It doesn't help that Chinese people are not prone to opening up about private things, especially to their children. We fulfill our cultural obligation to respect them by answering their phone calls and WeChats. We are far from friends.
This year, I decided to try something different.
It began with my Master's research in oral history. I was asking many people about their family's histories, passed down through stories, but I knew nothing of my own. Even as a professional anthropologist, I was too awkward to ask my parents about their lives.
New Year’s Eve (春晚) is the pinnacle event of the holidays, when families eat together and watch the national televised New Year opera. It’s as boring as it sounds. This past New Year’s Eve, I told my family we were going to do a “family workshop.” What’s a workshop? I’ll show you, I said, handing out sticky notes. First, write down on a sticky note the biggest change you’ve had in the past year. Then share.
“Can we not do this?” My 18-year-old brother whined.
To my surprise, my mother was first to volunteer. She handed me her sticky note: “This year I got busy.” Got busy doing what? She said, “Since your brother went off to college, I’ve had time to open a business.”
“Mom, you opened a business?”
My mom is co-manager of a mahjiang parlor for other retired women. My Dad is also retired, now part-timing in the management of construction projects. “This year I got younger,” he wrote. My little sister, about to graduate university and in the thick of job-hunting, wrote, "I learned to not worry." My little brother wrote one phrase on his Post-it: “Haha.”
Had we not held this family workshop, I probably would never have learned my mom opened a business or that my sister was wise beyond her years. Everything we ever talk about focuses on our surface-level well-being – when Mom calls, it’s always “Did you eat yet?” and “Are you warm enough in Beijing?” and “Have you bought any new clothes lately?”. She never thinks to talk of herself, and we children never felt comfortable or brave enough to turn the tables and ask.
It was a big breakthrough in our communication, but still too serious. A little later, I pulled out a deck of Dixit cards. My dad took one look and said, “I can’t play whatever game that is.”
“Dad, it’s not hard. It’s just young people’s mahjiang.”
It was nothing like mahjiang, but the reference put him at ease. He took a seat next to me, and my mother came over too. She picked out a card, considered it, then said, “This card is about parents’ magic.”
How fitting, I thought, throwing a card in the pile. When everyone threw a card in, we shuffled, and laid them out. The goal was to guess which one was the original one – the one that made my mother think of "parents’ magic."
This game requires a very good understanding of the other person’s life context, and it says a lot that none of us, not even my father, picked her card correctly. Her card was the image of a Rubric’s Cube.
She explained, “When I was young, during the Great Leap Forward, we were always hungry. And my parents always had a way of finding food for us. It was like they had food hidden away in draws or corners somewhere that only they could find. They always figured out a way for us.”
We all know about the Great Leap Forward as the time of empty stomachs. We know about it, but never talk about it. I never expected my mother to bring it up so candidly and immediately, like it was sitting on the front of her mind all these decades. All it took was a simple card game to bring that memory to light.
There is one thing that I envy about my parents' generation: that to express their love for each other, all they have to do is talk about food -- "Did you eat yet?" But for their children, for my generation, who are supposed to be all about self-expression, we hit a wall when it comes to expressing love back to our parents. Perhaps our biggest cultural obligation now is to be pioneers on the frontier of China's familial culture. To figure out the best way to say back to them, "I've eaten already, and I love you too."