Family, Food, and Fireworks – What Chinese New Year is Really Like in China

When I first decided to go to school in Haikou to learn Chinese, I thought about flying over to Vietnam first so I could eat all of their noodles and swim in pools full of fish sauce, but in the end it seemed too complicated. To be honest, I had only talked to the family who owned the school a few times and booked some flights to get there, but that’s about it.

So this time around, instead of squeezing in one more thing like I usually do, I decided to take a more conservative route for once which gave me a few more days in the U.S. and also got me into Haikou with plenty of time to get settled in before the Chinese New Year. I was excited to celebrate my second new years of the year, this time on the other side of the world, and had no idea what to expect. But, I’ve heard nothing but good things about the holiday of all holidays in China and was ready to see how it all went down.

What is Chinese New Year?

The Chinese New Year, which is also known as Spring Festival or Lunar New Year in China, is a celebration of the end of the lunar calendar, which this year ended on January 27th (new year’s eve) and turned over to the new year on January 28th (new year’s day). Every lunar year is named after an animal and this year it’s the year of the rooster, which is one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. So, while we have aquarius, gemini, and taurus, the Chinese have animals like rooster, monkey, and pig. Basically same-same, but different.

How is Chinese New Year Celebrated?

Going into this year’s Chinese New Year I had no idea what to expect. From what my friends told me it’s like the Christmas of the Chinese culture, which to me meant that it was going to be more family-oriented than party-heavy. So, instead of raging and waiting for the ball to drop, for people here in China it’s a time of the year when they leave their cities and travel to the towns where they grew up to hang with their family.

All of the families also hang up banners and lanterns around their homes, which is super cool. I even saw a guy who was painting and selling them in an older section of Haikou.

This guy was hand painting some of the new year banners like a boss

The banners are hung up on doorways outside of homes and businesses

To me, now that I’ve been through a Chinese New Year, I feel like it’s more of a Thanksgiving that’s filled with more fireworks than you could ever imagine. It’s all about being with family, eating as much food as possible, and then doing everything you can to explode the entire country, one string of firecrackers at a time. Seriously, I can’t even put into words the amount of fireworks I’ve heard over the past couple of days. It’s incredible.

Fireworks and Chinese New Year’s Eve

My plan on new year’s eve was pretty simple since I didn’t really know anyone in Haikou and haven’t started my school yet. I was going to get up, get in a workout, find some good food, and then figure out a way to light off some fireworks with complete strangers. Seemed like a solid plan to me.

The one thing I didn’t expect is how many fireworks I would be hearing over the next 48 hours. I thought there would be some going off, but hot damn — it started early on new year’s eve and only got crazier as the clock got closer to midnight. The first fireworks I heard were around 10am and there were so many going off in a row that I thought it was just raining really hard outside. But, when I looked out the window all I saw was sunshine and soon realized that it was just a ton of fireworks going off in the distance.

Here’s what they sounded like out of my window around noon on new year’s eve:

These fireworks weren’t like anything I’ve heard before. Here’s how they went down, or at least how they went down in my mind. First, someone would fire up one of these huge boxes of firecrackers that would go off for like a minute straight, non-stop. I’ve heard strings of fireworks that went on for a few seconds, but these went for much, much longer than I’ve ever heard before. Also, as they would finish up they’d get really, really loud for the last few seconds, which I’m guessing let other people know that they were done. Then, someone else would light their big ass box of firecrackers and let theirs go off for the next couple of minutes. This literally went on all day long, one right after another. Amazing.

Then, as it started to get dark outside the strings of firecrackers started to overlap each other and then eventually the real fireworks came out to play. With all of these explosions happening around me, I wanted to get into the action so I took a quick shower and headed out to see if I could light some of these bad boys off myself.

Fireworks with a Local Family

After wandering around my neighborhood and not being able to find any of the fireworks that seemed to be all around me, I saw one restaurant that was open and that seemed to have some beer. So, after walking over to it and seeing that there was at least one family eating inside, I walked in and attempted to figure out how to at least order a few beers. Luckily I know the word for beer (it’s one of the few things I already know in Chinese) and after getting that taken care of they also took me over to a big pot that was filled with different types of soups. I didn’t know what was in any of them, so I just pointed at one option on the wall and they fished it out for me.

I pointed at a number, they pulled out a pot of soup, and I ate it

As I ate the mystery soup and drank my tasty Tsingtao beer there were some fireworks going off just outside of the restaurant. As I walked outside to check them out there were several kids who were starting to light up their own fireworks.

Some random fireworks on the sidewalk, no big deal

The little kids ran around with sparklers and the older ones helped light them while also lighting the bigger, louder, and more dangerous options in their arsenal. Initially I just stood by, laughing as the fireworks exploded close to them while they ran away, but eventually one of the older kids gave me a lighter and a sparkler as a way to tell me to join in on the fun. Don’t mind if I do.

If there’s one thing I know, it’s that everyone loves sparklers

It didn’t take long before I was digging into the rest of their stash and at one point I nearly blew up one of the little kids, but no one was hurt and the added danger seemed to make it all that much funnier as we all laughed and started lighting the next ones.

It’s not fun unless someone almost gets blown up

I was surprised at how the parents let their kids run around with lighters and hold their own fireworks even if they were super young, but I guess the kids are used to it.

Even the little kids got some sparklers

The Clock Strikes Midnight

After hanging out with the kids and after I thought it was a good idea to light off an entire box of spinners at once (it was epic, but nearly caught a kid on fire) I decided it was time to buy two more beers and head back to my place for the rest of the night. So, for the next couple of hours I chatted with some of my Chinese friends who were home with their families while we all watched the new years special on CCTV (the Chinese version of the ball dropping in NYC).

Of course, the fireworks just kept on going — this is what they sounded like around 9pm as I watched CCTV on my laptop. Notice the big explosions at the end:

I actually fell asleep before midnight, even with all of the fireworks happening outside of my window. But, just a few minutes before the clock struck midnight I was woken up due to the fact that every household in Haikou was lighting off whatever fireworks they had left. Some were just a few feet from my window, which I’m sure also played a part in me waking up before bringing in the year of the rooster.

Here’s what the fireworks sounded (and looked) like at midnight — now you see how they woke me up (WWIII, anyone?):

Happy Chinese New Year!

Overall, my second new years of 2017 ended up being a really unique experience and one that I’m sure I’ll always remember no matter how long I end up staying in China. So, happy new years to all of my Chinese homies out there and thanks for showing this American a good time!


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