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Location: Penang, Malaysia

February 07, 2008

恭喜发财! Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Happy New Year! 新年快乐! Xin Nian Kuai Le!

It's the first day of Chinese New Year today and needless to say, last night was the grand reunion dinner. Depending who you are talking to, there are many ways to explain what CNY is all about. In general, people from different cultures are usually curious about other's cultures. I have many American friends who ask me to "describe" and "explain" CNY in detail. However, the answer you get depends on who you are talking to.

The first way to talk about CNY is to tell about how it is being celebrated. Just talking about those southern Chinese, the Cantonese, the Teochews, and the Hokkiens will each tell a different version. Usually, the Cantonese will have a feast. Chicken, pork, fish, and prawns should (not must) be there on the table. Teochew people, especially those in Penang will have "steamboat", while Hokkien people will only do it big on the 8th day of CNY. This is because they only celebrate it big on the 9th day in conjunction with the birthday of the God of the Heaven.

Cantonese dialect is the most spoken Chinese language outside of China. This tells you that the Chinese diasporas are mainly from the Guangdong province. So, most often, people around the world will hear the Cantonese version of CNY. Thanks also to the help of Hong Kong movie industry. However, this is changing fast as the mainland Chinese, especially the northerners are also "everywhere" these days.

The second way to share about CNY is to tell the legend (maybe, fable) of the "nian" monster. Almost all the Chinese know this and is kept being told from generation to generation. However, those lacking of critical thinking might just take it literally and can't figure out that this story is all about surviving the harsh winter. CNY is actually the celebration of the beginning of spring. All the traditional CNY food is meant to be eaten during the winter. Just one example, Chinese sausage is a way to preserve pork. When spring comes, these surpluses will be used up for the feast.

To ease people's understanding, some people would draw a parallel to Christmas and Thanksgiving. One thing in common is the "rush home" for reunion dinner, everybody is travelling and everybody is having dinner with family members. Then, the differences. One example, they are both in red though, Santa Claus gives gifts, while the Chinese God of Wealth gives real money!!!

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