Life and Language Around Chinese New Year—An Eyewitness Report From China

Although I have been to China once or twice a year regularly, but for the first time in the 21 years I have lived in the U.S., I went to China for Chinese New Year. The reason for not making this trip earlier? Because Chinese New Year is awkwardly timed to the bustling beginning of the Spring semester for U.S. schools.

I could only squeeze out one week and I intended to see as many relatives and friends as possible, but the main focus was my 80-year old father. But I was able to visit Beijing, a little town in Sichuan province, a little town in Shangdong province where my father lives, and Shanghai.

As always, I was struck by how lively and flexible the Chinese language is, and how subtle the cultural differences are. I wrote on flights and trains, and the result is a collection of language and culture snapshots made to share with you.

An Informal Way to Apologize and to Accept Apologies

The flight from Beijing to Chongqing was full of people returning home for Chinese New Year. I was standing in the aisle trying to get back to my seat, I squeezed myself to the side to give way to two flight attendants pushing a beverage cart down the aisle. One of the cart bumped into me by accident and the flight attendant quickly apologized with "不好意思!" (bù hɑ̌o yì si), and I automatically replied "没事儿" (méi shì er).

In Chinese classes and textbooks, we learn "对不起" (duì bù qǐ) as "I'm sorry" and  "没关系" (méi guān xì) as "Not a problem."

However, more often than this, people in China use "不好意思!" (bù hɑ̌o yì si) and "没事儿" (méi shì er) to express and accept apologies. "不好意思!" (bù hɑ̌o yì si) literally means "I'm embarrassed," and here it probably indicates that one feels sorry for his or her actions. "没事儿" (méi shì er) literally means "It doesn't matter." 没 (méi) comes from 没有 (méi yǒu) which means "without" or "there isn't." 事 (shì) comes from 事情 (shì qíng) which means "things" or "matter." 儿 (er) is simply the "er" sound added to the end of many words, a hallmark of Beijing Mandarin.

If a big apology is owed, one can say, "太不好意思了!" (tɑ̀i bù hɑ̌o yì si le), using 太 (tɑ̀i) to emphasize the degree. If the other party wants to emphasize that it is not a problem at all, he/she tends to say "没事儿, 没事儿!" (méi shì er), repeating the phrase is also a way to show the degree.

Asking Other People to Give Way to You

China is known to be crowded and it is more so around Chinese New Year. To ask others to give way to you in a crowded place, in English, we say "Excuse me," in Chinese, people say "让一下。" (rɑ̀ng yī xiɑ̀) which literally means "give yield for a little bit."  让 (rɑ̀ng) means "let" or "give way/yield," "一下" (yī xiɑ̀) means "just for a little bit." 

Often I hear people shouting "让一下, 让一下!" It doesn't sound rude to me, particularly when I see that the speaker is in a rush.

To make the phrase sound more polite, technically, one can say "请让一下。" (qǐng rɑ̀ng yī xiɑ̀), adding 请 (qǐng), but that sounds somewhat bookish, and I rarely hear that. Instead, people tend to say "劳驾, 让一下。" (lɑ́o jiɑ̀ rɑ̀ng yī xiɑ̀).

Of course, not every Chinese person follows these rules.

On the same flight from Beijing to Chongqing, I was sitting in the aisle seat in a row of three seats trying to send out a text message to a friend who will be picking me up in Chongqing, when suddenly I heard, "站起来!" (zhɑ̀n qǐ lɑ́i) which literally means "stand up!" A man in his early 30's with a short haircut standing in the aisle had asked me to let him pass by to get to his seat.

The literal translation of 站起来 (zhɑ̀n qǐ lɑ́i)—stand up—doesn't sound polite. However, in the Chinese language it sounds less rude than its English equivalent, because Chinese people often use very direct talks. Therefore, someone saying "Stand up!" may be just as friendly and well-intentioned as someone who uses a longer phrase.

I got up and let the man pass. It turns out that I was right, this man was not rude and we had a nice conversation. He's from Heilongjiang Province (northeastern province bordering Russia), an area that is very common for people to use very direct talks.

After our little chat, the next time he needed to get pass me he said, “进去!” (jìn qù), which means “enter.” The first time around he used 站起来 (zhɑ̀n qǐ lɑ́i), which was an "order" for me to do something. This time he used a phrase that described his "intended action," because according to him the second way was more polite than the first.

Friends Treating Each Other

Two women just passed by me on the flight. One said, "昨天应该请你。" (zuó tiɑ̄n yìng gɑ̄i qǐng nǐ). 请 (qǐng) means “please”, “invite” or “treat”. In China, I most often hear it being used in the context of "请你"(qǐng nǐ), which doesn’t mean “invite you,” but means “to treat you (to something).” So, the woman actually said, “I should have treated you yesterday.”

In most parts of China, people are still not used to the Go-Dutch style of paying for a shared meal. When it comes to paying the bill, often a scene of several people fighting to pay for the bill, shouting, “我请你, 我请你!” (wǒ qǐng nǐ)—I treat you. I participate in this activity sometimes but can rarely win. The how-to-win-the-bill strategies have escalated over the years, so much so that often there isn't even a chance to fight, because the bill is already paid for out of sight during someone's "bathroom trip," so I didn't even get to see the bill.

Referring to One's Spouse

I was walking down the stairs at the Beijing Capital Airport, dragging my two small suitcases, when a man holding a baby in his arms said to an airport clerk who was checking his tickets, "我老婆还在后面呢" (wǒ lɑ̌o pó hɑ́i zɑ̀i hòu miɑ̀n ne)—"My wife is still behind."

婆 () is a slang for “female”; 老 (lɑ̌o) often means “old” and sometimes “the”; 老婆 (lɑ̌o )—the female (in the household)—is how many men refer to their wives.

The men use it when they refer to their wives in the third person, just like what was said to the airport clerk. Another example: on the flight, two men were sitting behind me, chatting. One said “我老婆已经回家过年了。” (wǒ lɑ̌o pó yǐ jīng huí jiɑ̄  guò niɑ́n le)—"My wife has already gone home for Chinese New Year."

Men also use 老婆 (lɑ̌o ) when they refer to their wives in the second person, such as “老婆, 我出门了。” (lɑ̌o pó wǒ chū mén le)—"Wife, I’m leaving home (such as for work)." 

Recently, I have heard that young couples, including high school students, the male in the relationship uses 老婆 (lɑ̌o ) to refer to his girlfriend to show how mature their relationship is.

The accompanying word for 老婆 is 老公 (lɑ̌o gōng)—husband. Interestingly, in modern Chinese, 公 (gōng) means "male" for animals only, while Male humans are referred to as 男 (nɑ́n). In ancient Chinese, 公 meant "male" for both animals and humans, thus, the word 老公 (lɑ̌o gōng) for husband.

Addressing Strangers

In the US, I often hear people addressing strangers as Sir, M'am or Miss. In China, it’s much less frequent to hear people addressing strangers with the Chinese equivalent of such prefixes. For example, during the entire week of travel, I was only addressed once in such a formal way. It was in the café-car of the high speed train from my hometown Shandong to Shanghai, where the attendant handed me a cup of coffee and said, "女士, 小心点, 别烫着。” (nǚ shì xiɑ̌o xīn diɑ̌n bié tɑ̀ng zhe)—"M'am, be careful, don’t burn yourself (with the hot coffee).”

女士 (nǚ shì) seems to be the most frequently used term to address female strangers. For male strangers, it is 男士 (nɑ́n shì).  士 (shì) refers to a respectable person; 女 means “female” and 男 means “male."

Sometimes people (mostly men) use more informal terms to address strangers. On the same flight to Chongqing, a man was trying to get to his seat, he said to the gentleman who was blocking his way, "来, 哥们儿, 让一下。" (lɑ́i gē men er rɑ́ng yī xiɑ́)—"Come on, brother, let me pass." 哥们儿 (gē men er) is an informal and endearing term used among guys, whether they know each other or not (similar to how English speakers use the term "bro").

Complaining About a Bus DriverHow Chinese Like to Shorten Their Sentences

In most airports for most flights in China, when you enter through the boarding gate, you don’t get into your airplane yet. There are too many more airplanes than gates. Therefore, lots of airplanes are parked in the airport like cars in the parking lots. Passengers enter the gate, walk down stairs to the ground, board a shuttle bus, which take bus-loads of passengers to where the airplanes are parked.

At Beijing Airport, I boarded such a shuttle. The ride was bumpy and when everyone was recovering after a big bump, one woman behind me said, "这车开的!" (zhè chē kɑ̄i de).

This caught my attention because I suddenly realized that such a phrase is so often heard but almost never appeared in a Chinese language textbook because this phrase is the shortened version of a full sentence with many elements dropped.

What the woman meant when she said, "这车开的!" (zhè chē kɑ̄i de) is "这辆车是怎么开的?" (zhè liɑ̀ng chē shì zěn me kɑ̄i de)"How is this bus driven?" She was not requesting any information but simply used the shortened version and not the full to complain about how the driving is done in such an unacceptable way.

这 means "this"; 辆 is the classifier for vehicles; 怎么 means "how"; 车 means "vehicle"; 开 means "drive." 

Chinese people are notorious for trying to make their sentences short. Thus, we have the short version that is substantially shorter. If you say the full version, people understand you. If you say the short version, you sound authentic just like the locals.

Offering Support to a Fellow Passenger

To continue with the story of poor driving at the airport, a young woman almost fell to the floor on the bus during that bumpy ride, but a middle-aged women who was holding onto a pole said calmly to the young woman, "没事儿, 你抓住我就行” (méi shì er nǐ zhuɑ̄ zhù wǒ jiù xíng)"It will be OK if you hold onto me."

Again, 没事儿 (méi shì er) means "there isn’t an issue here"; 抓住 (zhuɑ̄ zhù) means "hold onto"; 我 (wǒ) means "I"; 就行(jiù xíng) "it’ll be OK." 

On New York City subways, I have seen people act electrified when other people grab onto them in such a situation. Chinese people are much more comfortable with physical contact with each other. After all, there are so many people around and they have all learned to adapt to crowds.

How Chinese People Express Their Emotions

I have two close friends, a couple by the name of Mr. and Mrs. Kuang, both are 80-years old. They opened their door to me when I first left  from a little town in Shandong Province to the big city of Beijing for college. I was lonely and would spend most weekends with them. The quiet, family-type of time away from the bustling dorm was largely responsible for a lot of my psychological growth during my college years. How did I get to know them? The wife, Mrs. Kuang, was my father’s colleague back in the days when my father young, and she and I only met for the first time when I went to college.

They were one of my reasons to visit Beijing during this trip. It was my last day in Beijing and in order to be able to spend more time with them, I stayed overnight in their apartment instead of a hotel. The next morning I had an early 8:30am flight to Chongqing and wanted to leave the apartment around 6:00am to catch the airport shuttle, I insisted that they not wake up to say goodbye. 

However, at 5am, both of them woke up. After washing up, they each grabbed a suitcase of mine and walked out of the door with me in the dark. It was a long walk to the bus station. We even had to go through a long underground tunnel to cross a big street. 

Once we got there, Mr. Kuang directly purchased a ticket for me before I even found out where to buy the ticket. When the bus arrived, before I realized what happened, they were already sitting down with me in the bus. He bought three tickets and intended to send me all the way to the airport, without even telling me.

We had a peaceful and sweet hour on the bus. They continued to push my suitcase for me at the airport. After having waited on me to get my boarding pass and check in my suitcases, Mr. Kuang treated me with a nice cup of coffee, which cost him 20 yuan. Between the fare for the shuttle bus and coffee, they spent close to 200 yuan, equivalent to someone having a monthly salary of $3000 USD spending $200 on sending a friend away. 

When it was time to say goodbye, I expressed to them my feelings of guilt and gratefulness at the same time to have let them get up so early, make such a long trip to the airport, and to have spent so much money.

After hearing my statement, Mr. Kuang simply said, "花钱买时间。" (huɑ̄ qiɑ́n mɑ̌i shí jiɑ̄n).

花 (huɑ̄) in this case means "spend" and not "flower"; 钱 (qiɑ́n) means "money"; 买 (mɑ̌i) means "buy"; 时间 (shí jiɑ̄n) means "time"—"Spending money to buy time (together)."  

Traditionally, when it comes to expressing emotions, Chinese are very conservative. They are known for having a hard time saying “I love you.” Strong emotions are expressed through very curt language and assertive actions. I’m lucky to have a moment truly embraced by Chinese culture.

To Express the Sense of Feeling Privileged

I landed in Chongqing, a city in Southwestern China that I had never been to. I went to visit a friend who was in the middle of a long reunion with his wife’s family there. 

It was 11:30am in the morning. My friend and another middle-aged man with glasses were waiting for me. I shook hands with my friend, then with this man. I knew they had driven 3 hours to come to pick me up and that they could simply have me arrange a car service on my own instead. I thanked this man for picking me up. He said with a sincere smile, "很荣幸。" (hěn róng xìng).

很 (hěn) means “very”; 荣幸 (róng xìng) means "honor."

What did I do to deserve such treatment? To have a company's executive feel "honored" to drive hours on the crowded highway just to pick me up? A Chinese in China would not ask such questions. A Chinese in China would know that, to this executive of a company, I represent the highest level of educational achievement—I have a Ph.D. and I’m a teacherso there must be lot of knowledge is my head, and "knowledge" deserves respect.

On the morning of my departure from Chongqing, this man and my friend got up at 5am, and drove me to the airport. On the way, we talked about the NGO's (Non-Government Organizations) in China; how Sichuan barely survived the Japanese invasion; the Nazis and the "Milgram Experiment" which revealed human cruelty as being an instinct.

At the airport, I shook hands with this man to thank him for driving me to the airport. He again said, "很荣幸。" (hěn róng xìng).

To Leave a Meal Table Politely

My friend’s wife is one of four children in a family and her mother is one of five children in her family. For Chinese New Year, the old tradition was for each household to treat relatives with a big banquet. After they had realized that it was hard for all families to get a turn, they extended this period to the days before Chinese New Year.

On the day I arrived, for dinner, it was my friend's mother-in-law's brother's (let's call him "uncle") turn to host the banquet. He had announced that the time was 5pm in a restaurant. Busy showing me around the town and the beautiful hilly farming fields, my friend and his wife maneuvered in the family to try to get the host to agree to let us join them later than 5pm. The answer was "No" because this uncle liked everyone to be punctual for family gatherings. He used to chastise the ones who came in late by saying that they shouldn’t have come at all.

We managed to show up just a few minutes late. Three round tables were already full of people and local Sichuan dishes. We were ushered to the table full of darkly-clothed older men with hats. As I sat down, they all smiled and nodded at me. I ate and tried to strike a conversation with them. They all spoke Sichuanese, so the only conversation I managed to make was with a man next to me. He asked me whether I could speak the Sichuan dialect. I said I couldn’t but reassured him that I could understand it. Then, in Mandarin, I proceeded to ask him about his relationship with the host, but failed to make him understand the question. I tried very hard to think of something nice to say in Mandarin to thank the host, but he focused on the food the entire meal, just like the others.

As I was agonizing about this, suddenly, the uncle turned his head to me, flashing a big friendly smile. I was so excited thinking the host has something to say to me! Then he said, "慢慢吃。" (mɑ̀n mɑn chī) and left his seat.

慢 means "slow" and 吃 means "eat." In the English-speaking context, one would say, "May I be excused?" to leave the table during a meal, in Chinese, it’s "慢慢吃"—"eat slowly." The person leaving the seat expresses his or her wish to the remaining people that they would take their time to enjoy the meal.

The Ultimate Care For A Guest

In comparison to other Chinese provinces, Sichuan is nested in the mountains making it hard to get to and as a result has sheltered the province from many wars that plagued Chinese history. And probably also the reason the province has become the most populated in China. My friend’s wife's family is a good example of this type of large families that is very common in China.

The need to feed many mouths in a household has made Sichuan people ingenious in making food. The men tend to be good cooks or at least like to hang out in the kitchen with their wives. The women handle food for most of the time they spend awake. From scratch, they make sausages, cure racks of pork and ducks, pickled vegetables and tofu. They raise and slaughter chickens by themselves to put the meat on the table. They peel and chop sugar canes to eat as desserts or snacks. Ingredients for cooking are around all the time and at any moment of the day, a Sichuan woman can whip up a meal for you. 

I got into long chats with members of the host family about their lives, often late into the night. Reliably, my friend’s mother-in-law would pop up, leaning towards me and with the most as-a-matter-of-fact look as well as the kindest look, and she would say to me, "你想吃点什么? 我给你做。" (nǐ xiɑ̌ng chī diɑ̌n shén me wǒ gěi nǐ zuò)—"What do you want to eat? I’ll cook it for you." 

Living a busy life in New York City, skipping a meal or two is a routine. Here, not only did I get my three meals a day, my business of eating was taken care of any moment of the day by the most capable hands. I was drunken in the feeling of nourishment.

The Highest Compliment I Received 

I saved the most important days of this trip for my father—the days before and after Chinese New Year. At family reunions during the Chinese New Year, adults tend to be busy talking to each other, leaving children alone to fend for themselves. At such a gathering in my father’s home, I organized three 6 and 7 year old children to play games. I explained the rules of the game “Freeze” and we ran around in the yard, around women bringing dishes to the table. There were screaming, laughing and falling to the ground. I then introduced two Chinese games that they had never played. I have found that Chinese children are very easy to entertain and they enjoy group games tremendously. 

While playing, I got them to revise the rules, to create rules and agree on prizes for the winner and punishments for the losers. I coached them to say the English word “freeze” because they mispronounced the word by completely ignoring the "r" and "z" sounds and ended up saying “fee” instead (this is an adaptation to the Chinese sound system).  

After the gathering was over, one of the girl’s mother came to me and said that her daughter said to her, "那个阿姨太好玩了!" (nɑ̀ gè ɑ̄  yí tɑ̀i hɑ̌o wɑ́n le)—"That auntie is really fun." 

I consider that to be the highest compliment I have received during this entire trip to China.