Settling into Chinese Culture: How We Spent Our Chinese New Year in China

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Statues of children lighting fireworks - Shawan Ancient Village, Panyu, Guangzhou, China
Statues of children lighting fireworks – Shawan Ancient Village, Panyu, Guangzhou, China

It’s funny to think that when we first came to China, certain things grabbed our attention or took us off guard. Like the old lady hacking a big loogey on the ground while she walked past the kid, who was peeing in the middle of the sidewalk.  To most that would seem unusual (and disgusting). But we’ve learned, that’s day to day life in China. No one else seems to bat an eye at things sights (and sounds), but us “foreigners.” Yes, these are things we are getting use to.

We are still enjoying living in China, and the lives we are making here. My job, teaching my kids is still going well. It’s a great feeling to see how the kids are becoming more comfortable with the big blonde haired foreigner at the front of the classroom. A good example was right before the new year holiday, I had a little girl come up to me at school and wish me a “Happy New Year” in perfect English. It was a nice send off for a 2 week holiday.

My First Chinese Holiday Party, and I Won an Award!

Happy New Year Cheers
There are endless toasts at a Chinese special event dinner. As a host, you better know how to handle it because you are expected to toast everyone!

My company, First Leap, celebrated the New Year by getting all the teachers and staff together for a big company dinner. This was a company party / dinner like no other I’ve been a part of before.  It was so much fun for everyone to get together for drinks, lots of food, laughter, and playing games. One thing we’ve learned is that the Chinese love their games…and we love that!

So much food
Love the concept of spinning the wheel for food — and they just kept adding more and more all night!

When it comes to dinner, “family style” eating is extremely popular in China.  In fact, it’s practically the norm, especially in southern China with its Cantonese heritage. Back in the states, a company dinner would be a buffet or possibly some plated options, but it’s family-style in China – even for a company meal. Tons of food is ordered – of all varieties.  It is all set in the middle of the table on a giant “lazy-susan” type wheel that you can rotate whenever you want food.  The waiters were constantly bringing more food too!  It seemed to never end.

Having everyone at round tables, You could more easily see people at the table and make toasts. In fact, there are a lot of toasts. Usually the host of the event, which were our friends Gigi and CJ, make the toasts and go around and toast with everyone at the dinner. A great Chinese tradition.

Josh getting an award
My first Chinese teaching award!

Being a company end-of-year event, there were of course a few business items to speak about.  This included a review of the year and hopes for the next year, which we couldn’t quite understand because it was all in Chinese.  Luckily, some of our Chinese friends at the table gave us a quick summary in English.  And of course, there were rewards handed out.

I was surprised to receive an award from my school, for having the “Best Greeting”. This was truly unexpected and brought a huge smile to my face. It makes for a great souvenir to bring back home and to remember the good times I had in China teaching English, even tough I cannot read what it says because it’s in Chinese!

Chinese Games
The director of my school being a “good sport” & picking an embarrassing punishment out of a box for losing a round in a game.

After we had all had a bit of food and lots of wine, it was time for the games. This was our favorite parts, and probably one of our favorite aspects about the Chinese Culture.  They enjoy games, and laughing together, even at other people’s expense — as long as it’s in good fun and in the presence of friends and family.  But the thing that struck us is how everyone is “good sports” about it, even if they have to embarrass themselves.

It was a little tough to understand what was going on, since we are not fluent on our Chinese, but our friend and co-worker Jimmy was there to explain. Basically, if you lost while playing the game then you had to pull a piece of paper out of a box and perform whatever type of embarrassing activity that was written on it.

Time for a little dancing at the company party!

For example, the director of the school had to run around the tables chanting some kind of song (we don’t know what it was, but it seemed quite embarrassing), while everyone laughed hysterically.  And another teacher had to go into the bathroom and sing loud enough for all of us to hear — until we deemed it good enough to let him come out.  I mean, I would have never seen this at a company party back home in the States!

It seems like the Chinese are up for just about anything, and that’s what we have really come to enjoy about being here.

Dancing for NY Party
Trying to match the on-screen dance moves!

There was also some dancing, which I was able to get involved in. I have never been known as the shy one, so I busted out my dance moves to some strange video on the tv of businessmen on a big stage, dancing some crazy dance. Yeah I have no idea what it was all about, but it was loads of fun – and everyone seemed to get  kick out of trying to emulate the dance moves of these guys on the screen.

Hong Kong Trip and Visa Run

Views of Hong Kong at night from the top of The Peak lookout.
Views of Hong Kong at night from the top of The Peak lookout.

Liz and I had to pop over to Hong Kong to take care of my updated working visa here in China, and it just happened to fall over the Chinese New Year Holiday. This was good and bad. Good because there were a lot of festivities taking place in Hong Kong, but this also meant a lot of crowds for traveling…and very expensive prices!

Listening to audio tour on Big Bus Tour - Peanuts or Pretzels
Cruising on the top deck of the Big Bus tour in Hong Kong

I had never been to Hong Kong, so I was very excited to see it. Liz had visited Hong Kong years ago and was happy to return. It was a little colder than we had hoped, which dashed our dreams of hanging out at the beach. But we had a great time just relaxing on the Big Bus tour — riding around town checking it out.

Click here to read our story about riding the Big Bus around Hong Kong. We definitely recommend it, especially if you are short on time and want to see a lot.

We found a southern BBQ restaurant in Hong Kong & it made Josh feel right at home!
We found a southern BBQ restaurant in Hong Kong & it made Josh feel right at home!

We also went on a western food binge while in Hong Kong. Having lived in Asia for 5 months now, we definitely miss some of the food comforts of home. However since Hong Kong is so westernized (having been under British rule for so long), there is a wide variety of amazing food from all around the world. From British pub food, to Thai food, incredible burgers…and we even found a Southern US BBQ restaurant — and yes, it was AMAZING!!!

Who would pay $30 for 1 hamburger and a beer? Well after 5 months of rice and noodles, this was the BEST meal ever!

It’s surreal to think that we live in Guangzhou, China which is only 2 hours bus ride from Hong Kong. Life in Guangzhou is so “China” while in Hong Kong it is so westernized. It was refreshing for us to see clean streets (no peeing or spitting on the sidewalks here), eat some amazing western food, and speak English!


It’s comforting to know that Hong Kong is so close to us, that’s the beauty of being in Guangzhou. It’s crazy to think how in such a short distance, it feels like worlds away.

Exploring our town of Guangzhou (nearby town of Shawan)

Shawan VillageWhen you think of China, you often think of Imperial China, the classic looking villages with narrow streets and stone structures.  Of course, modern Chinese cities don’t look like this.  But there are still some beautifully preserved villages that you can visit all over the country.  In fact, one historic village is located only a couple miles from where we live in Panyu, Guangzhou.

Shawan Village - Liz

The ancient village of Shawan is just a short bus ride from our apartment.  Exploring this village immediately transports you back in time.  Yet, this village is still very much lived in!  During the day you will find tourists, and tour groups; however we visited late in the evening.  So many groups were just leaving, and we had many of the streets to ourselves.

Shawan Village kid on bike

Since we visited during the Chinese New Year celebrations, there were beautiful lanterns and decorations all over town.  They had some vendors set up in the main squares, and of course…there were a LOT of fireworks!

Dumpling Making – a Special Chinese New Year Tradition

Make a special meal of dumplings for the Chinese New Year

We have talked a lot about our “China family” while living here in Guangzhou. It’s been really great to have made a network of close friends that we consider family. They have not only made us feel comfortable and helped us to adapt to life here, but they have been great and introducing us to the culture — and proudly sharing it with us!

One example of this is when they invited us over to make Chinese dumplings for the New Year.

There are SO many traditions in China for the New Year holiday, we even wrote a post about the different Chinese New Year Traditions that we have learned about since living here.  And one example of a special tradition is making dumplings together as a family for the New Year. It is usually done with family during the holidays because many hands are needed, and it is a way to spend time together.

It can take all day to make the meal of dumplings, so it’s considered “bonding” time for everyone to pitch in and help – which is what makes it a special tradition.

CJ making Meat
Grinding up the meat the old-fashioned way. “Who needs machines?!?!”

Gigi and her husband, C.J., were great hosts. They told us that it was the first time they were making the dumplings on their own as adults. They were determined to do everything the old fashioned way, from scratch — right down to grinding the meat. “Who needs machines?” C.J. told us.

Rolling the dough 3
Rolling out the dumpling dough – it takes many hands to make so many dumplings.

We pounded and rolled out the dough, stuffing each dumpling, and folding together. It is an art form, that’s for sure! C.J. showed off his dumpling folding skills — they were impressive!  The dumplings we made were not very nice-looking, but we knew they would taste good.

Making dumplings
Our dumpling skills need work – it’s definitely an art form! Ours may not have looked nice, but they tasted just as good.

We also learned that they traditionally stuff a few dumplings with surprises, such as garlic, hot peppers or peanuts. Mixing them in with all the cooked dumplings, you don’t know which are which. The tradition says that while you are eating dinner with the family, if you bit into one of the “special” dumplings, then you will have good luck in the new year!

Good Luck Peppers 2
Hiding items such as hot peppers, garlic, and peanuts in a few of the dumplings as “good luck” to whoever might eat them!

This turned dinner into a game. Every time we would bit into a dumpling we would tell everyone whether or not we found the lucky one. The hot peppers, as it turned out, were a double-edged sword. You were lucky to find it, but they were SO hot that you almost felt unlucky to eat it! But that’s what made it so much fun.

Oh so many dumplings! We worked on them for hours, and ate too many in hopes of finding one of the “lucky” dumplings with the hot pepper inside!

Back to Work, New Website Features & Exploring More China Destinations!

Now the holidays are coming to an end here in China, and it’s time to get settled back into our Chinese routine. Not only will you be seeing a LOT of new stuff on the website in the near future, including more comprehensive vacation planning tools, but also a beefed up online store — with both gear for your travels as well as being able to actually book your trips and activities online!  We are very excited about these new features, so stay tuned!

Liz is also excited to go full-time at her teaching job at Meten, where she teaches adults.  She has been working with them for a month now as a part-time teacher.  But they have been impressed, and with the growth of the school, they were approved to hire her full-time!

We are also looking forward to diving into our own “bucket list” of places to see in China.  There are so many beautiful places.  Now that things are settling down, we hope to take some weekend trips to explore.  We are also preparing for Liz’s parent’s and aunt to visit us later this summer — so we are looking forward to their visit and showing them around to some of the great places that we’ve found.

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