WHY do I keep writing about festivals here? The answer is simple: Because they are literally the bane of my existence; I always screw them up. My constant musings about China’s penchant for festivals — and my total failure at understanding them in any functional way — are my cry for help, my pitiful attempt at finally understanding.
It’s therapeutic, somehow. Putting the words to paper works as some kind of release for the confusion and misery built up inside every time I stumble through another festival, making cultural mistakes as I clumsily pretend I fit in here in China, that I know what I’m doing.
Recently I wrote about my complete and utter confusion with red envelopes (hongbao) and the complicated social rules that go into the sending and receiving of those little beasts. This year I went as far as refusing to open a single one — think of how many envelopes of 1.88 yuan I missed out on!
The memory of Spring Festival and my failure to understand a key part of the experience was still fresh in my mind when I stumbled unwittingly into another trap: Valentine’s Day.
Now, I know that February 14 is that special day, and I remember seeing the build-up in stores and on TV back home in New Zealand just a few weeks ago. But somehow it didn’t even click in my mind that it might be celebrated here in China.
Before, when I royally stuffed up festivals in China, it really didn’t affect anyone but me. If I didn’t really enjoy eating mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival then no one loses out except me. But messing up Valentine’s Day, that’s a mistake worthy of execution!
I figure the reason I didn’t put two and two together is because I know that China has its very own version of Valentine’s Day in the Double Seventh Festival, or Qiqiao Jie, so named because it falls on the seventh day of the seventh month on the lunar calendar. China also has the Double Eleven festival — which used to be Singles’ Day but has now also been hijacked as a lover’s shopping spree — which leads to the sale of more products online in a single day than anywhere else on Earth.
How foolish I was to think that the wonderful people of China would give up another opportunity to express one’s love using cold, hard cash!
And so the trap was laid. I was to meet my Chinese duixiang (partner) for dinner, and stupid me thought that going somewhere nice to eat would be enough. Boy, was I wrong!
“Where’s my present?” I was asked upon first sight.
It was then and there that I realized I’d done it again, but this one I wouldn’t get out of quite as easily as refusing to open a 1.88-yuan hongbao.
The next hour was spent hearing about how I really need to understand that even Valentine’s Day is important in China, and how I really should have bought a gift, no matter how small, to express my love and appreciation.
“It’s just the thought,” I was told with a long face.
And then came the K.O. The finale. Armageddon.
Halfway through dinner a box was pulled out from Bob knows where and presented to me with that “this is how it’s done” look.
Inside, some dried flowers and a cute little teddy bear. The aroma that flew out slapped me across the face like a thousand facepalms.
It was then that I decided I may as well just go into a cave and enter hibernation for the next few months, because there is no way out of this.
So a word of warning: do your best to understand China’s many festivals — and trust me, there’s a festival for everything — but also find out which Western festivals are celebrated here.
Trust me, you don’t want to find out how I did.
Andy Boreham comes from New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, and has lived in China, off and on, for the past four years. Now he is living in Shanghai earning a master’s degree in Chinese culture and language at Fudan University. He welcomes your feedback on all of the issues he covers — you can reach him at email@example.com.