Travel or Work in Asia? Understand That (Chinese) Lunar New Year Is All About Family

As you know, in some Asian countries all it takes is one unconscious act (ehem, mistake) to appear culturally insensitive, insult someone, or lose a friendly or business relationship altogether.  I’m from California and have resided and worked as an expat in Spain, India, mainland China, Hong Kong, and briefly in Bali so suffice it to say that I’ve made a fair share of (luckily, non-catastrophic!) cultural blunders over the years.

So when you’re travelling around Asia or doing business there, how can you be sure to put your best foot forward in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Philippines, Taiwan, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand? From what I’ve seen first-hand so far, one of the best ways is to embrace the #1 truth behind the Lunar New Year. This will surely send you down a favoured path to being respectful in the East.

#1 and Above All … Lunar (Chinese) New Year is About Family

Unlike western cultures where the new year is primarily viewed as a 1) reason to party, 2) time to set goals for the coming 12 months, and 3) reminder to hit the gym again, Lunar New Year is a very serious and honoured holiday for East Asian cultures.

Here’s what I witnessed in Beijing and Hong Kong:

  • Unless it’s financially impossible, most everyone returns to their hometown or to where their parents/the majority of their family are for the holiday. As such, this is the busiest travel period of the year, with 225 million people traveling by train, 33.5 million by coach and 35 million by plane.
  • Outside of the hospitality and retail industries, businesses shut down for the first three days of this 15 day holiday, but some for longer.
  • Families gather on New Year’s Eve for Shou Sui, the tradition of staying up together until midnight to greet the new year.
  • Since 1983, most families watch the New Year’s Eve Gala on television.  It’s a 4-hour live broadcast that is viewed at home by over 700 million people, making it 7x larger than America’s Super Bowl. I watched it last year when I was working for the Chinese pop star G.E.M. who performed on the show to see her performance.  I never once understood one word of what anyone said but I cried once during a tender bit about ‘mamas’, laughed loads because skits are quite silly at times, and was highly entertained.

How knowing this is helpful for your next trip or business dealing:

  • Personally, I always pictured Chinese New Year as this colourful, magical holiday with dragon dancers in parades and pretty lanterns…and it’s all that no doubt. However, where for many of us that might seem like the heart of the holiday, it’s not even close.
  • The New Year is serious and important and it is the #1 family holiday of the year (excluding the Spring Festival which falls exactly 15 days later, marking the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations).
  • Many Asian cultures are perceived as being more serious than westerners, whether in their behaviour or work ethic or whatever it may be. Respecting that this seriousness is built on family values and a respect for tradition (at least certainly when comparing eastern/western New Year traditions) allows us to modify our own behaviour to show respect.
  • During greetings, ask how someone’s family is doing instead of inquiring about their recent weekend, especially around THIS holiday.

You must make an auspicious start!!  So of course there is a tremendous amount of superstition surrounding Lunar New Year, and it is taken VERY seriously.   Click Here to read about wearing red, feeling the breeze, and dirty doings!

There certainly are other beautiful things about the Lunar New Year that make it such an amazing holiday (and definitely quite a bit more interesting than western New Year celebrations).  Did you know that it’s also the #1 time for giving?  Employers and businesses pass out red envelopes during this time of year that are stuffed with VERY crispy, shiny new bank notes as a way to say thanks and show gratitude.  It’s pretty awesome.

{published simultaneously on LinkedIn Pulse}

XOXO Angela

© 2016, Angela Carson and Angela-Carson.com. All rights reserved. Do not copy and reproduce text or images without permission.

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Angela Carson

At 21 I left uni, jumped into my Jeep Wrangler, and drove from my native California to live an adventure in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I've explored 32 countries on 4 continents, residing in 7 of them (currently Kuala Lumpur is my home). By day I'm a digital nomad and by night I'm a passionate storyteller. I even have a private pilot's license and was shot at once by bandits!
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