My First Chinese New Year

"When a dish is finished, you don’t take it off the table, you stack the next dish on top of it, and it seemed that night that Bill’s father was determined to stack our dishes to the ceiling." Senior Sevi Reyes chronicles his trip to his freshman year roommate 陈震宇 (Bill)'s hometown over Chinese New Year.

“Hey, we should go to Hongqiao station together!”– I was hanging out with a study away friend of mine on Feb. 13th, the night before we left for our Chinese New Year breaks. She had a 高铁 (speed train) leaving Hongqiao around 50 minutes after mine that afternoon. It was her first time taking any train out of town, so she wanted to be accompanied by someone who had ridden a train before, in case she had trouble retrieving her physical ticket at the counter.

Surprisingly enough, the Hongqiao station was not crowded at all that day, and it only took me and my friend 5 minutes to collect our physical train tickets at the counter. And not long after that, I said goodbye and 新年快乐 to my friend, then hopped on my train to Hangzhou.

I had forgotten how fast those trains were. They travel at over 250 kilometers per hour (or 150 miles per hour). Staring out the window and seeing the cars on the highway just fade away as we zoomed by, I was wondering how my first authentic Chinese New Year would be. And exactly 47 minutes after my train departed, I arrived in Hangzhou. I WeChatted my friend, “hey, I just got here! I bet you haven’t even left Hongqiao yet.” She hadn’t.

Another friend and my first roommate at NYU Shanghai, 陈震宇 (Bill), met me at the station that afternoon. He drove me to the hotel that he booked for me when he first hosted me in Hangzhou freshman year. It was good to be back, but I remember it being much colder than during my first visit. His parents were waiting to greet me at the hotel lobby. I hadn’t seen them for almost two years, and the feeling of finally seeing them again after all that time was so reminiscent of that feeling I get every time I return home after a long semester at school. Bill’s parents checked me in at the hotel then walked me up to my room. They told me to relax and meet them at the hotel banquet hall for 年夜饭 (Chinese New Year dinner) in an hour or so.

I thought it would be me, Bill, and his parents for dinner, but instead I walked into the banquet hall with his grandparents, his aunt and uncle, and his little cousin. The dinner was extremely festive — to say the least. Dish after dish was sent out from the kitchen onto our table. Have you ever eaten family style with a Chinese family? When a dish is finished, you don’t take it off the table, you stack the next dish on top of it, and it seemed that night that Bill’s father was determined to stack our dishes to the ceiling. I was stuffed and I was also quenched by the end of the night, a bit tired, too, but only from all the laughter. As we were saying our goodbyes, Bill and his little cousin started receiving their red envelopes from their grandparents and their uncles and aunts. I was only standing up from my seat when Bill’s father and grandfather each handed me my own 红包s. I was so surprised. I felt like a kid again and like it was Christmas time.

We spent the next two days wandering around Hangzhou. Bill’s family had made it clear that I was their guest, and I was not to pay for anything– food, drinks, not even my hotel. They took me to the classic tourist spots in Hangzhou like West Lake, Hangzhou Restaurant, and a small shrine on a hill overlooking the entire city. Hangzhou is so much quieter than Shanghai. Bill told me that news reporters were comparing Shanghai to New York once, and Hangzhou officials jumped into the conversation. The officials said that if Shanghai was New York, then Hangzhou would be Boston. I was still thinking about that analogy when we left for Ningbo early the next morning– if only it took 47 minutes to get from New York to Boston instead of 3 or 4 hours.

Bill drove me and his parents to Ningbo, his father’s hometown, where we spent the weekend of the Chinese New Year Holidays. We checked into this super bougie hotel in the center of the city, which really freaked me out for a second because I knew that Bill’s parents wouldn’t let me pay for even a fraction of it. But apart from the lavishly decorated lobby, and the bright room with high ceilings, I loved staying at that hotel because I got to be Bill’s roommate again. Bill’s parents got a room to themselves while Bill and I got a room to ourselves. It was just like freshman and sophomore year again, and I hadn’t realized until that point how much I missed having Bill as a roommate.

We had our next Chinese New Year meal the day we arrived in Ningbo. This time, I met Bill’s grandmother on his father’s side and also the families of his father’s two siblings. We had lunch at Bill’s grandmother’s home, in which every corner of every room was decorated with a unique statue of Buddha. Bill had told me earlier that day that his grandmother was a devout Buddhist. She came over to me as I walked through the front door welcoming me with a huge, warm hug like she had known me all her life. Then she sat me down at the table and told me to prepare to eat a lot. I couldn’t believe that there were even more dishes at this lunch than at 年夜饭 two nights prior.

As I continued to fill my stomach with delicious Ningbonese delicacies, I started noticing something very telling about Chinese culture, or at least for Bill’s family. Not once did I hear Bill nor his cousins refer to each other as “little cousin” or “big cousin” in Chinese. They only called each other “哥哥”,“姐姐”,“弟弟”,or “妹妹”. Because of the one child policy, dynamics had really changed for the Chinese in my generation, but their parents encouraged them to treat their cousins like their siblings and that’s just what Bill and his cousins were doing. I felt so lucky to experience those family values so deeply rooted in Chinese culture and to experience them in such a candid and genuine setting.

Bill drove us back to Hangzhou the following Monday. I had a stomach full of food, and a heart full of love from each of Bill’s family members that treated me like I was their son, nephew, or grandson. I remember talking to Bill that day after his parents had left us to run some errands. I told him that I missed my siblings back home. I knew that being an only child, he had never experienced growing up with any siblings in the house. But I let him know that the moments we shared over Chinese New Year, those are what it feels like to have a brother.

This article was written by Sevi Reyes. Please send an email to to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Sevi Reyes

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