Twenty-four year-old He Lingling just spent her second Chinese New Year away from China. It was also her second Spring Festival in her temporary home in Cape Town, where she has been working as a teacher at the Confucius Institute at the University of Cape Town for the past year and a half. Although she badly misses her family and her hometown in a small town in Sichuan at this time of year, she has also found a sense of belonging among new friends and colleagues in a Cape Town suburb, her home away from home.
I asked Lingling what she misses most about Chinese New Year, and what her last two holidays in Cape Town have been like.
What do you miss most about home during Chinese New Year?
There isn’t one thing that I miss most about home – it’s the whole ceremony. During Chinese New Year, all my family members get home early, and we follow our grandpa to our ancestors’ graves near our house.
We bring baijiu, [white spirits] and cooked rice, and cooked meat to their grave, and then our grandpa will say something to our ancestors; he’ll welcome then back home to celebrate the new year with us. And then we can go home to eat. We think our ancestors must eat first, and only then can we eat.
Then I go to the kitchen to help my mom and grandma to cook a lot of dishes: fish, chicken, duck, beef, pork and some vegetables. We don’t eat dumplings because I’m from the south.
We eat tangyuan: sticky rice with red sugar inside. Every year, Chinese in most parts of the south will eat it. It’s a little bit complex to make it, so we usually only have it at Spring Festival.
Then we go to our yard to chat about the many things that happened this year, and our plans for the new year. We make a fire in the yard to keep warm. We watch the Spring Festival gala show, and set off fireworks at 12 o’clock.
How did you spend Chinese New Year last year in Cape Town?
I watched the Spring Festival gala on YouTube at my office with my friends and colleagues, and we had dinner together. Our director [of Cape Town’s Confucius Institute] ordered some dishes from a Chinese restaurant. There were about 12 of us. Since then, three of them have gone back to China, and so has the director.
How did you spend Chinese New Year this year?
Last night me and my friends made dumplings. All the Confucius Institute teachers who live together were at our friend Tian’s house last night. There were six of us, and seven relatives from our friend Eric’s family [who flew down from China for the holiday] – about 15 people all together.
Some of us made dumplings, and others cooked fish and chicken with potatoes and mu er [wood ear mushroom].
We toasted to the new year with red wine, er guo tou [a brand of baijiu], champagne, and fruit juice. We went home at 11:30pm because some of us had to work the next day.
Which year’s celebration did you prefer?
This year was better. I have more friends, and Tian Yu [her boyfriend] and I were together. But next year I will be back in China; I leave at the end of June. It’s time to go home now.
Not all of Cape Town’s Chinese community experienced such a festive Chinese New Year. Read the story of Ms. Fang, a middle-aged woman in Cape Town, who spent her seventeenth new year away from home.