The whole nation is on the move. Factories and schools are shut down. Don’t even try to talk about genius ideas with your business partners, as all you will get are email bouncebacks along with a “Can’t we wait?” emoji (I’m sure they’ve got one). Yes, it’s that time again. Happy Chinese New Year!
One of my co-workers asked whether I would be interested in writing an article about Chinese New Year. I was thrilled. As a Chinese, there is nothing that makes me more proud than talking about my own culture. Why not?
The moment I said yes, things started to pop into my head. Food first. Fish is a must-have for New Year’s Eve dinner thanks to the similarity between its pronunciation and the word “surplus” (for wealth) in Chinese. Dumplings, which usually come in different flavor depending on the stuffing used, are one of the main food you’ll have during the Festival period. If food isn’t enough for celebration, we also have red packets, which are red envelops stuffed with money that serve as gifts to kids (what I missed the most apparently!). On the television, CCTV New Year’s Gala, which is said to be “the most watched television program in the world,” is broadcasting live on the New Year’s Eve. Outside, splendid fireworks lights up the sky just like the Fourth of July.
But wait, there’s more. My best college friend who lives in the southern China doesn’t eat dumplings for Chinese New Year. Instead, she has Tangyuan, a sweet “dumpling” that is not even close to mine. My cousins couldn’t care less about the New Year’s Gala. The show put them to sleep so they’d rather spend the night playing with their phones and sharing digital Red Packets through WeChat. Apart from China, the Festival is also celebrated in Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc., in various forms that I’m not familiar with… For the first time in life, I realized I actually know little about the Chinese New Year. There are too many nuances and how dare I speak for all?
Well, there’s an old saying: “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” Throughout my research on the Chinese New Year, I’m learning more about things that I didn’t know. However, there is a pattern, something that is common and consistent and shared by all. Food, and more food, booze, and more booze, happy grandparents, sugar-high kids, board games (not the Cards Against Humanity kind), chats with cousins and aunties who you haven’t seen for 11 months and 26 days…Sound familiar? Yes, picture it as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve rolled into one. Now, you’ve got a rough idea.
Chinese people do whatever they can to go back to their hometowns for the New Year- from buying a ticket from scalpers at several times the price, to queuing for three days, to standing for more than 20 hours in an over-packed train. Spring Festival Rush, also known as Chunyun in Chinese, is the biggest human migration on earth. This year, China expects to transport 2.91 BILLION passengers during that period, a 3.6 percent increase from last year. Imagine moving 90 percent of the population in the United States from coast to coast, now multiply it by 10, you will get what Chunyun roughly looks like. It is people’s yearning for family reunion and the respect for traditions that power the impressive mass migration. Coincidentally, this is one of the human truths that can be seen everywhere.
Brands nowadays try hard to leverage the iconic moment of Chinese New Year to win over their audience. Some failed due to their lack of knowledge. Others didn’t make it because they got lost in all those nuances. Those that excelled are brands that recognizes the differences between cultures but also stick to the human truths. As ZENO expands our global footprints, we will work with clients around the world more often. Sometimes you don’t really know the culture of other country inside out – that is okay. The acknowledgement of we don’t know everything and the courage to learn is the most critical step helping us move forward. Apart from Mr. Google and hopefully a few “culture experts” in your network, all you need is a curious heart, an open mind and some empathy. In the end of the day, we are all humans.
So next week, when you talk with your Chinese clients, wish them a happy New Year, ask a few “silly questions” and let them talk about the craziness of holidays. They will be impressed for no reason. (Wink wink).