Celebrating Chinese New Year in a Multicultural Family
Pre-Chinese New Year Preparation
Roughly five to seven days before New Year’s Eve, most people in Taiwan will start to thoroughly clean their houses, representing sweeping away bad luck, bidding farewell to the old year, and getting ready to welcome in the New Year with a clean environment.
New Year Shopping 辦年貨 bànniánhuò
In addition to cleaning and decluttering the house, most people will also start the New Year shopping, such as food for the reunion dinner, as well as fruits, flowers, decorations, snacks, and new clothes. There is a tradition of wearing new clothes during the New Year; it symbolizes a fresh start. Therefore, everything you wear ideally is all new and preferably red.
Families will also put up decorations like Spring Couplets, expressing happiness and hope for the coming year. The couplets vary in content and style and can be poetic and calligraphic art.
Chinese New Year’s Eve
Some traditional families will wake up early in the morning on New Year’s Eve. It is a family tradition that all members meet at the ancestral shrine to honor the previous generations before a new year begins. The purpose is to practice gratitude and ensure the continuation of the family line.
Later that afternoon, family members will start to arrive at their parents’ home to join the reunion dinner. The Reunion dinner on Chinese New Year’s Eve is one of the most significant events during the New Year. Many people have gone through traffic and traveled a long distance to attend this meal.
One of the main activities on the eve of Chinese New Year is to guard the year (守歲shǒusuì). According to tradition, children should stay up as late as possible to send off the old year and welcome the new. It is said to bring longevity to one’s parents. The longer you stay up, the longer the parents will live.
Red envelope : 紅包 hóngbāo
Besides a table of delicious food, the family spends quality time watching New Year’s TV shows, or playing card games or mahjong. The elderly family members will also hand out a red envelope (紅包 hóngbāo) enclosed with lucky money to the younger generation, a symbolic blessing for a good year to come. Over the course of the two weeks of Chinese New Year, most people will continue to give the red envelope to (younger) friends and family.
Chinese New Year Celebration
On the first day of the New Year, we wear new clothes, preferably in red. We greet 恭喜發財 “gongxifacai” to people you see, wishing each other good luck and happiness in the New Year.
Many Taiwanese will also visit temples. Some arrive at temples shortly after midnight to be the first prayers of the new year. However, most people wait until the morning to pack into the crowded temples to thank God for their blessings in the past year and to pray for good fortune throughout the upcoming year.
The Lantern Festival
The Lantern Festival (元宵節 yuán xiāo jié) is a traditional Chinese festival celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first month in the Chinese lunar calendar, during the full moon.
On the night of the Chinese Lantern Festival, streets are decorated with colorful lanterns, often with riddles written on them. People eat sweet rice balls called tangyuan, watch dragon and lion dances, and set off fireworks.
Teaching Multicultural Kids About the Chinese New Year
I grew up in Taiwan before moving to Spain, and the Chinese New Year has played an essential element in my life. It is the time when families join together with joy and love, similar to Christmas in Western countries.
Being in Spain gives me a new perspective on how we should celebrate and pass on the tradition to my multicultural children. My main goal is to balance tradition with modernity. As a multicultural family, we build our cultures and celebrate in our way. Moving to Spain certainly makes the celebration more challenging, and most of our family members are overseas. However, it does not stop us from introducing Chinese New Year to our multicultural children.
Introducing some of the key elements of the Chinese New Year can still be done in a foreign country. The following are a few tips for celebrating Chinese New Year with your multicultural children.
Involve Kids with the Chinese New Year Cleanup and Decoration Activities
Cleaning the house is one of the Chinese New Year traditions. In many Taiwanese families, the majority of the cleanup work is done by mothers!! However, cleanup activities can be fun and a great way to educate children about the Chinese culture and getting organized.
According to research, children from two to three-years-old love to imitate their parents. Household activities are among the actions young children love to imitate , such as sweeping and mopping the floor. Therefore, as part of introducing the Chinese New Year traditions, let’s make this cleanup more than just “picking up the toys.”
Make It Fun
Parents can assign kids age-appropriate chores. The clean up activity can always start with a simple task, and adopt new ones slowly. If the cleaning task is too challenging, perhaps provide rags or a small duster as an alternative. Through these activities, you can also demonstrate how to use the tool properly using simple vocabulary.
Children’s learning ability is unlimited. However, keep in mind that even if they want to help, the results may unintentionally become a disaster; for instance, broken glasses, flipping the trash can, wet clothes, etc. Take a deep breath, make sure there is no injury to the children, and direct them to the proper cleaning method.
Don’t get stressed out whether they are just trying to play or want to help. Children sense the parent’s anger and anxiety which may also affect their emotions. Remember, this is part of the learning process; Take this opportunity to show children that all men make mistakes, and learn to accept and fix them. On the other hand, when children complete a task, draw their attention and encourage them to take pride in what they have accomplished.
Learning Chinese New Year’s Chinese Characters
Being a multilingual child, Chinese New Year is definitely tackling the Mandarin part of language learning. Research shows that children can learn Chinese characters naturally by the age of three, just like the other objects in daily life.
Generally, children between ages three and six begin to develop reading skills, though some may be ready earlier or later than that range. However, it’s never too early to introduce Chinese characters to multilingual kids. In Taiwan, children see Chinese characters everywhere! But in Barcelona, we need to make an extra effort to expose our multilingual kids to more Chinese characters.
90% of Brain Growth Happens Before Kindergarten
Ibuka Masaru (1986), the founder of Sony Corporation, is also a well-known Japanese educator promoting early childhood education through Sony Foundations. The Sony Education Foundation discovered a significant difference between how a preschooler and an adult learn Chinese characters. An adult learns Chinese characters by analyzing the structures, the meaning, the strokes, Chinese radicals, or imagining them in Chinese pictograms. Adults see Chinese characters as a formation of an image built with a specific structure and formed by multiple strokes. On the other hand, young children learn Chinese by memorizing it as an entire image, similar to a camera capturing the moment as a whole instead of breaking it down with logic.
Simple Ways to Explain Chinese Characters
Alphabet vs. Chinese Character System
An alphabet consists of a number of letters, and each letter represents a different sound. English, Portuguese, and Spanish are alphabet forms. English has 26 letters, Spanish contains 27 letters, and the Portuguese alphabet has 23 letters. One of the common characteristics among them is they spell out how words should be pronounced. Each letter does not have any meaning by itself.
Chinese characters are not based on an alphabet and are rather complex. All Chinese characters are structured by a number of strokes, each containing a pronunciation and meaning. However, combining two or more characters can mean something entirely different from the character itself.
There are two types of Chinese characters, simplified and traditional. Simplified Chinese characters are used mainly in China, Singapore, and Malaysia. In contrast, traditional Chinese characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.
How Do Taiwanese Children Learn Chinese Characters?
In a Chinese primary school class , students usually begin by reading the story out loud together from textbooks, and sometimes the teacher will select an individual student to read alone.
After the reading session, the teacher will teach students a set of Chinese characters from the reading materials. In other words, the teacher will introduce each Chinese character’s correct order of strokes. All students will raise their writing hands high and follow the teacher’s instructions on the blackboard.
Homework will be assigned to practice each character by writing it multiple times in a square notebook, and each square looks like a “田.” Eventually, the student needs to be able to write the characters as if in an invisible square with the correct order of strokes.
How Many Characters Are There to Learn?
There are over 50,000 Chinese characters in total. An educated person will know about 8000 characters. However, around 2000-3000 characters are sufficient to read a newspaper or get through daily life.
Most Chinese students learn around 3500-4500 characters by the end of primary school (12-years-old), as middle and high school focus more on poetry, classical Chinese, literature comprehension, composition, and exposition writing.
Five Ways of Teaching Children Simple Chinese Characters
1. Begin with PICTOGRAMS
All Chinese Characters are logogram, and they are categorized into several different types.
Roughly around 600 Chinese characters are pictograms (象形). They all look like image icons, generally among the oldest styles.
Pictograms are a good starting point as the “graph” already seems very similar to the character itself. Some of them are also Chinese Radicals, which is critical knowledge to learn before continuing to learn additional Chinese Characters.
2. Personalized Learning
It is challenging to adopt a traditional Taiwanese education methodology without an appropriate environment with my multicultural kids in Spain. If you are also facing the same situation, it is vital to be flexible and let go of the traditional teaching method. Instead, focus on tailoring the lessons and materials for your multicultural kid’s learning style and building a positive interaction. For example, if the animal group is a big topic at home, then the animal pictograph set is the “go-for” material.
3. Be a Story-teller
Teaching vocabulary using storytelling techniques can make your little learner more actively involved in learning.
For example, “口” means mouth in Chinese. You can point to your mouth as the character “口” looks like an open mouth.
Another example is 森林, which means forest in Chinese, and is composed of five woods (木). You can start counting the number of woods with your children. Things like this can engage and motivate your child to learn.
4. Flashcards and Memory Games Learning
Flashcard and memory games learning for children is quite popular, and they are widely used in Taiwanese kindergartens to introduce new words. Both learning methods involved repetition and visual memory; memory games require effort to identify the similarities and differences. This process helps your little kids to learn the characters through problem-solving.
5. Use “Meaningful Nouns”
Each Chinese character may represent multiple meanings within it. Early learners at this stage won’t be able to comprehend them individually. For example, 森林 (forest in Chinese), as the word 森 can mean dark; 林 can be woods or a last name! However, if you combine both characters to become a “meaningful noun,” early learners can associate the vocabulary easier.
Introducing some of the key elements of the Chinese New Year can be done in a foreign country. The most important thing is to enjoy the process and being together with the people you love. Use this special period of time to remember last year’s achievements and lessons, and look forward to new adventures.