Emma Lancaster, Study Group CEO
How will international students celebrate Chinese New Year in a global pandemic?
It has been called the biggest peacetime migration on earth. The Spring Festival or Lunar New Year sees hundreds of millions of people on the move, making the Chinese New Year the biggest human event on earth. More than seven times the size of Thanksgiving in the United States, this gathering from the most affluent to migrant workers also exceeds in scale religious pilgrimages such as the Hajj.
The millions on the move are not travelling to temples but heading home. The masses leave cities to visit their families, often in more rural parts of China. According to the Chinese Transport Ministry, around three billion trips will be made during the rush. Many will take with them the traditional gifts - 红包 hóngbāo - decorated red packets filled with crisp new money. Others will bring tea or baskets of fruits. Sweets and toys for children. Warm hats and scarves for the elderly.
But this year celebrations will be different for many of the international students around the world who are still affected by lockdowns, unable to gather at Chinese restaurants with their friends to celebrate and to enjoy the tastes of home - Chinese dumplings, spring rolls, sweet rice balls, noodles, and fruit. The reunion dinner eaten on the night before the New Year will be especially poignant for those far from their families.
Creating Chinese New Year in lockdown
Chinese students are determined not to be defeated by the restrictions currently in place to keep them safe and healthy. According to Yinbo Yu of the UK Council for International Student Affairs and originally from Nanjing, Chinese students are resourceful in planning to stay connected online even if they cannot meet easily in person.
“Celebrating cultural holidays and festivals of all kinds is extremely important to international students, and Chinese students are no exception. The Spring Festival is a time of renewing bonds of family and community, and over the years Chinese students have shared their New Year celebrations with the wider university and communities they call home for their period of study.
“This year we won’t see the same shows, dance and music in person but Chinese students are resilient and they will be making special meals and staying in touch with family and one another. It is important though that they are also supported at this time when it is only natural to feel the absence from home and family more sharply than usual.”
In times of challenge, a sense of community is even more important and students and teachers are committed to reaching out to one another and to supporting well-being. In student accommodation, groups of students are also planning their own feasts and decorating flats to recreate some of the spirit of new year in their home from home.
In the UK, many students are also planning to go online and watch the live stream of the CCTV New Year’s Gala, including music, magic, dance, and the extraordinary spectacle of Chinese opera. Broadcast live to the world by China Central Television, it has the largest audience for any gala in the world – with over 1.2 billion viewers in 2020.
Study Group students studying on pathway and foundation programmes in Study Centres around the world also have plans for the Spring Festival. As a global organisation focused on international education, Study Group has many students and staff from China or who have personal connections with the Chinese community. Chinese New Year is a time of coming together, and from Beijing to Sydney or London, many of us have wonderful memories of the Spring Festival and enjoying celebratory meals together.
This year it is very different, but there is a lot to celebrate. Study Group teachers have found new ways to teach and students have continued to learn. Our whole community have supported one another practically and emotionally. We have found hope and determination that we will come out of the other side of this.
The good news for this new year is that students will still go onto their degrees and then take up successful careers, while never forgetting the struggles and losses caused by COVID-19. Thanks to the achievements of global science in developing effective vaccines, we can genuinely look ahead with optimism.
As with so much of education during the past year, the importance of connecting online is crucial. Family Zoom meetings mean that those who are separated by thousands of miles can still see one another. Children can honour parents and grandparents and news can be shared. Most of all, families can be sure that for now they can keep one another safe as we wait for the vaccinations, which will allow us to all meet and celebrate together in person once more. As Confucius himself taught, “有朋自远方来，不亦乐乎? (yǒu péng zì yuǎnfāng lái, bú yì lè hū?) - Is it not delightful to have friends coming from afar?”