Every year, 332 million Chinese people migrate home just in time for the Lunar New Year festivities. For the first time in my life, I was one of them.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in February 2016.
Just a couple weeks ago, I accidentally joined the largest human migration on Earth: I had bought a train ticket in the middle of the busiest season of the year in the most populated country in the world, lacking the foresight to book it before the big rush. Mesmerized by the sheer amount of humans in transit, I sat there on my suitcase in Shanghai's train station and watched.
Imagine the entire population of the United States picking up and cramming into trains over the course of a month. This is what happens every year in China, as millions of Chinese—specifically, 332 million of them—migrate home just in time for the Lunar New Year festivities. This number is only for train commuters; it is expected that 2.9 billion trips are made specifically in and to China alone. That number actually exceeds the population of the country, as it includes people coming in from neighboring places like Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan. For many people, the 15-day celebration packed with food and symbolism is the only time of the year in which they get to see their family.
There's a Chinese idiom that is tossed around frequently during this time: ren shan ren hai, or "people mountain, people sea." At Shanghai's Hongqiao Railway Station, that is precisely what went down.
I have never seen so many people congregated within one building. It's a huge mass of black hair, suitcases, boxes full of food. People clench tightly to parcels of tangerines and vacuumed-sealed food products, from whole ducks to entire pig thighs. Tangerines and oranges, because of their roundness, symbolize unity within the family. Freshly pounded rice cakes (popular in the south of China) make great gifts. The word for rice cakes in Chinese is nian gao, and the corresponding statement is nian nian gao gao, which means "to advance in years and virtue."
I am enamored by it all because, as an American of Chinese ancestry, I never had to work so hard to get to a feast, nor did the dishes on my dinner table ever have any deep meaning. Lunar New Year in Los Angeles meant a straightforward hot pot dinner at home with Mom and Dad. We'd boil a big pot of meat, vegetables, and fish balls in broth; my brother and I would both get a red envelope full of money, and we'd all call it a day. I'd never once had to push through a mass of people to go home or prepare anything from scratch. The Wei household is extremely lazy.
It seemed that this year, such simplicity simply would not do in China. Over the next week, I'd take a grand total of three trains and two buses to feast with two separate families who would make every dish from scratch.
The largest feast of the Lunar festivities is on the eve of the New Year. This year, that date fell on February 7. Preparations for it begin a week beforehand. Two days before the big day, I'm in Jinhua, a small town in the Zhejiang Province, 203 miles south of Shanghai. Locals Sherry Zhen and her family invite me in their house for an afternoon of prep and I immediately notice parts of an entire pig strewn around on her patio. Pork belly is marinated with soy sauce and hung up to dry. Fish skin is salted and turned into jerky. A plastic tub filled with water sits on the corner. I peer in and see two live fish wiggling inside. Fish is a must; fish is yu in Chinese, and the saying is nian you yu—or "abundance year after year." Inside, on the kitchen table, homemade meatballs sit in a large bowl, courtesy of Sherry's uncle. "Meatballs are round, or yuan," Sherry explains. The saying is tuan tuan yuan yuan, which means "family unity."
I stare at all the food with envy. My family lost a lot of our culinary traditions when my parents moved to the States from Taiwan. None of us knows how to make a sausage, fold a wonton, or dry a piece of pork. But at Sherry's house, the exact opposite is true.
Entire generations begin filing into her house; everyone has the next couple of weeks off of work. I meet Sherry's aunt, father, uncle, grandmother, and mother. We start to wrap wontons from scratch. This is a tradition of many southern Chinese families. In the north, dumplings are the norm. Wontons and dumplings look like gold ingots, and it is believed that the more you eat in the New Year, the more prosperous you will be. Grandmother kicks things off, but is quickly shooed away because the family is afraid that she, at 91 years old, will overextend herself.
Her mom and uncle begin mincing meat, seasoning, cooking, and sautéeing savory rice cakes. They proudly tell me where everything was sourced. The pig is a gift from a coworker; the rice cakes are made from a neighboring town; the wonton skins are courtesy of a family friend; and the vegetables they plant themselves. When it comes to home cooking, the Chinese are extremely cognizant of where their food comes from. This is a country where vegetable and meat markets are still the norm, and everyone has an opinion on which vendor is better.
For New Years' Eve, the big feast day, I'm 165 miles north at Nanxun, a petite ancient water town decorated with canals and cobblestone streets. My friend Christine Liu is, at the last hour, invited by her distant relatives to spend the grand feast there. She asks them if I can tag along, and they say yes.
It's a spectacular meal that starts with 15 dishes and ends with hot pot. Everything is made from scratch. Symbolism is at an all-time high. Lotus root is stuffed with sticky rice. When you cut apart a lotus, it's stringy, like the texture of okra. The idiom ou duan si lian accompanies that phenomenon. It means that though a lotus roots may break, the fiber remains joined. Metaphorically, it's a symbol of how a family's bond will not break despite separation.
Next, dumplings are made with egg, which symbolizes gold and fortune. A whole fish is representative of abundance. Shrimp is the sound of laughter. Lots of stewed egg is on the table; again, the roundness means unity. Spring rolls are appropriate because the Lunar New Year is all about ushering in the spring, and dessert is in the form of eight-treasure rice (ba bao fan) packed in a bowl. Its shape reminds the family of the word "fullness," a hope for the upcoming year and perhaps most appropriately, the perfect descriptor for what I was feeling after the feast.
After dinner, we pile into the living room to watch CCTV's New Year Gala—the most-watched television program in the world with a viewership of over 700 million. Its audience is nearly six to seven times larger than that of the Super Bowl. I am reminded again of the sheer vastness of China and of just how many feasts are simultaneously being held around the country. At midnight, and for the next three hours after it, I'm repeatedly jostled awake because the city sounds like it's being bombed. I look out the window to see fireworks and firecrackers being set off.
I suddenly become terribly homesick. Sure, this Lunar New Year is the most elaborate I've ever experienced and marks my first in China. I have never consumed so much symbolism in one sitting. It's a food writer's dream.
But something is missing.
I message my parents, who are back home in Los Angeles, to wish them a happy New Year. Within seconds, my dad sends over a link. I click it: It's a digital red envelope full of money.
I feel better, immediately.
Clarissa Wei is currently backpacking to all the provinces in China. She plans on single-handedly eating the entire country. Follow her adventures on Facebook.