Tag Archives: 除夕

Chinese New Year’s Eve & the Lovelorn Expat

Chinese New Year is fast approaching and this year, by God, you’re not going to spend the holidays drinking alone in your crap taofeng (套房), binge watching downloaded shows for days on end. You’ve done your time, paid your dues, and are ready to move from being a total outsider to a quasi-participating member of Taiwanese society. This year is going to be different. This year you’ve got a girlfriend, and she’s invited you for Chinese New Year’s Eve, or chuxi (除夕), dinner with her family. Things really seem to be going well with the girlfriend, meeting the family, a big step, but you’re ready.

Slow your roll, Stud. The default position for most Taiwanese girls is to keep their family out of their business, especially anything related to love or libido. So, why are you suddenly being invited to meet her family on the most special family night of the lunar calendar?

There are two likely possibilities. One, she is firmly placing you in the friend zone and doesn’t feel threatened by the prospect of introducing you to her family on chuxi as you are of little romantic consequence. If your Chinese is good enough, you might even get to listen to her constant reassurances to her family not to worry, that you’re just a friend. She felt sorry for you during the holiday season and wanted to let you experience a bit of Taiwanese culture. [Been there, heard that]. It can be perturbing to receive word that there’s not much future in the relationship in such an awkwardly public manner. If you’re on the same page as her, relationship-wise, then it is a great opportunity to experience something beyond the reach of a tourist. I’ve had some wonderful chuxi experiences in this way. Don’t discount pity—my dating life would have been so much poorer without it.

The second, less likely prospect, is that inviting you to chuxi is her way of indirectly informing her family that you are a serious romantic prospect and marriage is a possibility. (It’s all very Taiwanese). This is precisely how her parents will interpret your presence at their dinner table on chuxi, unless your girlfriend proactively puts a stop to such thoughts. Are you beginning to get a sense of what kind of pressure cooker the Taiwanese family can be? Personally, the status of my relationship with Venus (my wife) became much clearer when she invited me over to her folk’s place for chuxi and offered her family no excuses for my presence. It amounts to a public declaration that you’re in a deep relationship. Two months later we were engaged. If your chuxi dinner plays out this way, and you’re not at that point in your relationship—run!

If you have a girlfriend, and she considers herself to be your girlfriend, but it’s like most relationships, on a spectrum of complication and affection that is hard to define, don’t expect an invitation to chuxi. You are in that vast middle ground between just friends and marriage prospect. Relax and enjoy getting drunk alone on chuxi, your girlfriend is looking out for your best interests by excluding you.

I did have one serious girlfriend who invited me over to have chuxi with her family before she’d worked out our relationship status in her own mind. When we were dating, she oscillated between firm commitment and an inability to accept a foreign boyfriend. She was a traditional Taiwanese. During chuxi her interaction with her parents flawlessly reflected her ambivalence.

Chuxi has been a very accurate litmus test for my Taiwanese romances. I’m not sure if this works equally well for expat women, but guys if you have any confusion about your relationship, chuxi will give a lot of insight.

Vignette #6: Red Envelopes and the Karmic Circle of Cash

Any company that wants to retain employees in Taiwan needs to give year-end bonuses before Chinese New Year. Typically these bonuses will be 1.5-2 month’s salary. In a private enterprise the bonus is linked to profits. I moved here in the middle of Taiwan’s tech boom and some computer industry workers were getting year-end bonuses of 1-2 year’s salary. It was amazing. In today’s more restrained times companies sometimes claim low profits and try to get out of paying a bonus, this is negotiable between employees and management. It is hard not to at least pay a month’s salary as a bonus. The negative press and employee unrest caused by trying to cheap out on bonuses is counterproductive for companies. There are reasons, beyond just the money that people fight hard for these bonuses.

They need those bonuses to keep the family functioning happily. Traditionally the bonus was required to buy household necessities and prepare the New Year’s feast. A lot of aspects of family life in Taiwan are transactional in nature. Chinese New Year is, partially, a giant circle of cash, where money gets redistributed from productive, middle-years members of society, to the young and old. Those year-end bonuses are used to stuff the red envelopes handed out on chuxi (除夕). If the year-end bonuses disappear then that threatens family harmony. In Taiwan, familial love is often expressed with money. Saying “I love you” is awkward, while “Hey, here’s 12,000元” feels more comfortable, and you understand what that really means, right? Or to paraphrase my Taiwanese family; can you count love? How many loves are in my hand? Now money, that means something.

People often try to compare Christmas and Chinese New Year, they are both the largest family holidays of their comparative calendars, but the feeling is different. Christmas (ideally) is all about family warmth and togetherness. Chinese New Year, like all things related to Chinese families, is about duty and obligation (filial piety). I’m not saying that Taiwanese families don’t enjoy their time together, or that Chinese New Year lacks family warmth, I’m just saying that the motivation is different. If it is your obligation to your family to deliver up red envelopes, and your whole family structure is built on filial piety, then you’re going to do everything in your power to make sure the cash gets into the right hands on chuxi, and that the size of your red envelope is not face impairingly thin. Woe betide the employer that tries to stand in your way.