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Home-going headaches

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2012-01-16 10:18

Home-going headaches

The holiday season mixes cascades of vexations with the joy of family reunions, especially for the urban young who make the annual trip back to their hometown for a respite from daily pressure.

Three weeks ago, I served as a jury member for a film competition organized by television personality Cui Yongyuan, who is on a mission to find the next crop of film talents in China. The entries were five-minute shorts revolving around the topic "New Year". Many contestants, in their 20s or 30s, chose to tell stories that did not celebrate the holiday, but rather vent their aggravations. The sight of a young man trudging home with fireworks in the background - after he forcibly bought some prescription drugs for his dying father, got arrested and then released by a sympathetic cop - is a study in contrasts.

If you get on the Internet, you'll feel that 'tis the season to complain and lament. According to China Youth Daily commentator Cao Lin, the media tends to hype the extreme cases when someone stood in line for days for a ticket home and another migrant worker had to ride a motorcycle home when train tickets were impossible to come by. This year, there was a report that a white-collar worker had to make a detour overseas as tickets for a direct route were not available, which Cao says proved to be a canard.

The target of the national rumble of grumble is squarely on the railway authority, which launched an online ticket purchase system that instantaneously crashed under the weight of 1 billion daily hits. Allegedly, you'll have to try 500 times before you can get on the site. But not everyone is a computer genius who can design some kind of software to overcome this obstacle.

Home-going headaches

As Cao explains, you don't have to insist on a certain day of departure and a certain form of transportation. If you fly, tickets are more readily available; and if you fly on New Year's Day, you may be able to get a heavily discounted ticket. It is the timing and the affordability that are at the root of the problem.

The ordeal of the road is only the beginning - albeit the most oft-repeated in the chorus of complaints. Others are also brought on by social norms, but the government is less likely to be the punching bag.

As relatives and friends sit down to the continual rounds of banquets, you've got to talk about what you did and how much you achieved in the past year. It is a subtle form of flaunting without putting down the rest of the table. But not everyone has mastered this art, and when someone shines too brightly in terms of newly gained wealth or social standing, the others will surely feel overshadowed.

So, unless you are the one who will make your parents proud by being the beacon of the occasion, you're really a supporting player whose job is to congratulate the "most successful" one at the table. You'll be humbled when he or she fights to pay the bill. Do I have to host another feast to return the favor? Shall I invite him or just those who did not fare as well as I did? How much shall I put in the red envelopes earmarked for the oh-so-cute kids of my guests?

The red envelope that contains cash is the omnipotent greaser of the machine of human relationships in China. Originally, only elders gave it to youngsters on New Year's Eve. But as the proud son or daughter who works in a metropolitan glass tower, you've got to show how you care by being concrete. Your parents have worked their whole life and brought you up against your odds, so it is the least you can do to show your filial piety.

But red envelopes are not restricted to direct family members. They are de rigeur at weddings and other festive occasions. If you have a schoolmate who is scraping by, you can couch your compassion in a little red envelope. As a matter of fact, this is the Chinese way of charity - we give to those we know rather than to cold, bureaucratic organizations.

Red envelopes are also the Chinese equivalent of gifting. We Chinese are not big on buying worthless stuff and sending it to others with a lavish package. Instead, we adopt the environmentally friendly but economically adverse practice of re-gifting. The beautiful box you give me will never be opened, but instantly couriered to the next recipient, who, I'm positive, will do exactly what I do. If I'm lucky, the same package will come back untouched after making a round of the city or even the whole country without wasting an iota of tree bark. (Maybe some whiz kid can compute the probability of this occurrence based on my gift list.)

And for you Westerners who have married into Chinese homes, a word of caution: A key chain does not count as a present here in China.

A minor annoyance is the gradual revelation that you and your old buddies no longer have a common language. You've been living in different environments, with different hobbies and pursuits and different lifestyles. All you can do is talk about your high-school days, which you shared. But don't say you had a crush on this girl because she may be the spouse of a playmate of yours.

Some, after long absences, even find it awkward to speak the local dialect. And figuring out whether to use Putonghua when a few members of your party, say, a fellow returnee's wife, cannot understand the local argot can be a delicate matter of grassroots diplomacy.

But I digress. First things first: you'll have to prepare a thick strap of cash when you embark on your annual homebound journey. (Forget about ATM withdrawal as it'll run out of bills as soon as the legal holidays start and won't get refilled as all the banks are closed.)

Your "success" is manifested not only in the form of RMB but also your marital status. If you've reached an age that your parents decide is ripe for walking down the aisle, you'd better placate them with a "hope is near" message. But you cannot date endlessly. You've got to show the fruit.

The most important moment for a grown child could be "meeting the parents". In China, nobody will say no when you're at the altar. But when you first take your fianc home, it is a time of reckoning. If the parents give forced smiles, your romance is doomed.

The problem is, you'll need money to find someone who will agree to going back home with you. The current benchmark for the guy is a house, an automobile and plenty of cash in the bank. If you do not have these, you can find only an actress - someone who is willing to stand in as your future bride, for pay of course. The seductive star Fan Bingbing once played such a role - I mean, on screen - and as you may expect, she and her client fall in love. In reality, "she" may botch the fake relationship or take the money and run.

Chinese parents are genetically programmed to plan everything for their children, from extracurricular activities while in kindergarten to childbearing after you tie the knot. (Never ever think of going home as an unwed mother. It'll kill them or they'll kill you-.) The New Year homecoming is their review of the progress of your financial and marital growth. If you're out of sync with their meticulously orchestrated dream scenario, the holiday will be less than perfect and you'll have the incentive to rush back to the city you tried so hard to run away from.

Everyone has his or her own list of pet peeves, which can vary in length and intensity. But whatever the complications and frustrations, we are all willing to put them aside at the end of the year. Traditionally, you have to settle old scores and pay up all debts before the firecrackers light up the midnight sky. So, like the old debt, the old worries should also recede for that moment when the whole family gathers around a hotpot and drinks a toast. It brings back the kid in us.

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