Big family gatherings, beautiful fireworks, amazing food… this is how people usually picture the Chinese New Year celebrations. And, to be honest, they usually are! People travel from all around the globe back to China to spend time with their families. This is also what I did. For the first time since more than 15 years I travelled home and was excited to celebrate Chinese New Year with my family. Well, it was a bit different than I expected.
Arriving in Shanghai
My usual route is flying from Frankfurt to Shanghai and then go by train to my hometown. This year, one could already tell at the airport in Frankfurt that there is something happening in China. The flights to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong were all booked out and full of Chinese people. All of them were travelling home for Chinese New Year. 12 hours later I arrived at the airport and headed to the train station. Luckily, I bought my train ticket in advance, because all trains were booked out when I arrived. Although Chinese train stations are bigger than the ones in Hamburg, Frankfurt or Munich it was more crowded than a full Christmas market in either one of the big cities in Germany.
During New Years’ time, the traffic situation in China is unbelievably bad. The ticket prices for public transports are skyrocketing and still every medium one can think of, busses, trains, planes, etc., is full of people. The highways are so jammed, that one doesn’t need to drive to a resting area to go to the toilet. Basically, all of China is travelling and this, as we will see later, becomes quite a big problem.
Preparation for the celebration
There are many traditions during this time of the year in China. So many, that most of the Chinese don’t even know all of them. One that I didn’t know until now is that on January 19 it is not allowed to kill living beings. Also, there are even rules regarding the presents. One can’t gift three or four things. Not three, because in Chinese it sounds like the word for “separate” and during Chinese New Year the family should be together and not four, because it sounds like the Chinese word for “death”. The more common tradition is that the younger generations visit the elders at their houses and look after them. In return, the elders would gift them money in red envelopes. In that regard, it is also important to pay respect to the ancestors by paying tribute to them. But probably the most important tradition is the dinner on New Year’s Eve. This year it was on January 24.
These traditions require utilities which have to be bought and prepared in advance. So, the supermarkets are very full during the time before Chinese New Year. Despite increasing the stock of all the desired items, they are often sold out a long time in advance and ordering them online can also backfire because the delivery companies are all on vacation.
How it should have been
Different than the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Europe, the Chinese New Year is all about family. While in Germany people meet with friends, eat raclette and fire some fireworks, in China we meet, eat and play with our family. This year, we booked a private room in a hotel restaurant in the countryside. We would have a big dinner there with all family members together. This is always very exciting. Because I only rarely see them there are many stories to share. We would play games, sing songs and welcome the new year. Like in Germany, at midnight we would have gone out and fired some fireworks. Afterwards, the old people would go to rest in the hotel and us younger people would settle at the bar.
How it actually was
You have all probably heard of the Coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese city Wuhan. What started out as a common influenza became a worldwide health threat. I don’t want to go into the political aspects of it here, but more into how it was for us citizens. At first it was labelled as a minor flu-like disease but as it spread more and more across the country, people started to get worried. As I mentioned earlier, Chinese New Year is the time everybody travels home. Therefore, spreading a disease during this time of the year is very simple. Originally, we had planned a three-day trip to Chongqing but due to the disease we cancelled it. And when the first deaths were reported, we called off the big dinner on New Year’s Eve. The state health department and the authorities proposed that we stay at home and only leave the house for necessary trips, for example buying groceries. I have to say, being “locked” in the house can make people very creative.
The facemasks were sold out in less than 2 days and the prices online for five pieces peaked at around 260 YEN, which are 32,5 EUR. Wuhan, the city where it all began, was isolated first and other cities quickly followed. On the highways and airports there were security stations where nurses and doctors measure body temperature. Airlines also reacted to the situation and British Airways was the first to cancel all flights to and from Mainland China. When Lufthansa followed, we became very nervous.
I’m back in Germany now
One day before my flight back to Germany Lufthansa announced they cancelled all flights to and from Mainland China. I have never experienced people with so much confusion and panic at the same time. My parents and I immediately started to go through alternatives. What about Air China? Shall we fly Emirates with a layover in Dubai? But Lufthansa had to withdraw their crew from China, so they still had to operate some flights to China and luckily for us, we booked the last flight leaving Shanghai. We started that day with a three-hour drive to Shanghai. When we arrived at the city border of Shanghai, there were nurses and police officers stopping us and measuring our body temperature. If there were cases of fever, an ambulance was waiting, and small tents were built. During the entire trip, the streets were empty, even at the airport. There, everybody was wearing a facemask and we had our body temperature measured again at the entrance. Our plane arrived in Shanghai around 4:30 p.m. and the cabin crew never left the airport. When they got their luggage, they immediately checked-in again and headed back to the same plane they arrived with. When we checked-in later we were handed a small document which we had to fill with our flight information, health status and whether we have been in Wuhan or in contact with anyone from there. At the gate, we realized that the plane was very empty. Only crew members and a handful of guests were booked on this flight. Around eleven hours later we were approaching Munich. The flight attendants handed out papers which included questions about our stay in Germany, our contact info and information about our health safety. However, apart from that, there were no other steps we had to go through in Germany.
From my relatives in China, I’ve heard some changes in recent days. All residents are now held in their apartments. Only one family member can leave the house every two days to do the grocery shopping. The police are controlling it very strictly. Every now and then the state health department calls the residents and asks them about their health status and whether they have fever or not. This is also controlled heavily at every residency. When my aunt went grocery shopping, she had her body temperature measured six times.
I hope that the situation will be under control soon and the citizens can follow their normal daily activities again. Until then, I wish everyone all the best, stay healthy and take care!
Article by Yibei Geng *YG (KarlsStorytellers)