Celebrating the Spring Festival is always the time we most look forward to throughout the year, at least it was in the past.
The anticipation builds up as people start to get ready early in November. My grandparents would prepare cured meat, or “meat for December” (腊肉), by concocting a special sauce from Chinese spices and marinating the beautifully textured meat. The meat would then be placed in an aged ceramic jar, and at the perfect time — my grandma would always know when — my grandpa would take the meat out of the jar and hang it on our balcony with ropes, letting it dry in the winter wind. Meanwhile, my parents and I would cover every door, window, and wall with bright red calligraphy scrolls.
The CCTV Spring Festival Gala would start at 8 p.m. on Lunar New Year’s Eve. Before then, my grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins and I would chat at the big round table filled with all kinds of tasty food: “meat for December,” salted chicken, shrimp crackers and so much more.
Our television was the only screen that grabbed our attention at that time. I always looked forward to the comedy shows on the gala, knowing that I would laugh really hard. During the commercials, Aunt Li would ask each child to perform for the elders. My younger cousin and I would sing, dance, and turn ourselves around in the air. Our diligence earned each of us a red envelope with lucky money in it.
Then, of course, we would stand in the crowded street before midnight, hands filled with fireworks, talking and laughing together, ready to kindle the fuses with our matches, and counting down to midnight. As soon as it passed, we would revel in the magnificent fireworks.
Unfortunately, that is a bygone memory.
Last year, my family sat together as usual, except with everyone’s eyes fixed on their phone screens. No one watched the gala since the Internet provided far better entertainment, including funnier comedy shows. I, admittedly, immersed myself in my video game until the very moment I sensed the indifference that permeated the room. The Spring Festival no longer stood for reunions; it stood for isolation. We were all isolated.
The size of a typical Chinese family has shrunk at a tremendous speed due to massive urbanization and the one-child policy. Family members have dispersed all across the nation in search for better jobs and education opportunities. Even within a close family, parents and children are often too busy with work or school to talk with each other. The Spring Festival renders the chance to do so, yet its essence is fading away.
We are giving away something luxurious. We have allowed precious time with our families to slip by, and I dare each of us not to give up more. You could, of course, spend another hour online and talk to the virtual realm, if you don’t care about those around you — your family members — but I bet you do.
To be sure, some will say that the Spring Festival is outdated. We are in the Digital Age, and the Internet is the new fashion. If something has to change, it should be the traditional festivals themselves: They have to follow the tide. But do festivals need any innovations, any newness? If the primary purpose of festivals is for a family to sit together, talk together, and laugh together, do we need digital devices?
The best answer isn’t “no” but to put down your phone during the upcoming festival.
(The author is a Chinese undergraduate currently studying at Columbia University.)