BEIJING — For many Americans, Chinese New Year conjures up images of colorful parades and fireworks in celebrations at quaint Chinatowns across the United States.
In China, “bittersweet” is the word the government-controlled media often use in regard to the Lunar New Year festival, which starts Friday. The holiday is when Chinese workers are expected to return to their home villages and share time and gifts with their families and friends. Given that hundreds of millions have moved from rural areas to cities in recent decades, Chinese New Year has become a frenzied time of travel across the world’s most populous country. Some call it “the world’s largest human migration.”
During the New Year’s festivities — known as “Spring Festival” in China — government transportation officials estimate, people will make 3.6 billion trips. As of late December, more than 154 million train tickets had been sold for the 40-day period that surrounds the Lunar New Year.
For the past week, train stations in Beijing have been mobbed, and until a few days ago subways were crowded with passengers carrying bags and gifts. On a subway last Saturday, a woman with luggage dropped a box of kiwis she was carrying. As the fruits rolled round the car, several passengers were kind enough to pick them up and return them to her.
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Airports also are busy, but with a different class of customer. They’re heavily used by wealthy Chinese who are returning home or spending the week in temperate resorts, such as Sanya in southern China and Bali in Indonesia. Passengers will make about 42 million air trips during the 40-day period, according to China’s Civil Aviation Administration.
For weeks in China, newspapers have published reports about the stress of the holiday. There’s the hassle of obtaining train tickets and anxiety about what gifts to take. For the young unwed, there will be inevitable questions about why they haven’t yet married. For those who don’t or can’t return home, there’ll be the guilt they bear for not following through on tradition.
Earlier this month, a Chinese woman in Guangdong province was so distraught with her long-lost son that she purchased a front-page ad in the Chinese Melbourne Daily — a newspaper in Australia, where the son is living — urging him to visit for the holiday.
“We hope you will come home for Lunar New Year,” read the ad, which was reported by the China News Service. “Dad and Mom will never again pressure you to marry.”