It’s the time of year in China when families jostle through crowds, shoulder-to-shoulder in packed trains and planes over the Lunar New Year holidays. For many, the journey to their hometowns is grueling, but spirits are generally high. After all, it’s the only time all year many of them will be reunited with their extended families to share months-old stories from their adopted cities over a hearty meal.
But this Spring Festival, many dinner tables will again be empty, and would-be travelers may have to wait longer — possibly another year — to see their loved ones again. Some have chosen to stay put in the wake of strict measures imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, even though the country has largely contained the virus. Meanwhile, others are being encouraged to cancel their trips in exchange for vouchers and cash subsidies. Still, some will remain undeterred and make the journey home.
Sixth Tone interviewed eight people from different parts of the country about their plans for the upcoming holidays. Here are their stories:
You can listen to an audio version of this article via “China Stories,” a podcast sharing the best writing on China from Sixth Tone, SupChina, Caixin Global, and The Wire China. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Chen Jingting, 27, designer
Current location: Shanghai
Hometown: Yancheng, Jiangsu (pop. 7.2 million)
I’ve been studying and working in Shanghai for more than 10 years. I will go to my hometown of Yancheng for the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday.
The local government has announced that it’s not required to have a negative nucleic acid test if you’re returning from a low-risk area, but I was still concerned. I’ve heard a lot of news reports of people being pulled away for tests at train stations, so I’m worried whether that’s actually the case.
My father and I are both in Shanghai, and I was anxious that we might not be able to spend the Spring Festival with my grandmother back home. I spent my early childhood with her while my father was working in Shanghai.
As long as my hometown is not a high-risk area, I will find a way to go.
(But if I don’t go home) I will especially miss the family reunion dinner. Now that I’m married, I can’t have dinner with my family on Lunar New Year’s Eve every year. After dinner, we usually watch the Spring Festival Gala (television event on state broadcaster CCTV), and then my older relatives will hand out hongbao (red envelopes stuffed with cash).
I’m torn between taking the train and driving. We used to drive before, but this year there is a new high-speed rail line between Shanghai and my hometown. Driving is more tiring, but my elder relatives are worried that the high-speed trains will be unsafe due to the virus.
Ma Hongwei, 51, businessman
Current location: Shanghai
Hometown: Shanghai (pop. 24.3 million)
I run a business that delivers home-cooked meals. There are more orders this year, as more people are staying in Shanghai for the holidays. We’re relatively busier. We will prepare Shanghainese dishes for the Lunar New Year’s Eve feast.
I generally don’t travel during the Spring Festival holiday. This year, I will celebrate the Lunar New Year with my wife and continue to work. My son is studying abroad and my mother is at an elder care center. Neither of them can come home, but I’ll go visit my mother sometime.
Peng Huanrong, 48, domestic worker
Current location: Xiamen, Fujian
Hometown: Zhoukou, Henan (pop. 8.6 million)
Originally, I was planning to go home on Feb. 6 to see my children. But I changed my plan after the authorities discouraged people from moving around due to concerns about the pandemic. So I’ll be taking a break in Xiamen with my husband. He’s a bus driver and has to work during the holidays.
If I had opted to go home, I would have had to take a nucleic acid test in Xiamen before leaving. I also heard from my father-in-law that, upon arrival (in Zhoukou), I would have to be quarantined for 14 days at a designated center. This frightened me. I heard that people returning in January didn’t need to quarantine, but I wasn’t planning to go then, as I was scheduled to work up until the holiday.
I’ve been working in Xiamen for five years. My home is in the suburbs of Zhoukou, in the central Henan province, where my children live with our elder family members. I usually go home once a year and stay for about two weeks — sometimes during the Spring Festival holiday, sometimes after the holiday.
I didn’t go home for the holiday last year. I went back only after the outbreak had subsided. Now again this year, we can’t spend time together for Lunar New Year’s Eve, so my relatives are a bit sad. But maybe I can plan to go home during the Labor Day holiday (in May).
Yang Youzhi, 24, delivery worker
Current location: Shanghai
Hometown: Xuzhou, Jiangsu (pop. 8.8 million)
I’m a deliveryman who just came to Shanghai two months ago, after working at a similar job in Nanjing. This year, I’ll stay in the city to work instead of going back to my hometown of Xuzhou (in the eastern Jiangsu province), even though some of my colleagues have already left for their hometowns.
There are more delivery orders during the Spring Festival and fewer employees, so I stand to make more money. I’ve made friends in Shanghai, so I’m not lonely. My co-workers and I will eat and drink together on Lunar New Year’s Eve. The company we work for will also give us some Lunar New Year’s gifts.
Still, I miss my family...
Li Xingwei, 29, interior designer
Current location: Wuhan, Hubei
Hometown: Anyang, Henan (pop. 440,000)
I’m an interior designer working in Wuhan. This Spring Festival, I won’t return to my hometown in Anyang. My wife and I will go sightseeing in Wuhan to relax after an exhausting year.
My hometown is in Henan (a province in central China), but it’s very close to Hebei, where there are still many medium-risk areas. If there is one new infection (in my hometown), I’m afraid it will quickly become a medium-risk area, which would make it hard for me to go back to Wuhan. Also, if the 14-day quarantine and nucleic acid testing are required, it will certainly affect my work arrangements. Last year, I had been home just one day when Wuhan shut its doors.
For people working far from their hometowns, the best plan is to go home. I remember the streets and lanes in my hometown are busiest during the Lunar New Year. First, my family and I get up early in the morning and visit the tombs (to pay our respects to our ancestors). Then we go and greet our elders and close relatives.
I like the lively, close-knit atmosphere there, where all the people in the village know each other and warmly say “happy New Year.” I feel that the big city lacks this kind of atmosphere.
Resident of Shijiazhuang, 54
Current location: Shijiazhuang, Hebei
Hometown: Shijiazhuang, Hebei (pop. 10.39 million)
The local outbreak situation is basically under control. Since early January, we have done nucleic acid tests about seven or eight times. In the beginning, we did them only once in a while, but later, we did them basically every other day.
In past years, we would normally travel or organize get-togethers. We’ve spent previous Spring Festival holidays in Yunnan province and (the coastal city of) Sanya. This year, we didn’t plan to travel.
My daughter is married and lives in another city (in Hebei), Baoding. In previous years, she’d usually come home for the holidays. She can’t do that this year, though, so I’ll spend this time with my wife instead.
We’ve been asked not to gather (in large numbers), so we will obey the rules. It’s also quite troublesome to gather big groups together, right? Regardless, we are still planning to celebrate the holiday according to tradition, just the way we used to.
Zheng Li, 23, intern doctor
Current location: Suining, Sichuan
Hometown: Leshan, Sichuan (pop. 3.3 million)
Because of the pandemic, I haven’t actually planned anything. My family lives in Leshan, and I wanted to go home because I may not have time in future. However, as many cities are encouraging people to stay put for the Spring Festival, it’s likely that our hospital won’t have holidays.
I’ll probably spend the festival alone. I don’t have a plan yet.
I’m not really worried about getting a nucleic acid test. Medical staff here are doing nucleic acid tests every week. If I do take a holiday, it will be for four or five days. I’ll go home to meet family and friends.
Tan Tiantian, 26, student
Current location: Durham, United Kingdom
Hometown: Yichang, Hubei (pop. 4.1 million)
I’m a graduate student at Durham University. This year, Lunar New Year’s Eve falls on a Thursday, and we will be taking classes as usual. My plan is to cook, eat, and party with the other Chinese students here.
The situation in the U.K. is still quite serious, and there’s another lockdown in effect, so we are still taking online classes. But I’m OK and don’t feel anxious. In the school dormitory where we live, there will be some virtual celebrations, and the grad students might still get together to hang up chunlian (decorative calligraphy).
The celebration should be quite lively. We will prepare special dishes from our hometowns. I might cook stir-fried meat with chili. There are also some students from northern China, who might make dumplings.
My hometown is Yichang. This is the first year I won’t be home. My parents are used to me living independently, since I’ve been going to boarding schools since I was young. But they still feel a bit sad.
Last year, I was home with my family for several months because of the outbreak. I actually feel OK about the change of plans for Spring Festival. After all, I’m not the only one affected.
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image and icons: Iconscout and Viewstock/People Visual)