Happy Chinese New Year !
January 11, 2012 6:05 PM   Subscribe

Chinese New Year - how/when/who when saying 'Happy New Year'. If you are not Chinese at all (that's me) and you live somewhere that's not very Chinese (that's New Zealand) what's the polite thing to do regarding Chinese New Year with people who are ethnically Chinese ?

In my work I come across a couple of people who are ethnically Chinese .

Is it OK to say 'Happy New Year' (in English), or some other English phrase, at some point after the Chinese New Year (which I believe is 23rd January this year) ? Is saying it before the date OK ?

I feel like saying this in, eg, Cantonese would be better but then they may be, eg, Mandarin speakers ? Is there some Chinese language phrase which would be better and which traverses most Chinese languages (seems unlikely but I thought I'd ask).

For how long after the date is it is reasonable to say this ?

If you're a relatively casual work acquaintaince (as opposed to family / friends) would it be considered too forward to do this ?
posted by southof40 to Society & Culture (15 answers total)
I have a pile of Chinese friends and acquaintances, and generally they're always pretty thrilled when someone even remembers it's Chinese New Year.

"Hey, isn't it close to Chinese New Year?"
"Yeah, next week!"
"Well then, happy new year!"

Then you fist bump or high five or whatever is socially appropriate in your circles.
posted by phunniemee at 6:08 PM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

shee ling kwy ler
posted by mattoxic at 6:19 PM on January 11, 2012

I'm a second-generation Mandarin speaker:

I think Happy New Year (English) is the most natural option, but say whatever floats your boat. Like phunniemee said, it's a happy holiday and it's the thought that counts.

Where I grew up (in the US), we were actually taught the Cantonese "gung hay fat choy" in elementary school (I'm not actually sure what the direct translation would be). The standard Mandarin phrase would be "xin nian kuai le", literally "New Year Happy" (which is why Happy New Year! in English will be more than accepted).

As far as timing goes, I think +/- 2 weeks is a pretty normal time frame to bring it up in conversation. For a casual work acquaintance, you might want to open with "Hey, do you celebrate Chinese New Year's?" or something along those lines. I might find it a little strange if a random acquaintance at work said "Happy New Year!" to me as I was walking down the hall - and now that I think about it, stranger still if they said it in Chinese. But not strange at all (and very welcomed) if it was part of some small talk (like phunnimee's example above).
posted by hot soup at 6:32 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I work with families from many asian countries, and while it may just be Seattle uber-correctness, we all happily celebrate lunar new year. FWIW.
posted by carterk at 6:40 PM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

"Happy New Year" is best. It works for Chinese or Koreans or any Asian who celebrates the holiday. This year, Friday-Tuesday would be the best time to say it. Outside of those days, I wouldn't, but I don't see why you couldn't. It wouldn't be as squarely in the holiday, that's all.
posted by smorange at 6:57 PM on January 11, 2012

In San Francisco, you hear both Happy New Year or Gung Hay Fat Choy said by basically everybody, Chinese or not. I'd say Gung Hay Fat Choy is more popular, actually. It's what the local news uses.
posted by mostlymartha at 7:12 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're talking about casual work aquaintances, I'd be wary about wishing them happy new year in Cantonese unless you know their background well enough to know that they speak Cantonese. And know them well enough to know that they actually celebrate the lunar new year. Your assumption about them being "ethnically Chinese" opens up a massive can of worms. A good friend of mine is "ethnically Chinese" but grew up in Vietnam and moved to America as a refugee in the 70s. She now lives in the UK and considers herself to be an Asian American, and doesn't speak a word of Cantonese and doesn't celebrate Chinese festivals any more than the rest of us. You live in an english speaking country. If you're sure that they actually celebrate the lunar new year, wishing your colleagues a happy new year in English is just fine.
posted by finding.perdita at 7:31 PM on January 11, 2012

White girl married into a Chinese-American family here. There's no point overthinking it, just say Happy New Year, especially if you don't know what language the person's family speaks. The sentiment isn't in the words, it's in the wishing. If you really want to say it in Chinese, check youtube for correct pronunciation of either version, lest you accidentally wish someone a different kind of new year.

As for etiquette, I wouldn't say it's too forward to say it to your casual acquaintances. If you're not entirely sure if someone is actually Chinese, it's a festival that's celebrated across Asia, so stick to English, and make sure to wish non-Asian looking people Happy New Year at the same time. After all, it's the first new moon in the year! What isn't there to celebrate?
posted by saturnine at 7:45 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's no point overthinking it, just say Happy New Year

That's the safe, boring, impersonal approach.

In most parts of the world, people will appreciate it / be impressed if you go the extra mile. Don't try to hard / make it all about you (i.e. how cool you), but rather focus on being interested in them and their culture.

Yes, lunar new year is celebrated by many asian cultures and don't assume that all yellow faces are chinese. But if you know they are chinese, then 99% chance they will appreciate it if you say the following:

Happy New Year
Mandarin: Xin nian kwai le
Cantonese: Sun nin fai lok

(roughly) Celebrating prosperity and good fortune
Mandarin: Gong Xi Fa Cai
Cantonese: Gung Hey Fat Choi

Both phrases are commonly used in each language. There are of course many other chinese languages (they are not, in strict linguistic terms, just dialects), but that'll cover 99% of what the diaspora in UK/US/Canada/Aus speak. In Southeast Asia, you'll be encountering more Hokkien, Hakka or Teo Chiu speakers, but if you're there you probably know this already.

Yes, I am chinese.
posted by wutangclan at 8:17 PM on January 11, 2012

BTW my pinyin might be all wrong, but on the off chance that at least part of it is correct, helps if you read about it on Wikipedia or something to figure out how to pronounce what I wrote.
posted by wutangclan at 8:19 PM on January 11, 2012

It's certainly the done thing to offer early New Year's wishes in the bits of China I've lived ("拜个早年" bai ge zao nian), often done among collegues etc. who'll be heading home for the actual holiday period itself so said or sent before you go, so can't see anyone minding you offering your regards in the run-up to the day itself.
posted by Abiezer at 11:01 PM on January 11, 2012

I have to say, I have the opposite opinion to wutangclan. For reference, I am ethnically Chinese, born and raised in the States. While I know people mean well when they try to use Chinese greetings, I'd much prefer that someone give me a genuine "Happy [Chinese/Lunar] New Year" instead of "gung hay fat choy" (and I'm not Cantonese) or some mangled version of "gong xi fa cai."
posted by andrewesque at 7:30 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Where I work, people have already been greeting Chinese colleagues going back to their hometowns as early as this week. So if you won't be seeing them on the 23rd itself, feel free to extend your advanced greetings around this time. As for how long after, maybe greet them as soon as you see them, maybe by the first week of February. The official period of celebration lasts for the next 14 days anyway, so there's a good window. The 15th day is the Lantern Festival already though, so maybe you can greet them about that instead, then.

I'd go with a hearty "Happy New Year!" if I wasn't too sure whether the person spoke Mandarin or Cantonese, and if my tones and pronunciation weren't spot on. With friends (and maybe also colleagues I'm friendly with, but probably not strangers or more distant acquaintances) I might follow my greeting with the hand gesture where you place the knuckles of your fist against the palm of the other hand, and give it a shake or two at about chest level. Probably 2 seconds max. I try to look cheerful but sincere while doing it, and it seems to go over well, especially with older people. Have a feel for whether you can pull this off or not.
posted by pimli at 3:56 PM on January 12, 2012

I'm an ethnic Chinese and Im also live in area that's not very Chinese. I always appreciate it when people at work even know that there is a Chinese New Year this month.

Don't analyze too much. Just say happy new year in English. It's the thought that count.
posted by Carius at 4:25 AM on January 13, 2012

Thirding phunniemee's example.
posted by Carius at 4:28 AM on January 13, 2012

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