In my family (or rather...just my mother and I), Chinese New Year has always been an absolute must. When I was younger, at least a week before, my mother would meticulously clean the house until every single object was placed in the most organized way possible, and to usher in the new year with good luck, I had to set plates out with sweet, ripe oranges still fresh with stem and leaves and red shiny wrapped lai see tong that over the years had gotten stale in my mouth sucking on the sweet, caramel-like flavor for too long. I used to either get a fresh haircut or hairwash a few days before to cut off the luck of the old year and make room for the new year. Washing hair on new year's was prohibited, as it was like washing away all the good luck.
As the new year drew closer, we both would go to the Chinese markets in Chinatown that reeked of dead fish that had been sitting out on ice for too long or the raw bloody pungence of fresh pigs and chickens that butchers were hacking away at. My mother would fight her way with her shopping cart to get the prime roasted duck, most fresh chicken, and most savory char siu. That night she would spend the whole afternoon in the kitchen cooking ma-pou dou-fu, vegetable bee-hun, a brothy seaweed soup with fish balls, fish steamed in ginger and garlic cloves, stir fried snow pea leaves, and of course, rice. The rich aromas intoxicated me so much as a child, that at times I would sneak over to the kitchen, grab a bite, and quickly scurry away, telling myself that would be the last bite before dinner. When my mother was done, we feasted.
While we ate, she would recount her own experiences of Chinese New Year back in Medan. A bigger feast than what we had at the table? Pineapple, cheese, and cream cookies that Ama made by hand? TWO WEEKS OFF OF SCHOOL? A huge family dinner? I always stopped listening at this point and looked around at the table, which was very full and at the same time extremely empty. I would pick at my rice and look at all the food that was on the table wondering if we both could ever finish this all (spoiler: we always could). Each bite I put into my mouth would try and drown out the emptiness I felt in my heart.
The next morning, I would wake up groggily to my mother flashing red envelopes in my face.
"Gong xi fat choi!" " my mother greeted enthusiastically. "
"gongmmsifashii," I would respond.
"You have to say it or no money for you." she teased, waving the envelopes in my face. "Don't you want money?"
(No I want to sleep).
"Gong xi fa choi," I mumbled as loud as I could.
"Now say, 'Xin Nian Kwai Le'."
"Okay, okay, here." And I was handed my prize. I remember going to school with the red envelopes tucked away in my backpack. I went to a predominantly white Catholic school, so it was always a secret pleasure to know that I had gotten money on that day when my friends didn't. And it wasn't even my birthday.
As the years went by however, struggles increased, and my mother and I became more estranged, the meaning of the new year's eve dinner and even new year's itself diminished within me. Less food on the table. More silence during dinner except for the occasional, "Do you want more?". Chinese New Year became a day not for new anticipations of the blessings to come but for greedy anticipations for money. My mother always took back most of the money she gave me because she needed it, so I depended on our friends who celebrated Chinese New Year to give me the prized red envelopes. But even those started to lose their meaning. I remember getting jealous of my friends from Chinese school who celebrated the Lunar New Year, who flashed their shiny 100 dollar bills, who flashed pictures of huge feasts, who flashed pictures of families that weren't broken. Even on Chinese New Year's when I attempted to celebrate with a small new year's feast, I realized that no one in my white, all-girls Catholic school really cared about such a holiday, and it's hard to feel enthusiastic when no one is supporting you in what you want to celebrate in. What was the point of me celebrating the new year, if the eve of the new year was filled with scarcity, numbness, and nonchalance? The only thing to look forward to for me was the new year's dinner that my mom, her friend, and her friend's daughter would all eat at a restaurant because cooking was such a hassle. Hopefully then we would both have enough food to eat, my mom and her friend would "fight" over the bill and her friend would win in the end, and I could actually keep the money that I was given. And at least I could see my mother smile and laugh for a few hours. Now that I'm in college, celebrating Chinese New Year in a predominantly white school proves an even harder challenge. While I was surrounded by roots of my culture back home that my mom nourished me in, Chinese New Year is just a day here. Not a holiday. Just another ordinary, typical school day. Who has time to celebrate?
I guess Chinese New Year was redeemed for me by my boyfriend's accounts of all the Chinese New Years that he celebrated back in Malaysia, where Chinese New Year IS actually something to celebrate. As he told me of the lion dance competitions that would happen, the way his Ama spent the whole day cooking as she prepared a feast for at least 20 people, the the red envelopes that would come showering from every single relative, and the way every single store was decked out in red and blasting Chinese music on the loudspeakers, the stories that my mother had told me when I was younger seemed to come ALIVE. No matter how busy one aunt was, even if she lived in another country, everyone also had time to sit down and gather for a meal. I heard similar stories from my friends from China, Vietnam, and Indonesia, and with every story told I realized I didn't want to lose the tradition that my mom had kept me in for so long. I wanted to share my roots and celebrate with those who shared in my experiences, with those who valued such a holiday of feasting, of fortune, of family.
Through my experiences, I've realized Chinese New Year isn't about food. It isn't about red envelopes. It isn't even making personal resolutions that focus on self-improvement. The Lunar New Year celebrates community. It focuses on the gratitude that one feels for all the blessings that he or she has received during the past year, through all the turmoils and the struggles that one may share with others. And what better way to share in life than around a round table full of food and with the people who YOU consider family?