Celebrating Chinese New Year

Family_CNY_Asian_rI’m always taken aback when someone asks me, “Going anywhere during Chinese New Year?” Of course, I’m aware of the common practice of Singaporeans taking off on short trips during the extended seasonal holiday. However, I had grown up with the idea that Chinese New Year is a time for celebration – not just because it’s the new year, not because of the new clothes and delectable goodies spread, but because of family ties and renewed connections.

I do remember though, that as a teenager, the visits to distant relatives would make me feel like the frozen pomfret in the sink when my mum was preparing the reunion feast! Not only did I get cold feet trying to greet folks I meet no more than a couple of times a year, I was dead meat if I couldn’t remember how to address them as my father insisted on such rites of civility. To me, they were savage. In my childhood, after enduring the cheek-pinching and being turned  around (the closest I came to being any sort of a model), at least, I could run off and play. As with little ones, my siblings and I would warm up to our ‘long-lost’ cousins after a couple of minutes, either entertained like royalty by the older ones or arguing like old friends with those our age.

Recalling the scene of my maternal cousin and I getting all indignant about whether ‘E’ is for ‘elephant’ or ‘egg’ still puts a smile in my heart some forty years later.

Sadly, teenagers all those years ago didn’t ‘play’, we sat, a little awkwardly, nibbling the sweetmeats and trying not to look too bored with the adult conversation.

Such memories can be bittersweet but they have also developed a curious mindset in me: Chinese New Year is a time for renewing ties, whether in observing traditions with close family or catching up with relatives and friends.

As my family revisits rituals each new year with an attitude of fun, we are also reinforcing values with their meaningful practice and developing traditions that bond the family. Creating these precious memories also helps our children to cultivate a sense of identity – individual, familial and cultural.

The excitement builds up weeks before the actual day as we usher the celebratory mood into the home by decorating with new year trimmings swathed across the front door and Chinese couplets on red calligraphy paper hung on walls. We stock up the kitchen, especially the rice bin, for a year of abundance. Besides the cookies and pastries made or ordered, we prepare the candy and candied fruits tray to satiate visitors with sweet goodness. Sticky rice cake is laid out with mini tangerines and arrowroot for prospective growth in our fortunes. What a wonderful time to explain the cultural significance and meaning of the items to satisfy the curious “why”s.

The custom of auspicious greetings on new year’s morn has been carried from my husband’s and my family of origin into our own.  Dressed in our new year’s best, the children would enthusiastically offer us tangerines and recite their good wishes for happiness, health and wealth to us while we, in turn, speak blessings into their lives for health, obedience and academic diligence, and hand them eagerly-awaited hongbaos. This blissful process is repeated when we arrive at the grandparents’. Not only do the children engage in cultural wordplay as they seek to clarify the age-old utterances, they also learn more about family relationships as they queue in order of age and seniority/gender of their parents to approach their grandparents to serve up olives.

Food is such a big part of Chinese culture that the new year revolves around much eating, from the Reunion Dinner to New Year’s Day vegetarian breakfast and steamboat dinner to Second Day (traditional day to begin the year) pencai  (treasure pot) lunch. Each dish has an auspicious name as we look forward to a year of abundant blessings. It always gives me a thrill to present the Seventh Day Yusheng (raw fish toss) as family members pick up the idioms I drop with each ingredient added.

The new year feasting can continue through the fifteen days of celebrations and one meal that is highly anticipated is a get-together dinner with my former students. Barely ten years my junior, they decided that we would be ‘Best Friends Forever’ and they have come to visit every year. And I’ve seen them grow from army boys with crew-cuts to smart working adults, maturing in their attitudes towards life year after year. Now, they arrive not just with gifts, but with their spouses and children in tow!

So there you see, it’s just too hard to leave such important things in life behind for a holiday.

This week’s guest writer is,

Cheryl Ng
a.k.a. Leave it better than when you found it

is… embracing life so that those around her can live it well.
at age 5, dreamt of…  being a movie director.
can also be found (at)… on the dance floor, in a movie screening room, in an art studio…
believes… in Carpe Diem–seize the day, live every moment to the fullest. It may translate into capturing moments in time in the telling of bedtime stories or painting with ink on rice paper.

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