The one thing, that above all else, the food, the celebrations, the traditions, even the lai see (red envelopes), that comes to mind when the Lunar New Year rolls around is family.
In China, millions of individuals leave the cities and bustling metropolises to go home for the New Year. They go home to celebrate the coming of the new year with their loved ones, to mark traditions that have been observed for centuries, and to eat food because there is a lot of food associated with the Lunar New Year. (A LOT!)
Last Friday marked the beginning of the Lunar New Year, the Year of the Dog. For most, it’s a time to wash away the good and the bad of the past year and ready oneself for the blessings of the new one.
For all of my life, my parents, and my mother to be exact have been at the helm of the Lunar New Year celebrations in our home, from the cooking to deep cleaning, to the preparation of all the different materials that will be needed, she was in charge of it all. This year was different though. This year was the first year where both my parents had to take a step back from steering the celebrations. Both my parents weren’t healthy enough to do all that was required to ring in the New Year, and most of it was left to me.
While I may have celebrated the Lunar New Year for all of my life, I honestly, didn’t know too much about the nitty gritty details that went into it all, and there are a lot of details that went into it, I learnt. And I was terrified every step of the way I would mess it all up.
I’ve always felt divided as a first generation Chinese-Canadian. On one hand, I am part of this greater group of individuals whose culture, history, and language date back thousands of years and on the other hand, I’m a kid who was born and raised up in Canada, albeit a very diverse Canada, but still Canada where I am a visible minority, where I do vividly remember being called a chink on the elementary school playground. (I didn’t really understand the full connotations that surrounded the word then, and I didn’t have anyone to ask then either, but I do now.) I’ve always felt that divide, the divide between myself and my parents, the divide between the culture that I was born into and the culture in which I was raised in, and I have never felt it more prevalent then when I was completely confused on where to place to certain things or what to do or why certain things are done during the Lunar New Year celebrations.
The older I get, and the older my parents get, the farther that divide grows and the greater the fear that I have that I will lose that part of who I am. And I am scared to lose that part of myself. I’m scared to lose that connection to my parents, my culture, my heritage, as that divide grows larger and larger.
While I can passably speak Cantonese (the dialect spoken in the Guangdong and Hong Kong region), I’m illiterate when it comes to reading and writing Chinese. I tried to learn as a child, but it just didn’t stick with me like it did with my sister. My parents tried but everything else, school, my social life, afterschool activities, etc. got in the way. Every time that I have gone to Hong Kong or Mainland China, I’ve been easily identified as a foreigner. My accent is off, the way I hold myself is off, the way I dress is off, even my waist/bust size if off. (It was a mission trying to find a cheongsam/qipao that would actually fit me the last time I went to China and I came home with exactly none.)
I’m an “other” in the place of my birth and the homeland of my parents’ birth. And that otherness has helped to widen that divide that I have felt my whole life.
The more I did, the more I learnt, under my mom and dad’s tutelage during the new year celebrations, the more I slowly felt that bridge over that divide rebuild and grow stronger, if only a little bit. I learnt to a greater extent why we pray to the Heavens and our Ancestors to watch over us during the new year. I learnt why we put a piece of food on top of the rice to symbolically ensure that we will have plenty in the new year. I learnt the correct amount and way to fold and place the “money” that is burnt as a gift to our Ancestors. Everything I learnt, I recorded, took pictures of it, and stored it away for later, for myself.
I do hope one day that I will be able to pass on these traditions and the meaning behind the celebration revolving around the Lunar New Year to my own family. I do hope, beyond hope, that both my parents will be there to help as well. At the end of the day and at the heart of the Lunar New Year celebration and tradition is family, and why I so closely associate the two together in my mind and my heart.
I do wish all of you happiness, good health, and prosperity in the Year of the Dog.
Thanks for reading!