Lunar New Year has always been kind of an awkward event for me. I could not really grasp the Lunar Calendar since young. It has been a somewhat mystical event that begins with a story of how a beast terrorized a village in the past. This evil creature would do so every spring and was called “年” which directly translates to “Year”. The villagers then realized that they could scare off the beast with loud noises and bright red colors. I never found out whether this story was more symbolic rather than a literal myth but that explained things like the lion and dragon dance traditions and using red on nearly everything from clothing to home decor.
My family is one of the least Chinese, Chinese families you’ll find around. Owing to the lack of educational opportunities due to his disability, my dad was never taught Mandarin. Instead he picked up Bahasa Melayu. My mom is the only Mandarin speaker but neither is she close to any form of fluency. And for me, well, lets not talk about it.
The best way to understand a culture is to know the language
This resulted in an English speaking family. My dad slowly picked up bits and pieces of Mandarin at the same rate as I picked up Malay from my neighbors. But we were nothing close to being able to hold any form of communication in either language (I did pick up a ton of swear words though!). We were the ‘potato family’ which is a loose translation from a dialect (Hokkien) ‘jiak kantang’. That basically meant we were more Western than Eastern as the common perception is that staple food in the West refers to potatoes while those in the East eat rice.
The best way to understand a culture is to know the language and needless to say the disconnect was pretty huge for my family in general.
Possibly owing much to my family’s faith, we were also quite withdrawn from the superstitions that came with Chinese New Year. Staying up as late as you could on the night before Lunar New Year (for parental longevity), not being allowed to remove thrash (luck) out of the house and many other traditional elements that made the day special was lost on us.
It came to a point where we even stopped actively wearing red or yellow and Lunar New Year became less Lunar and more of a generic occasion to meet family and friends.
Visiting the Extended Family
Nevertheless, Lunar New Year still remains important to me. I admit I do not look forward to it the same way as I do for other holidays but Lunar New Year marks one of the two times I got to meet the extended family on both ends. It so happens that both my dad’s and mom’s extended families live anywhere but the West of Singapore. With transport difficulties for both my parents, we were limited to meeting the entire group only on Christmas and Lunar New Year.
You felt so distant in both age and relations yet connected over three generations. It was simply a wonderful feeling.
Lunar New Year thus became an important event to keep in contact with my relatives. It was a time to catch up with cousins, especially those around my age, and to bask in this general warmth of belonging to a huge extended family. There were uncles, aunts and cousines. But there were also grandparents, grand aunts and uncles. And I am very fortunate to still have my great grandparents still with me. Meeting the most elderly relatives was somewhat of a magical experience. You felt so distant in both age and relations yet connected over three generations. It was simply a wonderful feeling.
Of course, the highlight of any festive event is the amount of gorging one does. Roasted pork is the definitive dish. I’m not really big on pork but the way it is roasted seals the deal for me. This is the only time that a dish can beat deep fried chicken. Trust me, it needs to be a few magnitudes more sinful than chicken to do so, and boy it sure does.
I’m not really big on pork but the way it is roasted seals the deal for me.
I am not the type that likes to eat a wide variety of dishes or goodies. I specialize on a few. These include pineapple tarts, shrimp rolls and love letters. That and roasted pork was just about the only things I would eat. Of course, there were sweets and marsh mallows and many types of nuts but I’ll stick to the aforementioned few – and finish half the container at one time.
Reunion dinner is always a treat. My grandma would extend that goodness from Christmas and we always have a table stocked with a good spread – and tons of chicken wings.
For over 20+ years, I never kept the red packets given to me. My family’s low income meant that what we received was what we gave. It didn’t bother me much and it still doesn’t. Maybe I was used to it having voluntarily passed up my red packets from the start but I felt my needs were met and this extra cash would help alleviate financial burdens at that point.
It’s quite comical how the entire red packet exchange feels like a simple reallocation of funds. Very often the net profit or loss is marginal. From an economist’s point of view, its interesting how a simple rotation of funds can bring so much joy and utility. As mentioned before, we don’t exactly know how to model such exchanges.
Have A Prosperous Lunar New Year!
Lunar New Year’s greatest draw is meeting the extended family. Besides that, it is a well received 2.5 day public holiday that Singaporeans including myself look forward to. It’s a little sad how the real traditions of this festive is lost on many of us. But still, the family remains core to this event and I’m sure that maintains the very essence of the Chinese culture.
Have a great year ahead!
For more posts like these, follow @davejunia on Twitter.