Tuesday is the Lunar New Year and I have to confess that this year I’ve been feeling a bit of a Grinch, or at least a bit Scrooge-esque.
Maybe there are only so many cartoon zodiac animals I can take before I want to punch one in the face. Perhaps it’s the lunar new year’s increasingly merry business acknowledgments and the fact that the holiday has turned into a marketing campaign. Maybe it’s because I can’t go back to Taiwan this year to see my grandmother, who passed away last year.
In fact, I probably won’t get to see much of my family for a long time, thanks to the pandemic and changing travel requirements. But hey, at least Starbucks has a red and yellow mug, and Nike has a pair of tiger-striped Lunar New Year Jordans.
It was funny and confusing to watch the Lunar New Year change from the quiet, family-oriented vacation of my childhood to one that is recognized, often awkwardly, by mainstream American audiences.
For me, the holidays were always less about partying and more about obligations. If we were in the United States, we would attend a potluck or barbecue at a local park organized by the local Chinese association. Towards midnight, my mother called us into the kitchen and gave us a sweet, warm soup of tangyuan, the sweet balls of rice flour you ingest to pass another year.
If we were in Taiwan, I would be shuttled to one living room altar after another. My mother or my father gave me an incense stick without explanation and I held it as I went through the movements of the bending, wondering what I should be thinking or feeling in that moment.
As I got older, the holidays became an invaluable opportunity to connect with family. The entrance fee was high: plane tickets during the Lunar New Year have high prices, and I always had to carry several hundred dollars of cash in red envelopes for my relatives, the traditional Christmas gift. But the experiences were invaluable. I met relatives I never knew and heard stories about my parents that changed the way I saw our family and myself.
By American standards for this holiday, which seems preoccupied with authenticity, my Taiwanese family’s lunar new year observations probably wouldn’t last. We buy our authentic dishes pre-cooked in a handy “Moon New Year” special bag from 7-Eleven. We observe what rituals we can remember – my aunts and uncles sometimes call or text older relatives halfway through the celebration to clarify exactly what they should be doing. We visit as many of our relatives as possible, but probably on the wrong days, in the wrong order.
American Lunar New Year celebrations for me have never captured the personal joy of a family in each other’s company. There is a focus on rituals, and many of them are unknown to me. In the end, I am happy that the holiday is being celebrated more widely. I’m just trying to tell you the strange sensation of watching your culture – something you’ve been a part of your whole life – that suddenly feels like a costume you have to put on.
And this costume is a crowd pleaser in bright red and gold, with lots of bows, fireworks and gong smashing.
I don’t eat whole fish, clean my house, or cut my hair around Lunar New Year. I don’t set off fireworks, visit the temple, and don’t own silk jackets. There is nothing wrong with these traditions, colors or sounds. It’s just that after a lifetime of using them in two-dimensional stereotypical depictions of Chinese people, I’ve struggled to appreciate them for the proud cultural expressions they are. And I can’t help but keep this vacation private for long.
But just because something is a crowd puller doesn’t mean it can’t be meaningful and authentic at the same time. Chinese diaspora communities around the world always have this duality. They figure out what the mainstream public will buy and dispense it efficiently, but there will almost always be a secret menu filled with the nostalgic dishes their friends and family crave.
Our family may never have taken the rituals very seriously, but there was always a real holiday spirit in our household. One year, my mother invited an elderly couple she had just met at the grocery store to our New Year’s Eve dinner because they had no one to cook for them.
In elementary school, my mother took it upon herself every year to teach my class about Chinese New Year. She cooked fried rice for the whole class and we spent the night filling red envelopes with quarters for my classmates.
It was never easy being the only Asian boy in the class. But on Lunar New Year, a few hours after the fried rice was served, I became the most popular kid in school.