When I was much younger, the mention of Chinese New Year brings to mind visiting dreaded relatives whom we see only once a year, getting measly red packets, pigging out, and generally images of dominating the game at the seasonal and neighbourhood ‘gambling den’.
As kids and single adults, more visiting means more ang paos. We often stayed up late playing card game, watching live broadcast of local TV new year countdown. All in all, it was always a blast.
But I never really thought much about Chinese New Year and its significance to me until many years later when I spent my first Chinese New Year overseas, away from my family.
It suddenly struck me what it meant to have Chinese ancestry. You know, I really realized then that it was more than having small noses, slit-eyes and a not so developed chest.
Of course you can imagine how much these features were accentuated in a country where people could literally use a spoon to dig their noses, and their bums for bosoms.
Aside from the small nose and slit eyes, I actually felt proud to be Chinese, the longest surviving civilization, with more than five thousand years of history, rising again today. That almost felt good. In fact, for a while, I thought that small noses and slit eyes could actually look pretty too.
But it is more than that. Where did the tradition of giving ang paos come from? Why do we furiously spring clean ? Why do we rush out to buy new clothes, esp red ones? Why does my mum scream her head off when I reach for a broom on New Year’s day ? Why do we give mandarin oranges ? Why do we have reunion dinner ? Why do we stay up late on new year’s eve after reunion dinner reminiscing about the year passed ? How do I do all these when I am overseas?
These are the hard questions I asked myself when I celebrate Chinese New Year overseas. And it is not about meaningless rituals and practices. Worse, it should not be mistaken for pagan worshiping although there are religious connotations in the origins of some practices. Yet, some of these questions remain unanswered today.
All it means is that we are partaking in an ancient culture, that we should rightly call our own. We are part of that culture. That culture is us. And that we are evolving it every Chinese New Year, and it will continuously spin off in sometimes unpredictable, often unrecognizable trajectories. And it does not matter if we do not follow what is done in China anymore. We can be the trendsetters, the followers, or just plain different. After all, I love my yusheng and bak kwa, both uniquely Singapore.
As I “lao” my third “yusheng” in one week, I realized that I should embrace and celebrate both our Chinese and Singaporean identities, for good or for bad, and pick from the best in both, because they are what define us and will define our children notwithstanding the small nose, slit-eyes and flat chest.
To my Chinese readers, wishing all of you a very happy, and meaningful New Year ahead … Huat ah!