In the interest of full disclosure, I want to say that this post might rub readers the wrong way, especially if you’re an ethnic Chinese who’s proud of your race, its culture, and numerous traditions.
And especially if you love the annual promise of spring and new beginnings that the lunar new year purports to offer.
So, if you actually read on until the end and feel offended, I apologize.
For, as this week’s blog post title makes clear, I resent this annual event. Intensely. (Thankfully, I’m not alone.)
Here are my reasons why.
1. Distance? Oh please!
As you read this, ethnic Chinese people everywhere tonight are gathered around the family table for what’s known in our tradition as the reunion dinner.
It’s supposedly the final meal of the old year according to the lunar calendar, for tomorrow is the first day of spring; the first day of the lunar new year.
Dating back to ancient China, such dinners brought together family members who have been away from their hometowns for long periods of time. No expense is spared when it comes to traversing thousands of miles for many to reunite — in China and all across the world — and preparing a sumptuous feast for the “returnees”.
All to reunite family members who have not seen or spoken to one another the whole year.
And herein lies the first problem for me.
I don’t live far away from any family members (though I’ve often wished I did!). For I don’t live in China or anywhere other than my own “hometown”.
You see, my “hometown” is actually one of the tiniest countries in the world based on land area. You can literally drive from one end to the other in under two hours. Without speeding!
So with 365 days in a year (one more if it’s a leap year), why put so much effort into something like a reunion dinner? Especially when we can literally pop by anyone’s home for a meal any day/week of the year and be back home in under two hours? And to do so as often as you like?
Yet my fellow Chinese make this a really big deal here, forcing supermarkets everywhere to stock up weeks in advance, causing massive oversupplies and food wastage every single year, when celebrations subside and leftovers discarded.
Pity the clean-up crew!
2 Lectures at the reunion dinner table
Of course, arguably the best dishes are served during reunion dinners. So for food aficionados (of which I’m not), this time of year would approximate heaven.
But what isn’t served at reunion dinners? Good conversations that’s what!
Growing up, all my siblings and I ever got at the reunion dinner table were top-down lectures from our old man on how to live right (by living like him, a man with none of the usual male vices), earn lots of dough and save them like Ebeneezer Scrooge, and don’t spend money on anything other than clean underwear.
Nothing much else was ever really said at the table, though I do recall some pretty heated arguments (though not what they were about anymore).
I just remembered that I couldn’t wait for dinner to end so I could return to my room to read. Or go to the living room to watch some mindless dribble of a Chinese New Year movie on TV.
Anything to get away from more lectures.
Don’t get me wrong. My mom slaved over the stove as all traditional Chinese moms do this time of year. From her hands came some of my best memories of good cooking (and which child wouldn’t say so of their mom’s cuisine?). Even though I really am no foodie.
So there’s that at least right? I’m not completely unappreciative.
But is food all that there is to family bonding at the dinner table? In my family’s case, it would seem so.
Even now, with the extended family on my wife’s side. One even more steeped in tradition than mine was.
This brings me to my final point.
3. Stilted conversations and putting up appearances
This has to be one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had annually, sans the pandemic years.
Chinese New Year, which is supposed to be celebrated in the first 15 days of the lunar calendar, typically involved visiting and “catching up” with all relatives by blood or marriage. So if you have a ginormous family tree, well then 15 days would be the least amount of time you’ll need to see everyone!
But c’mon! This whole business of meeting the entire clan, including one’s father’s mother’s aunt’s granddaughter’s fifth cousin thrice removed, one day of the year? “Oh, and did you say dear cousin this is your boyfriend? How errr nice to meet you!”
You can’t tell me it doesn’t feel like Awkward City!
Yes, I hear you. It’s just once a year pal. Lighten up.
Well, first of all, I’m a certified introvert so that’s already self-explanatory.
Second of all, even after over 20 years of marriage and a quadruple number of times we’ve done visits, I still don’t recall many of these folk’s names. Sometimes I can barely recall who that person is (“your uncle’s nephew on his mom’s side did you say?”)
So it becomes like some ridiculous “get-to-know-you” session, immediately followed by stilted conversations and plasticky smiles for the sake of pleasantries and civility. All the while secretly wishing it could be over quickly, and I don’t have to see you anymore until 12 months later.
This always happens. Every. Single. Lunar. New. Year.
Truth is I could go on and on and on ranting about my resentment.
Were I to, you would be hearing my take on spring cleaning, giving red packets (token, sometimes even exorbitant, sums of money in palm-size red envelopes) from married adults to kids and singles, and spouting inane greetings using adages that pun the Chinese zodiac animal that ‘ushers’ in the new year (for those interested there are 12 animals; and tomorrow’s the start of the Rabbit year in the Chinese lunar calendar).
And you might even hear my take on the very act of putting on new underwear!
Yet somehow I know that lurking in the midst of my intense dislike for this season is an inalienable truth: I can’t change my race, nor erase centuries of its cast-in-jade traditions and practices.
So, short of catching a plane now to escape, I simply can’t avoid most of these expressions of a culture’s identity no matter where I turn (ethnic Chinese being the majority race in my tiny multi-cultural nation).
Of course, I know every culture has its own quirks and traditions some of its own people would also write such rants about if they so choose.
So what’s a Chino like me to do then but to go along with it again and put on my best plasticky smile, right?
Let’s hope that, traditional Chinese hierarchies being what they are, when I eventually live long enough to reach the top of the family tree, I can finally decide to dispense with the pretense. By then, no one would dare give me dirty looks, except perhaps behind my back.
And when that time comes, I can finally celebrate the new year in peace, and on the same day the rest of the world does — the 1st of January.