Happy Lunar New Year!
While this is the correct term, I have always recognized this festival as Chinese New Year, just like many others. Do you know that it is not just the Chinese who celebrate the lunar new year? The Vietnamese, Koreans and Tibetans also celebrate this festival.
The lunar new year is marked by the first new moon of the lunar calendar. Since the lunar calendar is based on the cycles of the moon, the date of the Lunar New Year will vary from year to year. Typically it will be between January and February of the Western calendar.
Chinese New Year has always been a festival I associate with Chinese culture. It is a time when I get to taste food that I would not usually eat typically. That will include foodstuff like bak kwa (barbecued slices of pork meat), lap cheong (minced pork sausages), preserved duck meat, nian gao (sticky rice cake) and yusheng.
Singapore schools start the academic year in January. Chinese New Year marks the first public holiday in the calendar year. I welcomed that very much as a kid, because that could give me a breather from the new academic term! It also gave me something to look forward to as well. Kids usually look forward to the next break from school days!
Besides food and break from school, I get to stay up late on Chinese New Year eve. The Chinese have the belief that children should stay up till past midnight so that their parents will have long lives. So I was schooled in this belief from young. Does it make sense? Well, so long as I get to stay up beyond my usual bedtime, it does not matter.
Staying up till past midnight also gave me the chance to watch television too. We will always tune in to the local Chinese New Year celebration show on the eve. The other thing I get to do is to insert money into red packets for my parents. These red packets are meant to be given to children my parents would meet during visitations.
The one thing I don’t really enjoy is visitation. Yes, you read it right. You may think children will love this aspect of the festival best. I don’t quite enjoy it, because while visiting my relatives is a chance to get together and catch up, the reality is I don’t enjoy those moments all the time.
It is not just because I am an introvert. I do engage in conversations with my cousins, especially when we were older, on similar issues we face. But when I was younger, a lot of conversations amongst relatives revolve around the children and how they are doing in school.
I never like being compared to others. We are all so different, why compare? What about those who feel small or insignificant when they are reminded of the outstanding accomplishments of cousins? Even if I have achieved something, does it mean I must boast about it?
Strangely, I took on a different perspective of Chinese New Year when I studied in UK for three years. For the first time, this was no longer a holiday for me. University courses continued as usual. No big fanciful celebrations in the country. The Chinese are not the dominant culture in the UK. You only experience the New Year festivities in Chinatown, with dragon and lion dances, and firecrackers setting off.
That was my first time missing the festivities, the food and the company. Of course I still have the company of friends, yet that is different from having family members around. A long distance call to my family, a gathering with friends, nothing much else. The absence of celebrations however made me examine and ask myself what do I really look for in this festival.
So Chinese New Year became somewhat different when I returned to Singapore after my undergraduate studies. I still don’t like to talk much during those visitations. My relatives are still the same. But I learnt to listen in to my elders more, and engage in issues they are interested in. These are the days when I can catch up with what is happening with them.
Today Chinese New Year has an added meaning after I have children of my own. It marks a time when I can gather with my own family to have a proper meal together. Not that we don’t eat as a family. We eat together on other days too, but this day holds additional meaning in bonding over festive food we enjoy as a family. The children enjoy having steamboat especially.
The frequency of visitations has declined over the years, since some of my relatives pass on, and fewer of my cousins congregate together. We have fewer families gathering together, and fewer relatives to visit. Which also means Chinese New Year has become a time for my family to rest and do things together.
As I get older, the significance of being a Chinese has also become clearer to me. The cultural practices I experienced when young have become part of me. When I look at my children, I see different lived experiences in them compared to me. That makes me want to share my own lived experiences in them.
And so some of the practices in Chinese New Year become emphasized – I get the children to pay respects to their elders; help them understand the significance and importance of giving well-wishes to others; and talk to them about the meaning and significance of the foodstuff available during the festival.
The cultural practices I experienced when young have become part of me.
Today, Chinese New Year is not about the idea of celebrations alone. It is about passing an aspect of my identity to the younger generation, helping them learn more about the cultural practices that form part of our race identity. It is also about shaping their identity, guiding them so that they do not have the impression that other cultures are cool, and theirs is not.
I don’t know if the concept of a global citizen will last forever, given the rather fragmented world and cry against globalisation today. Neither do I want my cultural identity to be modified and diluted from the influence of other cultures. Living in a multi-racial and multi-religious society means the younger generation should learn to appreciate their own culture, so they can appreciate other cultures as well.
It is about passing an aspect of my identity to the younger generation, helping them learn more about the cultural practices that form part of our race identity.
This is what Chinese New Year means to me.
What are some of your favourite cultural festivals? How do you celebrate them? How do you view the cultural festivals you celebrate?