By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, AAV Contributing Editor
I never even heard of Chinese New Year’s until I was already twelve years old. We had recently moved from L.A. to San Jose, and I had just started attending Saturday morning Chinese School. One of our lessons was about Chinese New Year’s stories and customs. Of course, being only twelve, I was most interested in the tradition of red envelopes. I went home demanding to know why my brother and I had never before received red envelopes, and insisting on years of back-pay.
My brother and I forced our parents to celebrate Chinese New Year’s that year. We invited all the relatives over for a big dinner of Mongolian hot pot and we made a special trip to the really far Chinese butcher’s for the extra-thin cuts of meat needed. Aunts number 3 and 6 came with all our cousins, and we had so much fun with the house full of relatives, warm with gossip and food, that we did not even notice until everyone had left that we still did not get any red envelopes.
Every year after that, I would ask my parents what they were planning for Chinese New Year’s, and the usual response was, “Oh, I don’t even know when it is. I’ll have to check the Chinese calendar.” If I was home, and insistent, then they would cook a meal and invite some relatives over; if not, then they would forget. But with or without the red envelopes, I loved the holiday, and when I moved away to Michigan, and later to Nepal, I would pine for home during Lunar New Year’s (ironic, since my parents did not celebrate it) and look for other Chinese people to invite me over for dinner.
I did not really know much about Chinese New Year’s traditions—a big dinner, red clothes, the story of the cat and the rat. Over the years, I picked up bits and pieces—cook a whole fish, but don’t finish eating the fish (although everyone always does), don’t flip the fish over, make dumplings, clean the house. I did not understand why you did these things—something to do with luck and good fortune in the coming year (doesn’t everything Chinese has something to do with luck and good fortune?)—but I was never sure what, exactly.
Then, last year, my children started going to Chinese School, and in the weeks leading up to Chinese New Year’s, they were entranced by the stories they heard—about scaring away the monster, Nian, with firecrackers and red clothes; about how the twelve animals of the zodiac were chosen; about la-pa zhou. The children made toy fire crackers with toilet paper rolls, cut out the character for spring and pasted it upside down on a red square, and dressed up as red fire crackers for the Chinese School pageant. It was the first time I had heard these stories and done these activities as well. The details were beginning to be filled in.
Then a friend loaned me the definitive book on Chinese New Year by William C. Hu—a 500 page coffee table book filled with legends and recipes and academic research. I could not put it down. Every night as the kids went to bed, I read the different legends and traditions to them until they fell asleep from boredom (this was still an academic book and they were only 2 and 4), then I would get up and have to cook something, the recipes made me so hungry. The book was not just a catalogue of various customs, but also included explanations of what they meant, the stories behind the practices, how they evolved, and regional and legendary variations on the themes. I finally felt like I had a comprehensive, rather than accidental, understanding of Chinese New Year’s. I could see how the pieces fit together.
So last year, I decided it was time to stop pining and to start creating our own family tradition of celebrating. We had the most traditional Chinese New Year’s that I have ever had. First we celebrated together in Chinese School with a big pageant. Then we celebrated with the girls’ two preschool classes—coordinating activities and snacks with the other Asian mothers. I took the girls to see the Lion Dance downtown and I even drove four hours in the snow to Chicago Chinatown to see the New Year’s Parade there. I cleaned and decorated the house. I could not find Chinese couplets to put on my door, so I wrote them myself (my calligraphy looked like a second grader’s, but luckily no Chinese people saw it). We stacked up piles of oranges and grapefruits for good fortune (but we could not find any with stems and leaves for keeping friendship intact). I cooked traditional new year’s dishes from both north and south (my family is from all over). We gave out lots of red envelopes with chocolate gold coins inside (to the kids at the preschool and the neighbor kids). We opened all the doors at midnight to let the old year out. My mom thought it was weird.
At the same time, I was very self-conscious that I was doing it all out of a book. Usually, the point of tradition is to celebrate as one’s parents and grandparents have passed it down, to recreate (or even deconstruct) childhood memories. But my parents did not celebrate it. When I had questions, my mother did not know the answers, and my grandmother only knew some of the answers. Is it still tradition when you are the first to do it? When you are studying or making it up as you go along? When you pick and choose the easiest elements and most colorful stories? Can you leave out the bitter herbs at Passover just because, well, they’re too bitter?
I also had difficulty with many of the practices that involved rituals to appease Chinese gods and guardian spirits (like the Kitchen God) as they go to make their annual report to the Jade Emperor. My family has been Christian for four generations. Try as I might, I cannot really bring myself to fear these household deities. It felt almost blasphemous—not that I was so concerned about getting excommunicated, more that I was worried about making my children superstitious old ladies before their time. Are we doing these practices because they are real or because we are Chinese (like the mother in one of Gish Jen’s novels who is Christian but still makes offerings to Chinese gods and spirits because it is a Chinese thing)? Do families with older children who no longer believe in Santa Claus still leave out milk and cookies?
Last year, the teachers at preschool taught the class how to make noisemakers—two paper plates stapled together with dried beans inside, decorated with long strips of red crepe paper. My four year old explained authoritatively that the noisemakers were to scare away the monster, Nian. The other children became frightened at the thought of a monster coming, so the teacher told them that the monster was not real. My daughter was so crushed that she did not want to scare away the Nian that night. At first, I was angry at the teacher—she would never tell a child that Santa Claus was not real—but at the same time, I did not want the other children to be frightened. A monster that eats children is not the same as a kindly old toy-maker, after all, but my children had found the story so empowering because they could scare it away, and it was something that American children did not know to do. (“All the Chinese children have to scare away the Nian to protect all the American children who don’t know about it,” my four-year-old says.)
This year, at five, my daughter told me that the Nian might not be real, but we can still scare it away because it’s fun to do. And we really had a great time parading around the house at midnight in our red clothes, with all the doors open, banging on drums and tambourines, and singing at the top of our lungs. Together.
Happy New Year! Congratulations on surviving the Nian and hope you get rich –Gong Xi Fa Cai/Gung Hay Fat Choi!
Image credit: Detail from a New Year’s e-greeting card available free online from the General WWW website (www.generalwww.com/home.html), which features a wide variety of multimedia cards for the Chinese New Year. Send greetings to your family and friends! Image reposted here with permission.