Lunar New Year began February 1 and concludes 15 days later. My grandmother was born and raised in Shanghai. She attended a British boarding school. Raising a biracial family in the United States in the 1950s brought its challenges and the goal of the time was assimilation. We were not culturally Chinese, except on those days when we went to Chinese restaurants. Then we knew to eat family style; and when we poured our green tea, we took it plainly, no cream or sugar added. And once a year, there was talk of Chinese New Year, and a question of whether or not to travel to Oakland, San Francisco, or San Jose to celebrate it.
We did one year, but not again. Still, there was talk of it.
Bringing the new year in
Three or four years ago, we began to observe the Lunar New Year in our home as a way to celebrate my grandmother and offer her the gift of something old and familiar, though naturally in a distinctly Chinese-American way. I learned more of the traditions from storybooks and educational books than from the source, but the heart of it is one we can all understand.
At the heart of the Lunar New Year is a reunion.
Family comes together. Lucky money is given to youngsters enclosed in bright red envelopes, decorated with gold lettering. The feast is spread with symbolic foods. Wishes of a happy and fortunate new year are shared. I wear the jade necklace my mother gave me and the gold earrings my grandmother gave me in the days when I invited myself to stay the night at her house in Modesto, rather than drive home between work shifts. We ate and watched old movies. She told me about the old days in China, the days of employment and dances, the days of office work and flirtations, the days of the war, the days of leaving home and the strangely new and foreign days with an unfamiliar Greek-German family in the United States.
Chinese New Year joins a list of celebrations in our house, one more festivity for my children to anticipate, prepare for, and delight in. There may be children of mine who hold little connection to that Chinese heritage. There may be children of mine who have few, if any, memories of the woman for whom we began these celebrations. But they will know we celebrate. They may ask why we celebrate.
And when they do, their older brothers and sisters will tell them the story:
“Mommy’s grandmother was from China. She came here when the Communists took over. She married an American and all the Americans had to get out. The rest of her family had to stay behind.”
The week and a half before Lunar New Year, there were so many interruptions, so many commitments, so many important meetings and visits, and so many responsibilities.
“I thought you might cancel”
my mother said when we gathered that night.
My children sat around the table as their great-grandmother coached them on how to use chopsticks. After she wrote out the Chinese words for “Happy New Year” phonetically (“gung hai phat choy”), I asked her to teach us to count in Cantonese. She counted briskly three times and then moved on.
We ate recipes new and old, homemade, from the frozen aisle, and taken-out from Hughson Asian Kitchen. The imperfections did not matter.
At the heart of it was the thing mattered.
A new year full of hope.
An old year capped with gratitude.
In the center of it all
Gung hay fat choy
wishing you great happiness and prosperity
Happy New Year!