Chinese New Year Celebrations: I Miss Chinese New Year Like Crazy
I miss Chinese New Year….like crazy. And if you know what crazy means, you know how much I miss it. The last time I celebrated Chinese New Year proper was 13 years ago. Now, that’s a long time, even in this electronic age. Sure, I live just 45 minutes from the nearest Chinese enclave with a thriving Asian population and if I step into 99 Ranch Market (the biggest Asian store) here, I may be able to catch a little of the spirit of Chinese New Year. I may be able to find some Chinese New Year goodies, some traditional flowers and the must-have angpaos (red packets for holding money) but there are nowhere in comparison when I remember the good old days—back home when the whole country stops to celebrate. How can you recapture that?
No, you can’t.
I’ve tried going to Chinese New Year celebration hosted by Chinatown. Sure, they have the dragon dance, and martial arts demonstration, barbecue meats and noodles and sticky rice cakes and streams of people( especially the overseas Chinese) trying to capture the mood but by my reckoning, the looks betray disappointment, a longing for the real deal.
What’s the real deal, you ask?
The real deal begins a month before…when little dough balls are made in red and white to celebrate the winter solstice. These little dough balls (my mom called them “yi” in my Teochew dialect) are drenched in sweet syrup and then eaten for good luck. She then dutifully placed pairs of dough balls on windows. The significance? I really don’t know—you tend to take things for granted until you’re transported miles away.
As the “yi’ are basking in the sun in the days ahead, the world seems to rearrange themselves to welcome Spring, the reason for Chinese New Year celebration—the first day of Spring. The balmy breeze starts, fresh and refreshingly nippy, playing with your hair and awakening your senses. Awakening your senses to the visual treats that are about to unfold. Store fronts transform themselves into bludgeoning display of Chinese New Year treats—barrels of red melon seeds, candied winter melon, peanuts coated with pastel sweet crusts, love letters (the Singapore version of pirouettes), pineapple tarts and preserved sweet olives and prunes—all sitting pretty and inviting under the bright orange lights (the merchants’ smart alecky way of enticing you to buy) and you find yourself slowing down a bit and then to a halt as you give in to your sweet cravings. And of course, the sellers tell you everything is auspicious and everything is eaten for good luck and you indulge to good conscience.
Treats and more treats—savory ones that you must have for guests when they come visiting. Barbecue meats, sweating on charcoal grill and the ensuing aroma is almost intoxicating, adding to the mood and the ambience and you can’t wait. Sights and then sounds—Chinese New Year music flowing out of shops to kick up the mood even more and you find yourself humming along—a care-free soul walking down the street of treats. The world whirls in a kaleidoscope of colors and sounds and you’re a happy participant.
Then there are flowers you must have ---lanky pussy willows with shy fuzzy white buds waiting for the occasion to burst forth—every family has to buy some—if buds burst forth their encasing, you’re assured of good luck—so they say. Well, you got to buy some—a bunch, a handful or your year will be doubtful. Kumquats, chrysanthemum and miniature orange trees are all harbingers of prosperity too. The common echo as you stroll, “buy, buy, buy,” and the playful haggling over the price—an Asian trait you have to acquire if you want to shop for deals.
“My best price for you, miss—nowhere else, only for you, my sweet miss”
“You call that a good price? I just passed one stall and they are selling these for $2 less.”
“You must be kidding. Look at these—the freshest, the best—where else?”
The trick is always to pretend you’re not interested—walk away and if you hear the seller calling out to you, you know you have yourself a deal.
“Hey, miss—alright, alright—for you, I’ll take a loss.”
It’s a frenzied throng and you don’t even mind it—it only serves to drum up the mood and you find yourself carried along, too caught up with whole spirit of Chinese New Year to notice the heat and the sweat and the glare and blaring music and the constant haggling over prices—it’s all part and parcel and you love every minute of it.
Now, that’s what I miss.
Of course, I miss my family and the camaraderie that seems particularly sweet at this time as we huddle together to make new year treats and crack gingko nuts while we exchange friendly banter and fight over who gets the “drumstick” when my mom serves the soya sauce chicken at the reunion dinner (see there are only two from the chicken and drum stick (an inside joke) means you’re the favored one). The favored one of my mom. Well, I know I already know I’m the favored one, so I let my brothers fight it out.
But how do you even begin to share the joy of being in a family at this time of the year? No, you don’t, so I’ll stop here
Copyright @ Angeline Oppenheimer
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