What day is it now? Is it Feb 6th? Is it Chinese New Year (CNY) yet? I mean, I knew the elusive (to me only?) CNY is just around the corner, but I didn’t know exactly when until my friend told me (to make it even more elusive, the date changes from year to year because of the wonderful thing called the Lunar Calendar). As it turns out, it’s this week, Tuesday? Wednesday? I didn’t expect it to sneak up on me like this. Not that it would’ve made any difference. Growing up, my family never really celebrated CNY. Can you believe I’d never received a single Hong Bao (Ang Pao, 压岁钱，年玉) or whatever you call it until I was a grownup in Singapore? Yes, the Singaporeans, as I found out, have this wonderful tradition of giving out Hong Bao to not just kids, but all unmarried adults too! So the S$1 Hong Bao that I received at the “tender” age of 25 was the very first Hong Bao in my life! Talk about a deprived childhood!
To this day, I never quite figured out exactly why my family didn’t bother to celebrate. Was it laziness? Lack of interest? Or because our domestic helper always goes home to the countryside on CNY, leaving nobody to do the cooking and cleaning? I will never know. I remember only once, when my cousins came to Shanghai to spend the winter holidays, we had fireworks at night, but that was the extent of the celebration. No new padded jackets or shoes, no elaborate New Year’s eve dinner (年夜饭) and certainly no Hong Bao.
Most of our neighbors start buying foodstuff for the New Year (年货) in December. Meats were cured and hung out to dry, hens are brought back from the market and kept in the kitchen (to be fattened so they are ready to be cooked by CNY), relatives from other cities start to arrive. You could feel the festivity in the air. But all is quite in the Chen household. Things went on as usual, as it does any other time of the year. I remember my mom explaining it to me this way, “ People make a big deal out of the CNY and cook copious amount of meat and fish because they don’t usually eat them on a daily basis. Since we eat meat and fish everyday, there is no need to make CNY a special occasion.” I can’t believe I bought that! Ok, so it’s true that back in those days the majority of Chinese people, even in a big city like Shanghai, lived on monthly salaries of about $10 and meat dishes do not make daily appearances at dinner tables of ordinary households. And it is true that we were fortunate enough to have a diet with a heavier dose of meat and fish than other people, but is that the reason to skip the celebration altogether?
I remember my cousin, who goes to his fraternal grandparents’ house for CNY every year even though my grandmother (his maternal grandmother) did not like it. Could you blame him? His fraternal grandmother cooks, among other things, an Eight-Treasure-Duck (八宝鸭) every CNY. I’ve never had it, but from what I heard, it must be pretty darn tasty.
Of course, CNY is not all about the food (I am sure there are other things but having never experienced it, I wouldn’t know what they are, now would I?). If I just want the food, I can always buy or even make it myself if I so wish, but you can’t make up for the experience, especially from a child’s perspective. I guess what it comes down to is that if you have kids, even if you don’t want to be bogged down with all the “tradition” you should make an effort for your kids’ sake so they don’t miss out on anything. When they grow up, they can decide if they want to carry on the tradition or say to hell with it, but parents should do their part to make sure the kids at least know what it is about.
There you go, another reason why dogs are so much better kid-substitutes. Libby’s happy with a bone or some liver cakes. No need to make a whole roasted pig on CNY to keep her happy!