Monday, February 07, 2005

Chinese New Year is When?

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!


Chao said...

Chinese New Year's Eve: 2/8/05
Chinese New Year: 2/9/05

Anonymous said...

Lynn, thought you might be interested to know some of the history behind the celebration of the lunar new year. Historically, the chinese were a agrarian society whose life revolved around the seasons of the year.
They, therefore, worked 24/7 all year with planting, birthing in the spring, tending fields durng the summer and preparing the harvest in the fall. With the onset of winter, they prepared for the long cold by preparing produce that could be stored and slaughtering and salting and airdrying meats.
At the start of the year when the first green shoots of spring flowers begin to show, they take their only break for the year, a whole 15-day period of feasting and play and visiting. Your parents were right about about eating meat because agrarian society rarely ate much meat all year thus the indulgence feasting on meats during this time of the year. Of course, with modern society it does seem unduly indulgent and compounds all our modern ills of obesity.

In Singapore we keep some of these traditions of marking spring with flowers, feasting with family and friends and the hong pao which are tokens for children often carried over to unmarried adults up to a certain age.
We also like to give these token to certain people, like our postmen, garbage collectors and others who render some kind of service to us during the year. Generally, we like to show our appreciation and this is as good a time as any other.

Karen said...

Oh so you grew up in Shanghai? I've never been there but hope to visit in the future, preferably during the festivities. I wonder how my paternal grandparents celebrated it before...

Lynn said...

Oh, you should definitely go to Shanghai for a visit, Karen. I go at least once a year, just for food. I have a post in December on Shanghai with some pictures that you can look at.

Lynn said...

Thanks to anonymous on explaining the CNY tradition. It makes a bit more sense now.

Karen said...

I checked the December entry and yes, I would go even just to appease the ancestors, hehehe!

Now, the question is when. :-)