Things change, and so do we.
New Year is just round the corner. The Chinese one, that is. Although I grew up ensconced in a Chinese family within a predominantly Chinese community, my understanding of the rituals and traditions of Chinese New Year is basic at best. I’ll put this down to leaving home at 18.
In the years leading up to that, I the child was was more interested in the new clothes for the first day of the new lunar year, the delicious Spring Festival foods and most importantly, the red packets filled with money gifted by adult family members or friends than traditions. I ‘earn’ my entire year’s pocket money in these few days of celebration. How? By smiling sweetly and obediently and greeting the ‘elders’ in the language of luck-wishing and blessings. It is after all, what ‘Gong Xi Fa Cai’ is, greetings of happiness and prosperity. I can’t escape my childhood and fortunately for me, I learnt a few things about the Chinese rituals and traditions through osmosis, the very process of being in and absorbing the ways and ‘talk’ of family members. Goodness, can they talk… and discuss and debate and query and disagree and seek justifications and… You get the picture. 🙂
During my teenage years, the universal trait of self-centredness hit. I didn’t see why I had to hang around with ‘the family’ and do visits (a tradition of visiting family and friends and paying our respects) as expected of me. I did what I was told somewhat reluctantly and was well compensated by the large number of red packets I received. A cultural aside, young people continue to receive red packets until they are married, that is when they have their own familial responsibilities and thus deemed true adults. Anyway, at the time, I was also adamant the traditions of old were of little utility. Except I didn’t know then what I know now.
The university years away from home were spent striving for excellence; finding my feet, spreading my wings… essentially learning independence within an individualistic society so very different from the one I’d left. I also became a woman in this culture. While I had regaled against gender inequalities, it was while in the ‘Western’ culture that I found a name for it – feminism. I embraced it. I saw the stamp of patriarchy everywhere. I questioned every rule, every ‘must’ and every ‘should’… ‘scary’ I know :-). Anyway during these years, cultural traditions were hardly on my list of things to learn, especially when the traditions I have encountered are ‘man’-made.
I am now of a certain age (I so do not like the word ‘mid-life’) with a family. Rather than being useful from the perspective of utilitarianism, I realise rituals and traditions are beneficial for the sense of community, belonging and connection they engender.
The past few years have been years of discovering my roots, of understanding rather than judging the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of these Chinese traditions, of coming to terms with them. It doesn’t mean I will follow or agree with all of them. Some are indeed archaic. However I am much less quick to disavow them. Dare I say, I pick and choose :-).
So it is this year, by royal decree … well, I suggested that everyone dons their red outfit for the reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve. Red is an auspicious colour, in my interpretation one that shouts ‘look at me, don’t you (good fortune, good health and all things lucky) pass me by’. I am not a fan of the colour ‘red’ but we will go with it. Red lanterns and other auspicious symbolic items are decorating my home.
One family tradition that has been kept up till now is the reunion dinner on the eve. It is a time for family members to return to the fold. In the distant past, only sons and their families are welcomed back while married daughters ‘belonged’ to the families into which they married so there they went. Unmarried daughters of course belong to the family. Phew?! This tradition is now somewhat diluted, less stringent and it has become an great ‘excuse’ to have the family together. This has extended to close friends. Even my teenage son, born and bred in Australia, knows not to make alternate plans on the day.
The observation of rituals and traditions create a shared space, a place for conversations between generations especially between my children and their grandparents. This year I am going to relax into this space. Being mindful of and grateful for the souls present at the table.
Tradition bonds the people privileged within its process. We share a common goal if only briefly and a shared understanding of the meanings behind the celebration. We are each held up by the irrefutable sense of ‘you are one of us’.
I hope these rituals of celebration – preparing food, the gathering of loved ones and well-wishing – will give everyone, especially the elders, a celebratory sense of good fortune to begin the year, and in the process compels communication, forge some connection, and hopefully a sense of belonging.
So for those who celebrate Chinese New Year, I wish you love and belonging in your family, and connection with those around you.
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