First and foremost, Happy Chinese New Year! This year celebrates the year of the Snake. You can read more about it here.
It is the second day of the lunar new year and a full 16 years + a day of my favorite person’s passing. My grandfather was, in a way, someone who held the family together. My grandfather was the man in my life, my role model, and someone who took care of me from the day I was born till the day of his passing on February 10, 1997.
As a child, Chinese New Year was a big deal. It involved days of preparation, with the women in the house prepping and cleaning all the nooks and crannies to insure that as the big day approached, the house, as well as all the food were in order and ready to go. My grandmother was the master dumpling, or aka Jiao-zi maker. My mother was her sous chef. I, with my pigtails, was the sous sous chef. Giant platters of fresh dumplings were hand made from scratch, days before the big celebration, with each dumpling carrying finger imprints from one of the many female helping hands. The family altar was carefully set up, with “seats” for both of my grandparents’ ancestors. One for my grandmother’s family, the Chen’s, and one for my grandfather’s family, the Wang’s, which I fall under. The altar was the focal point of the house. Fish, meat, chicken, platters of whole fruit, dim sum goodies, wine, tea, crackers, cookies…anything to offer our ancestors for 3 days were laid out in grand style on top of a giant festive red cloth that covered the altar table.
(Our little altar)
Red. It seemed like everything was suddenly cloaked in an auspicious red tone. Incense. The smell of chinese incense filled the house for days on end. It is a fragrance that is still etched deep in my heart and my soul…
My favorite part of Chinese New Year preparations was the final moment where everything was laid out, ready to go and my grandfather would begin counting the incense sticks. 7. 8. The number is foggy to me now. He’d give me 2 or 3 of my own and I’d follow him out into our backyard at dusk, on new year’s eve, mimicking everything he did. We lit our incense sticks with the tops pointing down, so the flames would rise up in an effort to make sure each stick was lit. He kneeled, I kneeled. He raised the incense sticks to the sky, I did the same. He asked for our ancestors to come join us in celebration of Chinese New Years, I muttered the same words under my breath. We would bow 3 times, forehead to earth and then I’d get up with him, giddy with excitement that our ancestors were coming with us back into the house. I would ask him how he knew they were following us and he would ask me if I could see the smoke from the incense. Yes, grandpa, I see the smoke, I would say. He would confirm that those in fact, were our ancestors in smoke form, joining us, ready to feast. I was maybe 6 years old. We did this for many many years…
I loved Chinese New Year. I loved everything it represented: family, hearth, celebration, and the receiving of those awesome little red envelopes filled with money even before I knew what money truly was. It was a time where family reigned king…when young and old came together, 4 generations under one roof…AND it was a time of the year when we each made out like a bandit, hundreds of dollars richer, for simply kow-towing to the elders. Mom would secretly pull us aside and ask us how much we got from this auntie and that uncle, simply so she can make sure to return the same when she gifted their children with their own red envelopes.
As we got older with each year’s passing, the festivities began to shorten in duration. The preparation time began later and later, right up until the day before the new year, and the celebration time also seemingly got cut short. Perhaps it was the natural course for an immigrant family assimilating into Western society that caused these cultural traditions to subside, or perhaps the torch bearers who carried these traditions from the old country into the new country began to age…or perhaps it was a combination of both. Or, maybe it was a combination of us children growing up, having our own social calendars to tend to, and not being so interested in our heritage anymore as we tried to become more and more western in an effort to fit in.
Through the years, traditions began to wane until they were no longer. This made me sad. My grandparents, who were the primary driving force behind these celebrations, simply couldn’t keep up. Both were getting older, and without the excitement from family and extended family, it is tough to keep the traditions going themselves. I can understand that.
Then my grandfather passed away. He was 86 years old. With his passing, almost all of our family and our cultural traditions went along with him to the grave. The only practice that has stayed within the family is the yearly visit to clean his grave on Qingming Jie, and the yearly half hour visit to burn paper and bring food in “celebration” of Chinese New Year.
This is hardly a celebration in my book.
I asked my mom whether or not they set up the family altar this year. She said they haven’t for many, many years. A couple of days ago, the day before Chinese New Year’s eve, I got a sudden wave of nostalgia. Visions of what this special time was in our lives kept flashing page, after page through my mind. I missed those days. I missed my grandfather. I missed the incense. I missed the color red. I missed everything so much that I decided I was going to begin what is to become my own family tradition with my new little family…my husband, myself, and our two little furry kids, Jaxxon and Shiva.
You see, we are a bi-racial couple, married less than a year, trying to find our own footing in what is important to us and what “family” truly means. For me, family is about honoring roots. It is about embracing heritage and celebrating our beautiful cultures blending together. My husband is a gem. At first I felt sheepish, a little embarrassed at what I was going to be setting up in our house. I spent the morning of new year’s eve, bed-head, unbrushed teeth and all, sprawled out at the dining room table, practicing my chinese calligraphy, something my grandfather taught me before I even knew how to hold a pencil. I wanted to calligraphy the name cards of my ancestors, just like what my grandfather used to do, except my calligraphy is a joke. It is an effort of the 6 year old, trapped in this 34 year old’s body, trying to re-create the beautiful words that my grandfather, in his own effortless, magestic way used to create. These name cards are really like giant place cards. Taped to a stick. In my case, it was taped to a chopstick and stuck in a little bowl of rice so the rice can hold the chopstick up with the red paper “name card” taped to it. What was my husband going to think of my crazy rendition of my family altar? How do I explain to him that my ancestors were going to “sit” and “feast” with us, in our living room for three days straight? Would he be grossed out at my plans to lay out a whole fish with the head still firmly attached? And what about the chicken? The whole chicken with the neck and head and the gizzards still intact? Sticky rice gow? Turnip cake? A giant meat steak, blanched only in hot water?
My husband’s pretty great. I married him for good reason. He not only didn’t think it was weird, he fully loved and supported me as I went out on a crazy limb to reclaim my lineage. After I invited the ancestor spirits into our house, he even took part in honoring my ancestors with lighting his own incense, bowing, and paying his respects. It was really cute. Really sweet.
This year, as I resurrect what I think is a dying cultural practice within my generation and move forward as my family’s torch bearer of my ancestral customs and traditions, it makes me proud to embrace my heritage. I hope our future children will also embrace theirs proudly as well. It is what makes us unique and special. I want my family to have strong roots, and I want my children to know where they came from. As a future parent, I believe it is my responsibility to pass on as much as I know, as much as I remember, so my children are firmly anchored in their culture and understand what it means to honor family and traditions.
This year is special…Chinese New Year fell on the day of my Grandfather’s passing…16 years ago yesterday. Happy New Year, Grandpa and happy Chinese New Year to everyone, with a big toast to those born in the year of the Snake!