The Daring Escape from Chinese New Year

BY SIMONE ERASMUS-LAM
Feb 02, 2011
*Special to asia!

This Chinese New Year, I’ll be making an escape. But I’m not feeling as good about it as I thought I would.

I remember sweating.

At Chinese New Year, that is. The celebration of the mainland’s spring season which descends upon every sizeable Chinese diaspora across the world does not, of course, always take place when the flowers are wont to bloom, and the air has just lost its winter chill.

In Singapore, the Chinese New Year has traditionally arrived with a blast of tropical heat. And so I recall, as The Authorities bestowed upon me brand new dresses – a rule for every Chinese New Year, that new clothes must be worn on the first day – I would dread the visiting of relatives that would have to take place. I knew I would be tugging at my collar, feeling the sweat trickle down my back, creating splotches of damp that would widen as the day wore on.

As happened every year, we would be bundled into a car, and find ourselves visiting household upon household – the grandparents first. The grandchildren would kneel and offer tea, and receive red packets (ang baos) of token cash in return. And we would wait for instructions from above to visit the next home, where as luck would have it, we would join a group of 10 other relatives, seated on plastic chairs about a tiny coffee table, sweltering in the mid-day heat while sharing a tiny standing fan.

It meant sweating from house to house, sweating as we sat in the heat, nibbling at kuehs – or cakes – while awkwardly attempting conversation with relatives we saw but once a year. Sweating as we walked along the maze of flats, finding brief respite in the car before entering another home to offer respectful, stilted conversation again.

Traditions were not to be messed with.

As a teenager asserting independence, I often wondered out loud – in a timorous test of The Authorities – if I could escape the New Year visiting. Perhaps I could stay at home? I’d be able to finish some homework! The response to my hopeful lie was always stony silence. I drew up existentialist questions next. What’s all this about? I’d plead. Why do we have to visit people we’ll only see a year from now? So what’s the meaning of Chinese New Year? The silence would grow all the more withering. Traditions were not to be messed with.

As I grew older, I learned to accept the conversation that came with visiting. Questions of exam results turned to questions about when I’d be getting married. Newly married as I am, I anticipate the next few years will involve relatives surreptitiously eyeing my waist to see if I’m expecting (no, it’s really just fat.) I can survive the relatives; I’ve even begun to enjoy it. I found out last year a granduncle is a fabulous ballroom dancer. Another grandaunt who bakes one-of-a-kind Chinese New Year treats may just share her recipes with me, if I bug her enough.

It’s just been the weather that kills me.

But this Chinese New Year, well...bah, humbug!

I’m making a daring escape from this festive season, this inanely joyous celebration of family and feasting. I’ve booked a getaway abroad, and I’ve done it willfully, rebelliously. I’ve joyfully clutched at my tickets, holding them like the keys to freedom.

And I’ve done it all by skilfully employing Chinese tradition against aforementioned Authorities. Newly married, I have become part of the man’s family now – The Authorities that traditionally dictated my Chinese New Year no longer hold the same sway. With the backing of a modern mother-in-law and an indulgent husband, I declared to the said Authorities that I will be “taking some time off” this season. So no visiting this year. I could sense a small inner struggle, then grudging acquiescence. I had won.

But my sense of elation has been short-lived. I’ve been all fidgety this past week.

I’ve been feeling guilt.

I felt it when explaining to my grandmother I would not be able to visit. She said it was all right, but I couldn't help but notice the surprise – or was it disguised disappointment? – in her voice. To assuage my own burdened conscience, I helped her with the preparation of baked Chinese New Year treats, a typically laborious, six-hour task. I kneaded my guilt away on pineapple tart pastry dough; I sweat it out over a hot oven.

You see, I’m convinced of a tiny, long-bearded Confucius that resides in a deep recess of every Chinese person’s brain, offering both lauding and condemnation as Confucius sees fit.

But why all this guilt? Some of my friends have asked. They say I’m being nonsensical – but they’re not Chinese. You see, I’m convinced of a tiny, long-bearded Confucius that resides in a deep recess of every Chinese person’s brain, offering both lauding and condemnation as Confucius sees fit. And at the risk of immediate admission for psychotherapy, the half-Chinese me hears his condemnation for abandoning tradition that centres around respect for the elders. I can hear him as he strokes his metre-long chin tuft, echoing the words – his own words – on the back of the standard-issue exercise books we had in primary school:

Nation above community

Community above family

Family above self

 

374

 

And so by escaping the sweltering festival of spring, have I now placed self before family? And by proxy, that can mean I’ve desecrated the orders that precede it. So I might as well have turned against the entire Chinese community. And for that, I’ve just about messed with my nation as well. Oh, what have I done?

As I pack for my trip and cast my thoughts to the feasting and general merry-making that will happen when I’m away, I feel a small pang of regret. But then I think about the visiting in the heat, making the seemingly endless rounds from house to house, receiving questions about my ever-widening belly (once again, it’s fat), and I strengthen my resolve. No, I think, patting my passport and looking lovingly at my tickets. This is a well-deserved break. And every day should be about joy, family and merriment, shouldn’t it? Why reserve such acts of love and blessing for just two weeks in a year?

So I’ve prepared myself for the questions that will come next new year. “Where were you last year?” “Two years never see you already, you put on weight ah!” Sigh. I’ve told myself it’s all worth it.

And then I hear the news.

The National Environmental Agency has told us all to be prepared for a surprising event – persistent rainfall and strong winds over the next week.

Which can only mean one thing – this Chinese New Year, the weather will be very, very cool.

Simone ErasmusWhen she isn't writing children's storybooks or expounding on food, Simone can be found in the kitchen, concocting fiery curries or bravely attempting layers of genoise. She has written for The Business Times Singapore, and also contributed to research in arts and culture across the region at the National University of Singapore. She is currently writing a series of books for preschoolers, to be published soon to the iPhone and iPad.

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