The fading Chinese New Year memories

Last Thursday (19th February 2015), Chinese people around the world celebrated The Year of the Sheep. Traditionally Chinese New Year is a period of 15 days, so it is still a time of celebration today.

However I live in England, and Chinese New Year seems to have lost its charm on me. Many of my English calendars don’t even mark Chinese New Year as an event. I must admit in the past I sometimes forgot that new year had arrived until I was asked, “Er, is this the year of the…?”

When my son was little, I took him to see some Lion Dance performances and occasional entertainments in the nearest town in England. We would do craft and I read him stories of Chinese myths, so he knows a few. I used to have a small circle of Chinese friends, and we would get together once in a while and shared Chinese food, especially during the new year time.

Lion Dance performance in Southampton, south of England, 2014.

Lion Dance performance in Southampton, south of England, 2014.

I had a huge collection of Chinese New Year decoration – those typical red lanterns, scrolls, and symbolic items such as plastic fish and fake oranges. I still have hundreds of red packets at home that I hardly use. I even had a large model of a lion’s head attaching to a long robe – for children to perform Lion Dance under the bright, stripy robe.

Two years ago, I was fed up with all my collection of the Chinese New Year and took all items to a charity shop.

I decided that I cannot capture the essence of the Chinese New Year in England, and any effort in decoration is futile in trying to create the new year atmosphere in the house.

My child has also grown up.

My son and I visited China Town in London during school holiday two weeks ago.

My son and I visited China Town in London during school holiday two weeks ago.

What is tradition and how do you re-create tradition while you are away from the authentic environment?

Chinese New Year back home as a small child

Chinese New Year was a family event for me as a child. When I was little, there was no street performances and there was certainly no major public celebration. Neighbours would get together to set off firecrackers which were tied to a tree. I was often terrified by the explosion.

Shops would close for business for at least two days; streets were deserted. As the youngest child in the family, my main duty was not to say stupid things that might have upset visiting relatives. I kept quiet most of the time as there were too many taboos around the new year. For example, I should never utter the word ‘book’ during the new year, as book is a homophone for ‘losing money’. Adults would blame you if they lose money during gambling as you have mentioned the unspeakable word – ‘book’, causing offense.

My mother would kill a few chickens two days before the new year and I was her able assistant. We kept corn-fed chickens months before the Chinese New Year. My main job was to pluck the chicken.

Lion Dance in Southampton, 2014.

Lion Dance in Southampton, 2014.

Preserving tradition and integration

Some people preserve their tradition and old ways of life wherever they go. They eat the same food from childhood. They follow traditional rituals even when they have moved away. Some people adapt a bit, but some people I know never adapt in a new environment.

In England, there are places where the English language is not needed as people have formed their own ghettos. Some people do not feel the need to adapt or integrate into the mainstream society as their community is complete with community school, supermarkets, and places of worship.

When my son was small, it was entertaining to be creative with the seasons. I was trying to bring up a child with cultural awareness. It resulted in my vast collection of cheap commercialised New Year red items, and my effort in creating Chinese New Year ambiance in a foreign land. Perhaps I was trying too hard.

Having lived in England for nearly 20 years, I’m more used to the festivals and tradition here. I’ve changed a great deal and the most significant change is that I no longer eat rice everyday. I don’t even have a rice cooker anymore. Now I eat rice occasionally and I cook it from a saucepan. Just a few weeks ago, I left some rice cooking on the stove, made a cup of tea, and drank the tea in the lounge next to my computer. Half way through typing I smelt something from the kitchen. I had burnt the rice. A Chinese person had just burnt some rice. Now I need a new saucepan as I couldn’t remove the charred stains on the saucepan.

Year of the Sheep 2015. I made these origami sheep and cards.

Year of the Sheep 2015. I made these origami sheep and cards.

Forming new tradition

I bet we all form our own new tradition once we have our own families. My husband’s family is affectionate and generous with gifts – some of the Easter chocolate eggs that they bought us last year are still around. At Christmas time, gift giving in our family is a ritual that normally takes hours and wouldn’t end until my head started to spin.

I don’t seem to worry about any taboo around Christmas time. Christmas is family-oriented in our family in England, though many family members are not Christian. Receiving presents is a good feeling to have especially when the gifts we receive are well thought of.

When we used to keep a few chicken in the back garden, my mother-in-law bought us an egg boiler one Christmas because she didn’t trust that I could boil an egg from a saucepan :-). In recent years, I’ve devoted some time in my favourite papercraft origami, and my sister-in-law and her lovely kids bought me packs of beautiful origami papers from Germany.

My friend Hazel knows about Chinese culture - she bought me this red scarf and a red greeting card this year.

My friend Hazel knows about Chinese culture – she bought me this red scarf and a red greeting card this year.

The dilemma: giving red packets

In Chinese New Year, we received money in red packets, however I didn’t know how many lucky children got to keep the money themselves in the 70s. I remember I used to transfer some of my red packets to my mother so that she could recycle the money to other visiting kids. From a very young age, I learnt that red packets were just a token. And I appreciated how challenging it was for any struggling family to keep up with the tradition of giving red packets.

Money giving is a sign of blessing, goodwell, and most adults give red packets to children out of love (and duty), but the whole concept of money giving also results in a problem with ‘keeping face / losing face’. Giving red packets is an art which is difficult to get it right: a mother must give red packet to visiting children. If she gives too little, she might be considered mean; if she gives too much, she herself suffers financially.

Last week at a small gathering with a few friends, I gave all children £2 in red packets. My son also only got £2 for the new year. All children seemed happy.

I wish you all a happy, blessed, healthy new year.

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10 thoughts on “The fading Chinese New Year memories

  1. Behind the Story

    I love the picture of you and your son! Also the origami sheep. They’re beautiful.

    You gave a good description of the dilemma of giving red packets. You learned early that they are just a token.

    When we lived in the Philippines, it was fairly easy to adjust to their tropical way of celebrating the Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter. But it was nearly impossible to celebrate American holidays like Independence Day, American Thanksgiving, and Halloween.

    Reply
  2. Debbie

    Thank you for this post, Janet. When I am in Australia, Chinese New Year just doesnt seem the same – after living in China for so long, when in Aus at that time of year I would miss the fireworks, the collection of ‘red stuff’ in the shops, – a few gong fu shows in Chinatown just didn’t seem the same.
    It’s funny that not only do you not eat much rice – but you burnt the rice! lol.. I do burn things often when I get waylayed with my cuppa, but I admit to owning a rice cooker – much easier.

    My Chinese relatives here all shake their head and wonder how I could possibly be full when I don’t eat much white rice ( despite how much of other things I might eat) and the kitchen Ayis at work cannot deal with me saying I don’t like to eat much rice and always put a bit on my plate!

    Debbie

    Reply
  3. ShimonZ

    A very happy and healthy year for you and your loved ones, Janet. It is always a pleasure to read of your traditions,,, even if, with time, there is integration and change as you absorb new traditions in the place of some you’ve left behind.

    Reply
  4. pc

    Perhaps, go back to Malaysia for CNY? That’s what we do here- take risk of highway traffic jam to travel back and forth of almost 10 hours drive (split into two rides) every year. Singapore has lost the true ambience of CNY too. Many of them take it as holiday and only some keep the tradition of having close-knitted family reunion and get-together, as far as I learn from my friends here.

    祝你新春愉快!

    Reply
  5. Naomi Baltuck

    Dear Janet,
    Happy New Year! This was a very interesting post. Many Americans have ancestors who have come from other parts of the world. I think it is harder to maintain the traditions, but it also enriches your children’s lives. The most important thing is to tell your children the family stories.

    Reply
  6. Gopi

    Janet,

    Very touching and honest. I completely agree with your views. In our case, it seemed quite artificial to force Indian culture down our son’s throat (he was born n Sheffield). So, he has grown up without knowing or caring much about India. That’s OK by us. We rather that he chose for himself the culture that he was most comfortable with. He could, when the time is right for him, discover the rest of the world including India. Our focus had been to make sure he grew up with integrity and developed into a decent person. We have been successful in this respect.

    We celebrate Christmas although we are Hindus by religion (I am only religious to the extent that post mortem, my body may be disposed with following the Hindu traditions). Hinduism is a convenient religion. You can accept or reject it, and it just lets you be.

    I know many Indians, some of them well educated professionals, who ghettoise themselves and live in a mini India in the UK, USA, Australia, Dubai etc. I know Brits and other Europeans who live in India as if the 1.2 billion Indians didn’t exist! It is always a case of birds of a feather …
    Albert Camus, has said that man is the most absurd of God’s creations. Not a truer word has been spoken.

    Gopi

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams 張玉雲 Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Gopi.
      You are right – some people prefer their ways of life and without trying to intergrate, and I certainly have met many people like that. Some may ask, why intergrate? Who said we must intergrate? It is about ‘diversity’ and uniqueness. For me, I feel that the Brisith way of life is fascinating to discover, and I’ve enjoyed my own journey of discovery. My son, like your son, was born here and he fully identify himself as British, and Chinese culture is almost alien to him, though he has had quite some exposure to it. When the time is right, and when he chooses to do so, he could explore the world of his mother’s culture, and learn the language in his own way.

      Reply

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