Celebrating Chinese New Year without my mother feels weird and sometimes honestly a little empty. It’s one of those things I took for granted as a child and am now solely responsible for. For two years after my mother died, I didn’t celebrate at all. I just got sad. I think I was the saddest on Chinese New Year, more than on her birthday even, or the anniversary of her death. It was always a time when she would cast off whatever burdens she had–in her work, her tumultuous marriage, or otherwise–roll up her sleeves, and create a rich and memorable celebration for me and my sister, even when we were grown and had families of our own.
In 2018, the third year after her death, I woke up from my mourning stupor and realized that if I didn’t preserve Chinese New Year traditions in my half-German Irish American children’s lives, they would be gone forever in our family.
Making Lunar New Year as big a deal as my mom did is not my goal, because really who has days and days to hop around from Asian market to Asian market and prep like that? Who even has refrigerator space for that? In China, offices and factories close for three to four weeks for the holiday so people can prepare and travel to see family.
I frequently describe Chinese New Year to my non-Asian friends as a cross between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Like Thanksgiving, it centers heavily on the meal. Like Christmas, there are gifts. For the new year, it is customary to clean your house, like a spring cleaning, and settle all debts. Everyone should also traditionally get a haircut (not happening this year because of COVID-19) and a new outfit. My kids leverage this custom to their full advantage, pre-filling their online shopping carts with expensive new clothes I normally wouldn’t buy but that they know I will say yes to for this occasion.
Chinese New Year, for our family, starts with dumpling-making. When I was little, my mom, my aunt, my sister, and I would sit around the kitchen table on plastic-covered kitchen chairs filling dumpling wrappers and folding and sealing them tight. My mom and my aunt would chatter in Mandarin, which I only partially understood, and burst out laughing always in the moments I didn’t comprehend with my limited kitchen-Chinese vocabulary.
I do this dumpling ritual with my children as a precious form of quality time, similar to decorating the Christmas tree. I make the dumpling fillings ahead of time (one traditional pork and scallion batch and one vegan batch) and buy the dumpling wrappers from an Asian grocery store. The process is time-consuming, but that’s good because it’s all about the chatter. This is where I hear about my daughter’s new podcast, my son’s kind-of girlfriend, and my little one’s funny interactions with the boys in her fifth-grade class. This is where they tell me who is dating whom, that two teachers’ aides are scandalously dating each other, and why some boy got suspended from school for “incendiary language.” Priceless.
Instead of the traditional hot pot, which is like the Thanksgiving turkey for Chinese New Year, I use the holiday as an excuse to make all my favorite Chinese foods, which are usually too labor-intensive to bother with. Chinese cooking involves a lot of slicing, dicing, homemade sauce making, and pan-frying. The clean-up involved is monumental. It’s worth it because my husband and children are exceedingly appreciative when I actually flex my Chinese culinary skills.
I usually like to invite friends to share in the celebration with us because it makes it more festive and because I am working so hard in the kitchen! This year, because of the pandemic, we had to keep it to our nuclear family, the same as Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Each food item served on Chinese New Year has symbolic meaning for the year ahead. Noodles traditionally symbolize long life (because they are long themselves), dumplings symbolize wealth (because they resemble the gold and silver ingots used as currency in ancient times), fish symbolize “plenty” (the Chinese word for fish, “yu”, sounds like the word for “surplus”), rice cakes symbolize success (the word for rice cake is “nian gao”, a homonym for “year” and “higher”), a whole chicken symbolizes family togetherness, and tangerines and oranges symbolize success (the word for tangerine is a homonym for success).
We dress up in our new clothes and feast. After dinner, each of my children (and their friends if they are present) bows to me and my husband to show respect and say “Ba Ni”, exactly as I did as a child. In return, we give them red envelopes, called “hong bao”, filled with money. Red symbolizes luck, prosperity, and celebration. Traditionally the money was meant for children to buy sweets. Since we don’t have aunties, uncles, and grandparents giving “hong bao” to my children, I give them (and their friends) each a crisp hundred in their envelope to their absolute delight. My 11-year-old’s best friend came over the day after Chinese New Year to ride bikes outside. She adorably looked at me and said “Ba Ni,” knowing I’d have an envelope for her.
When I was little, there were always a mahjong game and firecrackers after dinner. Instead, in my mixed family, we play backgammon and cards and eat dessert. Our celebration is different than the traditional one I grew up with. Back then, we had a boiling hot pot of soup in the center of the table and raw foods, like clams, beef, bok choy, mushrooms, and noodles, set out for diners to cook right at the table. This offends even my American-born sensibilities, especially since I am primarily vegan.
Our celebration is one that melds the things we like from Chinese New Year traditions with things we generally like otherwise. It achieves the same goal of family togetherness and blends the cultures of our family into a Chinese New Year celebration that feels authentic and suitable to us. My mom would be excited. If she were alive, we would no doubt be doing the traditional celebration, hosted by her. For me and my family, our new traditions are perfect.