Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A New kind of Chinese New Year?

Come February 7th, 2008 (Thursday), millions of people of Chinese ethnic origin, or who have some relationship with Chinese heritage will be celebrating the Lunar New Year (农历新年), welcoming the year of the Rat. It is also a tradition to welcome the Spring Festival. In many countries in Asia with a sizable Chinese population, there will be various events like the lion dance, fireworks and fire-crackers that colours the whole streets red, which is an auspicious colour. Even businesses that is open 7 days a week, will make this one exception to shut down during this festive period. Generous bonuses are sometimes given out.

At home, the New Year's Eve marks one of the most important traditional dinners, where family members are expected to come together for a sumptuous meal, preferably a steamboat. It is probably the most important dinner of the year. Many members of the family will make special effort to come for this meal, regardless of the distances.

Living in the West, Chinese New Year celebrations have largely been limited to places like Chinatown or shopping malls that have a large Chinese presence. Some have lamented that celebrating Chinese New Year overseas in the West is not the same as back home. If that was 10 years ago, I would have readily agreed. As many Chinese people become more exposed to the West, and the effects of busyness and easy travel packages, I think Chinese New Year is fast losing its meaning among the young and people who prefer convenience over all other things. Even in Asia, this tradition is fast losing its meaning.

Firstly, I have noticed a steady rise of people signing up for travel packages during this relatively longer holiday season. Some forgo the New Year's eve dinner, and the traditional visitations.

Secondly, as businesses become more competitive, many even stayed open throughout the festive season to cash in on the opportunities to increase sales. People used to say that during Chinese New Year, the only restaurants open are the Malay, Indian stalls and McDonalds! Not anymore. Some businesses give up tradition for their occupation. They surrender family togetherness for professional work. The justification is that, if the family does not make enough money, how can they then feed the family?

Thirdly, the wok is perceived as more work than worth. People find it more convenient to simply eat out and let the restaurants take care of the food preparation, the layout, the cleaning and the washing. All the family members needed to do is to show up and pay the bill after eating. Easy. Opportunities to build family closeness have been lost, save for that small 1-2 hour time at the dinner table. The justification is that it is much more convenient to avoid the work and the spend "quality time" at the dinner table. I wonder if these people have ever treated family time beyond the dinner table? Isn't it true that as one peels onions, another cut potatoes they communicate along the way, about their past year? Isn't it possible that as they prepare the rice, chop the garlic and wash the vegetables, they start to relax and commence casual chatting? Isn't it a time for them to learn from one another new recipes, even learning how to cook? Isn't it wonderful that as all family members chip in to help lay the tablecloth, arrange the chairs, cutlery and bring out the dishes, there is a certain sense of pride in doing that, serving one another in the family? Also, when it is time to clean up, the children gets to see how the adults help one another in clearing the dishes and in the process, they learn something about serving one another? During the dinner, those who have prepared the dinner can share about how the crab was cooked, or the vegetables were selected. They can talk about their rush in the market. They can share humourous experience or irritating moments during the days leading up to the New Year's dinner. They can appreciate that the food in front of them, came with a personal cost and dedication. That of love for the family. Is it not a pity when these moments are now becoming rare, even despised? People who gives up work for the sake of convenience are not only forsaking the 'troublesome' chores. They may have unwittingly lost precious moments to bond with each other.

I retain vivid memories of my younger days (during the 1970s) in my maternal grandmother's village in Malaysia. We lived in a simple house. Some draw water from the well (there is no tap). Some prepared the fire with firewood (there is no oven or gas stove). Some prepare the vegetables, meat and spices with busy activities, with fun and laughter. The men will help to arrange the tables and chairs. The young children play, but their older siblings will be given duties to do. Everyone plays a part. Life was simple without the latest equipment or technology. There were no cell phones to interrupt our conversations. Internet and the computers were unheard of. Nowadays, kids spend most of their time with their portable Gameboys or Nintendos. Some surf the net and come to the dinner table only when everything else is ready. We are breeding a new generation who thinks that time with technological devices are more important, than face to face with another human person.

Coming back to the idea of convenience. I think not everyone is ready to let go the pursuit of convenience. It may be cheap on the pocket and on time, but it is a price to pay in terms of another year lost. If the Chinese New Year traditional dinner is so important, we should not simply sub-contract them to others. There is a difference in climbing a mountain, compared to simply reaching the peak on a electrical tram. For the former, one uses the muscles and determination to reach the top. The the latter, one depends on technology to do all the work. The beauty and serenity of the mountain is reduced to its peak. (Those of us who believe that 'the process, not only the product' is equally important will understand.)

I have only mentioned three points, the travel, the businesses and the dinner table. There are lots of other traditional practices which I have not mentioned. Suffice to say that we are increasingly infected by a rising shift toward individualism (eg travel), opportunistic and to some extent greed (eg business), and to a large extent a culture of convenience/pragmatism. Put all of these three together, we will have concocted a crude cocktail that can erode tradition. When that happens, a part of the Chinese identity would have been lost.

Learn to cherish moments of togetherness not simply by eating together. Embrace those situations where "work" can become less burdensome when shared. Do cleanups together as a family. Let each member play a part. Not simply you-cook-I-eat but we all prepare, we all enjoy and celebrate our family heritage together. This is what makes Chinese New Year special. It will be a shame to lose that tradition.

All said, wherever you are, think and pray before we act. Do not blindly follow what other people are doing. Traveling abroad during this time may be a good time for family vacation, but it does little/even nothing to strengthen bonds with paternal and maternal family relations. For businesses, take care of your employees. Giving them days off to celebrate with their families can boost morale greatly. A simple dinner prepared with an earnest heart with one's own hands together with others, beat any posh dinner prepared by the best chefs. There could be moments where travel, or keeping businesses open, or going out for dinner can be more appropriate. However, we should limit it to an exception rather than the norm. If it becomes more frequent, we can say goodbye to tradition. Hold on to our tradition. It is not simply our heritage, it is part of our identity.

Have a Happy and meaningful year of the Rat.


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