It was again the day before the Chinese Spring festival.
Everyone has their favorite day of the year: some people love birthdays when the mere attention is stored on the ones celebrated, others like the traditional New Year when resolutions were made, written on a brand new calendar. For me, the special day is and has always been Chinese New Year—not December 31st, not the actual New Year’s Day of the Chinese Spring festival, but the eve—the Lunar Chinse New Year Eve—a day with different dates every year; a day that still holds special meanings for me that live in my reminiscences.
As I moved to different cities and lived with different people, I was always shocked by the nuances and differences—complex feelings come to me when I see the firework bans several years ago; I became upset when people stopped using physical red envelopes; I don’t know what to feel when the most important television program—the new year festival TV show—streams on phones and laptops as well as televisions—although not many people watch televisions anymore.
When I was young, the Chinese New Year eve was the happiest day of a year for me—I looked forward to the day when I could finally have a bite of fat meat—which was usually saved for guests and other family relatives. I grew up in a small village—if it accounts for any confusion, or hopefully drives away the natural judgement of our financial capability—which was, of course, very low. It was only on New Year eve that my parents wouldn’t be mad at me if I eat two eggs on the same day, and when I could finally have a nice meal with all my family members—even with those who rarely come home because they work in towns outside the small village, which offered no good job opportunities.
On a typical New Year eve, my family was usually busy from dawn to midnight. Even before the arrival of the extraordinary day, my parents would start discussing what to make for dinner for the next night—they debated on whether to cook the chicken that they bought from the market with their savings; whether to open up the bottle of liquor they have saved from last year (which had been lying under their bed—a secret hiding place); or if they should buy some grains from the neighbors in exchange of the corns we plant; or do all of the above—which was normally the case.
The day was busy for me too. Starting the night before New Year Eve, I I would lie on my small wooden bed in the living room and think about what to wear for the next day—should I wear a Cheongsam (traditional Chinese dress for women) that I got from my aunt for my birthday, or should I wear all red? Finally, I decided on the former—I could not waste the opportunity to dress as a fancy young girl.
I loved hopping in and out our small kitchen to see my parents diligently cut the bare-skinned chicken, observe my mom’s hand gestures when she cuts the vegetables, and look up at my dad’s satisfactory face when one dish was completed. On New Year eve, despite the small fights over the ingredients of a dish or who to invite to dinner, my parents were extraordinarily friendly to each other. My dad would help my mom wash the vegetables and even clean up the dishes while my mom cooked the meal—a scene that can never be seen on days besides New Year’s Eve.
I always volunteered to help in the kitchen, knowing that I would be offered an extra piece of meat at dinner (also because I enjoyed contributing to the biggest meal of the year).
Dinner often took up two hours or three—the longest, most well prepared, and diverse meal of the year. I was not surprised to see sliced duck as well as chicken soup on the table; depending on the occasions, steamed fish can also appear aside the rice and fried eggs. Dried shrimps would be put into the soup, adding to the tastiness of the dish; I could even find pork chops in the traditionally plain egg custard. In short, things that never happened on a normal day happened on the Chinese New Year’s Eve. As a kid, I enjoyed all the privileges.
The real fun comes after dinner. Although dinner was served with abundant food and drinks, the time I missed the most was after filling my stomach with well-done cuisines. New Year’s Eve was the only day of the year when we turned on the television in the living room, or even come close to the ash-covered machine. My two older brothers and younger sister would sit themselves comfortably on my bed, with my parents sitting on the chairs on the side. I would have bets with my parents on the stars who hosted the show, the songs that were played, and even the length of the advertisement. I did not remember spending such quality time with all my family members other than those nights of the Lunar Chinese New Year Eve.
Soon the clocked reached 12 am, signifying the arrival of a brand-new day and year on the Chinese lunar calendar. I chanted with my siblings and together, shouted, “Happy New Year!” As the show continued, I was naturally dominated by a sense of sadness of having to wait 365 more days for the best day to return.
Yes, I am a very nostalgic and stubborn person. In my thirty-five years of life, I have sought to recreate the kind of nights that I remembered from childhood—I wanted to relive the happy memories with family on the very special night. I tried convincing my husband to go to my hometown to celebrate Chinese New Year, but the thought was always covered by different excuses—too busy with work; just visited a month ago; nowhere to stay in my parents’ house. Even in Shanghai, I endeavored to celebrate the same Lunar New Year: I made fancy meals, watched television with my new family, and even went outside to watch the firework. Slowly, I came to realize that the same feeling of ceremonial excitement vanished.
When I first moved to downtown Shanghai, I tried to continue the same celebration of Chinese Lunar New Year. I convinced my husband (whom I met and fell in love with at Peking University), a Shanghai native, to go shopping with me and cook dinner for our kids.
“You are making such a big deal of tonight,” he would say. “We already celebrated Christmas, and a week later, celebrated the actual New Year. Plus, we have made so many grand meals for Tommy and Laynee. They wouldn’t appreciate another one.”
Nevertheless, I still managed to drag the reluctant Tom to do grocery shopping, and out of my incessant pleading, he agreed to make the meal with me.
To my surprise, thirteen dishes were finished in one hour—with more advanced cooking tools and two babysitters (who also happened to be great cooks), Tom and I barely had to do anything.
At 4 PM, everything was set—the dinner table, twice larger than the broken table from childhood, was filled with colorful dishes—from lobsters, salmons, crabs, shrimps, to five dishes of differently-cooked vegetables, I never could have imagined a meal like this when I was little. Despite the yummy dishes, however, I realized that I lost the same excitement and satisfaction that I cherished so much as a young girl.
Tommy, my ten-year-old son, came over, and asked with confusion, “Mommy, why is dinner ready at 4PM? Is today your birthday or something?” I laughed bitterly and explained the occasion to my two kids, hoping that they would understand.
Dinner was served, and I was certain that the things I just ate were twenty times more expensive than the entire meal we used to have in the village (although monetary value changed so much that it’s hard to compare). The two dried shrimps in the soup from the old New Year eves changed into a plate of fat shrimps that we were not able to finish; the bite of pork I savored became a feeling of disgust when the fifth scoop of lechon placed itself on my plate; instead of fighting with my siblings over the best slices, I gave the best ones to Tommy and Laynee.
Tom seemed to notice my dismay and kindly asks, “should we turn on the TV to watch the show that you talked about? My parents love watching them on Lunar New Year eves.”
Laynee jumped in and reminded me of her soccer camp training, which starts tonight. I bid farewell to Tom and Tommy and drove Laynee to the international soccer club. On the way, as Laynee excitedly talked about her friends from camp—she told me the new friends she made from practice last month and how badly she wants to play in the next game.
I looked at her happy innocent face, and thought, when was the last time that I felt so excited for something? Instead of following along the conversation, my mind flowed back to the small village, which gives me the answer to the rhetorical question. Laynee’s naïve excitement reminded me of my own childhood when I looked forward to every New Year celebrations. Immediately, an immense feeling of emptiness struck me. Even with the company of Laynee, I felt that no one understood me; no one could make me happy the same way I felt in the small village. On the way back home, memories flooded my mind, and I was taken over by the nostalgia of my original family—a family that made me feel belonged.
By the time I got home, the TV was on with Tom sitting on the sofa alone.
“Where’s Tommy?” I asked.
“He went to bed early. He asked me to tell you that he was feeling very tired.”
“Why, he’s not going to wait until midnight? It’s a tradition, remember?”
“We all did on New Year’s Day—I don’t think it’s good to have a ten-year-old stay up twice in a month.”
I decided to let it go and sat next to Tom on the sofa. Amidst the loud cheerful sounds of the firecrackers, the brilliant voices of the singers on TV, and Tom’s warm cuddle, I felt unprecedently lonely. My mind drifted back to the small bungalow in the small village up in the mountains and wondered how my parents spent their New Year’s Eve. Living with my older brother, they must be enjoying the meal together, probably even cheering and fighting over who won the bets with the grandkids in front of the TV. My parents, too, must hate the WeChat red pockets, the fireworks ban, and other advancements that took over our old traditions.
I glanced at the left-over dishes—another flood of disgust rushed over as I stared at the half-served seafood porridge under the fancy lights and golden decorations of the house.
I considered the New Year’s Eve the worst one I had experienced, but worse ones were yet to come—when my two kids spent hours trying to get money from WeChat red pockets, when even the views of the fireworks vanished (due to environment protection), I was left with an extra intense feeling of loneliness. Tom always says that my expectations are too high for the day, but did I do anything wrong clinching to the traditions?
It was in those quiet moments when I missed spending a whole day cooking one meal, trying to get as many pieces of meat as possible on the night, gathering with my family in a living room as big as the shower in my current department, and when, as poor as we used to be, a ceremonial sense of happiness came to me in those moments.
As a young kid, I wanted to get out of the mountains and live in the cities—I even dreamt of starting my life over as a rich city girl. I remembered dreaming every day of escaping the mountains, the villages, the broken houses, the farms, and the ignorant people; I fancied living in nice apartments (like the ones I saw in modern TV shows), even houses, or even better, a princess castle. When I read romance novels, I imagined my own Prince Charming, saving me from poverty and bringing me wealth. I did everything I could to get out of the small village—I remembered how badly I wanted to live a free life—I wished I could eat however much meat I wanted, buy as much designer clothes as I desired, and receive the best education in the world—in a top university in the country.
The void dream kept me going, and probably because of the strong desire, my childhood fancies became reality. When the thirty-year-old me lived in the biggest city in China; dwelled in the most expensive neighborhood in the area; and having married a man whose wealth and qualities many ladies desired, I began to rethink my life.
Written in Claremont, California.