January 1st this year, my mom called me asking why I hadn’t wished her or my stepdad Happy New Year. It seems like a no brainer but I guess I didn’t and have never really thought of the (western) New Year as a significant day. I’m pretty sure the only people I actively wished Happy New Year, were the ones that wished me first.
In my mind, Chinese New Year was far, far more important. I wrote about how this was an adult life revelation for me, after spending my younger, formative years pining for a Disney-esque Christmas. Every year that I am not back, the feelings associated – missing my family, craving the cuisine, pining for pop-pops and longing for lou sang, grow stronger. February 5th 2019, chor yat, the first day of the new year, I attempted to complete my own self-started tradition of calling as many immediate family members as possible, to wish them all the best for the new year. I spent my morning coffee run doing my first wave of Chinese New Year phone calls to my parents. In the afternoon, I called my grandparents, my dad’s brother and whoever else was available.
It was challenging juggling these calls, not because it was starting to look a bit odd to my colleagues who passed me in the hallway, almost perpetually on my phone. No, it was because I was making these calls, amidst what felt like a painfully normal day at work. In Sydney, if nothing else, the city was hungry to appease Chinese tourists with fat pockets. So even if the decor felt false, the promotions absurdly opulent and with a smattering of whitesplaining, it was well, better than nothing.
In the weeks leading up to Chinese New Year here in Tokyo, I grasped desperately to a proposal that had completely fallen off the bandwagon at work. The gist of it was how we could commemorate Chinese New Year, particularly for our guests who identified as Chinese. Alongside a Taiwanese colleague of mine, I tried my best to activate our other colleagues, to explain the importance of this occasion. Even if it was simply facilitating a meeting so they could hear our side of the story.
Explaining what Chinese New Year means to me and to my Malaysian-Chinese community is something I struggle with the most. For example, does everybody know that Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese is different or is this common knowledge? Do people know that I am both Malaysian and Chinese and how this came to be? How do I tell them that Malaysians and Singaporeans should be catered to for this project, but at the same time, we needed to keep English as one of the main languages because of bananas like me, who don’t necessarily speak or read Chinese?
Later on chor yat, I sat with two of my Japanese colleagues for lunch. I almost cried when one of them wished me Happy Chinese New Year, because it was the first one I had received on the day, that wasn’t communicated through a phone. He encouraged me to go to Yokohama, the closest Chinatown to Tokyo. It takes about an hour by train and if it wasn’t for his suggestion, I probably wouldn’t have been bothered to make the trip after a long day at work. Arriving at the station, most of the streets were pitch black as winter brings the arrival of nightfall much earlier. Nervous that I had made the trip for nothing, my fears fell away as soon as we passed through the first paifang, or Chinese-styled archway. Not unlike the one at the ends of Dixon Street in Sydney or the one which bears ‘Jalan Petaling’ back home in Kuala Lumpur, it felt like I was being welcomed home. We saw a lion dance troupe perform outside of a restaurant, and heard them speak Japanese at the end of the show. We ate 食べ放題 , tabehoudai, for dinner at a Chinese restaurant, where some of the food was familiar, others more distinctly Mainland Chinese (and of its sub-ethnicities possibly) while a couple were just plain bizarre. I’m happy to have gone, happy to have made do with what comfort Yokohama was able to give me.
Through a series of unanswered calls and, regrettably, the ‘busyness of life’, the only person that remained on my list of people to call, was my maternal grandmother, my Ah Ma. Yesterday, after a whirlwind week for the both of us, the dust finally settled and I was in the bath and ready to call her. If I had a tail, it was most definitely between my legs. As per usual, Ah Ma had nothing but nice things to say. To tell me to eat more since work is close to where I live and I was ‘walking more’. To say that ever Chinese New Year that I’m not home is a lonely one, this year being more pronounced because our Indonesian family didn’t come as well. To cheekily hint to me to hint to my mom about bringing her to Tokyo so she can see me.
What I’ve realised from living abroad is that saying Chinese New Year is like *insert tradition* never qualifies the significance of it. The western world’s New Year, Christmas or お正月, oshougatsu, none of these are like the others because every culture stands on its own, unique in its own way. Perhaps by explaining through the common denominator, cherished time with loved ones, is the only real way to get cut through. For me, the crux of Chinese New Year is and always will be my family and wherever they may be. Even more specifically, it’s my Ah Ma. Kung Hei Fatt Choy, Sun Tai Kin Hong . Wishing everyone a super Year of the Pig with wealth but more importantly, health and an abundance of time with your family.