Monday, February 11, 2013

This is as Chinese as it gets

Kung Hei Fatt Choy! In case you’re wondering, that means Happy New Year in Cantonese. Growing up half Chinese, it was the biggest celebration for me, starting from an incredible spread made by my aunt on the eve for the Family Reunion Dinner to the raucous event in my own house as relatives and friends gathered to eat, drink, and gamble all day and all night.

This is also the time of year that I’m most nostalgic for my childhood and probably the most homesick as well. It has elements of everything I miss about my life back in Malaysia - my large extended family, loud and joyful celebrations, and sumptuous feasts. As much as I desperately want to share this kind of magic with my own girls, I knew I could never replicate that for my own little family of four here, so I don’t even try. At least not to that extent.

Instead of trying to capture the full essence of the celebration, I aim for the nuances. Today, to usher in the Year of the Snake, we began the morning with chocolate-chip pancakes. No, that’s not what the Chinese do. That’s just what My Guy did, because, well, he’s not exactly Chinese and that’s what we had in our pantry. We were also a little unprepared for the occasion, but that wasn’t our first “infraction”.

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I made a pan of spicy Szechwan noodles the night before for the all-important Family Reunion Dinner, when my aunt would’ve made a ten-course meal that included chicken, shrimp, pork, fish, tofu, and vegetables that were braised, steamed, stir-fried, deep-fried, and stewed. But these noodles were My Guy’s favorite, so that counts for something right?

However, I did keep with the tradition by distributing “hung pao”, red packets that contain money, to my girls. It’s usually given by parents to their kids and to any unmarried guests during Chinese New Year. At four, Little Miss was thrilled with the two dollar bills she found inside the packet, but she was more taken by the shiny envelope itself.

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I wondered at what age she would start to focus more on the money inside, because I remember the competition I had with my own cousins, “I’ve got more money than you!” No one cared about the prettiest hung pao. Thumper tore her hung pao into pieces and would have done the same with the money had we not wrestled it away from her.

Because we had a nice dinner planned, I decided against an elaborate lunch. (That’s also a nicer way of saying I didn’t put any thought on it. At all.) I was glad to find some leftover brown rice and eggs in the fridge as well as Chinese sausage and peas in the freezer so I was able to whip up some fried rice, although brown rice doesn’t exactly scream authentic. But hey, it’s Chinese sausage. 

Still, I did salivate at the pictures of the feasts that my Chinese friends posted on Facebook, making my measly bowl of fried brown rice seem woefully inadequate.

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As if my lack of preparation wasn’t evident enough in my too-simple meals, I forgot where I kept the festive paper lanterns from last year, and we didn’t purchase any traditional garb for my girls. To add insult to injury, we skipped the lunar new year aesthetics and jumped right into Valentine’s!

Making a banner for each new season or holiday is becoming a tradition in our family. When Thumper napped, Little Miss and I started on our Valentine’s project. It felt weird, like I was cheating on Chinese New Year, decorating for a Hallmark holiday when the real one, the one I looked forward to and enjoyed as a child, went unmarked in our house.

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The project took Little Miss and I about 90 minutes. Then it was time for her to rest, while her sister continued her nap, and I managed to squeeze in a run. It was my first five-miler after my injury, and it. felt. great.

It was a little past 2pm when I hit the pavement, and on my run I thought about what I would’ve been doing at that time 20 years ago and chuckled. I would’ve been comatose from a mid-day feast, gambling or playing in some corner of our bustling house with my cousins. And here I was today, running. On Chinese New Year. Who would’ve thought? Certainly not me.

We then drove 30 miles to a Malaysian restaurant in the suburbs and met some dear friends there who had never experienced “Yee Sang”, a traditional new year dish. Literally, the dish means raw fish, as it is served with chunks of, you guessed it, raw fish, on a bed of colorful ingredients like carrots, daikon, jicama, pomelo, preserved plums and ginger, as well as spices and dressing, all of which are mixed together with chopsticks by the people gathered around at the table yelling, “Low Sang!” 

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This tradition is best described on this site as it has better pictures and description, but here is an excerpt:

Part of the Low Sang/Yee Sang ritual is actually the noise and merry making that involves large chopsticks and people tossing and mixing the ingredients in the large, flat plate till the colors and raw fish are completely and thoroughly mixed. This is the one time, parents will not scold their children for playing with their food. In fact, the more you play with it and toss it, the better. Also, the louder you scream prosperity wishes the better. “Health Come!” “Money Come!” “Love and Good Fortune COME!”

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Well, we weren’t exactly loud, but our dish was undoubtedly messy. I hope that means some health and wealth will eventually slither our way.

After Yee Sang, we indulged in a hodgepodge of Malaysian dishes, except only one out of all of them were traditional new year dishes. Most were street foods I loved and wanted to share with my friends who were kind enough to make that trek with their own two kids to celebrate with us that night. It was the closest approximation to the feeling of family and feasting that I grew up with, and for that, I was truly grateful.

At the end of the evening, we left with fortune cookies in hand and opened them on our long drive home as a way to distract the girls. I read each person’s fortune aloud - Thumper’s is at the very top, followed by mine, Little Miss’ and My Guy’s.

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I was intrigued by mine; I’ll just have to see what May 10th brings. I loved the last two the best because family and travel are two really important things in my life. That it was My Guy’s fortune that said family will be highest priority warmed my heart, although it’s really not much of a fortune - it already seems that way.

These fortunes seemed like a perfect way to end our celebration. On a day that was so hit-or-miss in my attempt at injecting authenticity and tradition, it felt good to end on a high note. Then I remembered that fortune cookies never existed in my childhood.

It’s purely an American phenomenon.

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What is your favorite childhood holiday celebration? Why is it your favorite? Do you celebrate it the same way you remember it?