Camille Morgan: A New New Year’s

In our second part of A Brief Exchange, Camille Morgan, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the USA, shares about her experience at a friend’s Chinese New Year.

Chinese New Year Eve

Chinese New Year Eve in Chinatown

If one month of immersion in Asia hasn’t been enough, one weekend of Chinese New Year certainly would be.

Now, almost every aspect of the New Year celebration would be new to me—lo hei to hungbao to oranges galore. Even the illuminated streetway snakes and the ubiquitous “Gong Xi Fa Cai” poster were quantum differences from my past experience with the holiday: a day marked on our “western” calendars that made people think of fortune cookies and wonder why China did not celebrate the New Year with the rest of the world. So, when a friend invited me to spend the weekend with her and her family, I held no reservations about improving my familiarity with Chinese culture.

The anticipation that preliminary visits to Chinatown provided in the weeks preceding was not deceiving. Nor were the crowded streets, crimson alleyways, and well-stocked vendors merely tourist attractions. Over the weekend with my family, I finally tasted the various goodies in the red-topped containers that had pervaded storefronts. And despite teasing my friend about not wearing qipao, like some shops displayed, I did meet a number of locals wearing the traditional clothing.

Our celebration began with a family dinner. I was primed beforehand that I would have to exercise a bit of self-assertion in getting to the food, as the presence of guests didn’t exactly overrule what I later learned to be “kiasu”. In the midst of salad tossing, the blessings for prosperity, and the sly snatches of fish by the younger experts of lo hei, I received an explanation on the fly of the meaning of the tradition. The dispersal of the other dishes followed likewise. Unsure of exactly what everything was, I had been told to give to my friend what I didn’t like, a good back-up for one afraid to offend a host.

Whether it was the presence of many siblings and a few other guests, or the heedless and excited scramble for food, or the constant chatter of Mandarin, Cantonese, and Singlish—or maybe just the disposition this holiday induces—so foreign an affair, so different a culture, so novel an experience could not have felt more familiar. Thanksgiving in America, for the most part, has retained a sense of outward decency in the feast, arguably a superficial cover of the inward gluttony. Christmas holidays are similarly marked by large family gatherings and festive food, though gifts exchanges don’t tend to advantage the singles in the family. Sharing some elements of the holidays I celebrate, Chinese New Year was still far from a combination of the fireworks of Independence Day, the feasting of Thanksgiving, and the generosity of Christmas. Even more than a delayed January New Year’s celebration, this holiday is marked by heritage, superstition, and merriment.

Later on New Year’s Eve, after obediently returning from Chinatown before the chaos of the countdown, we watched symbolic fireworks illuminate the area with near-perfect view. As I later went to sleep under the same window, I thought of all the other fireworks going off in Chinatowns around the world, not to mention those in the motherland itself. I thought of how much I experienced that day—from practicing the tones of “xin nian kuai le” to indulging in the stickiness of yuan xiao to ward off bad luck—that was far from the fortune cookies and funny to-go boxes characterized as “Chinese” in the “West.” I thought of how all of these closely-held and memorable traditions have been unbeknownst to me until now, and how much I have yet to experience. These thoughts struck a bit of kiasu in me, as I realized I couldn’t come to know every tradition in every culture. But certainly the least that this New Year celebration did for this Ang Moh was to emphasize how familiar and welcoming even a radically different tradition can be—that step by step, culture by culture, we can begin to build a different and better picture of the world.