“Come on, Johanna, you don’t need to take an entire day off just to booze up.”
That’s what a college professor said to me without skipping a beat when I asked if I could have the day off to celebrate Chinese New Year.
I laughed it off, and silently walked away from the white-dominated classroom, confused as to why a holiday I looked forward to every year seemed to hold as much bearing as National Cheese Day, while everyone else got designated days off for Easter, Rosh Hashanah, and Christmas.
I haven’t been home for Chinese New Year since 2012. Between midterms, a busy schedule at work and a comedown from the holiday season, it has just never worked out that I had the days off to fly to Vancouver for a celebration so close to my heart.
Even though it was just my mom and I before my stepdad entered the picture, we’ve always celebrated the holiday surrounded by the warmth of family, even though none of them ended up being blood related. Dishes would be prepared in multiples of eight – a homonym for the word “fortune” or “wealth” in Chinese – with certain dishes considered lucky always making an appearance on the spread.
Aunties and uncles would often be seen whispering in corners of the room, an open secret that indicated they were packing last minute red envelopes based on how many kids made it to dinner that night, a comical allusion to when I’d rush to complete school assignments moments before the bell. They would then move around the room, wishing “gong hay fat choy” to the younger generation as they handed out two red envelopes per couple. Single mothers or divorcees would still hand out a second, insisting, “this is from uncle.” Every year, without fail, I’d forget the four-worded blessings to say back, and my mom would have to whisper them in my ear.
My favorite part was always after everyone has left for the night. My mom and I would be halfway through cleaning up when she’d announce, “Let’s finish this later,” and we’d bundle up before getting into the car to drive to the temple. Parking was scarce and the air was thin from the incense smoke. My eyes would tear up almost immediately and I’d cough — my history of allergic asthma tainting what would otherwise be a perfect night. I’d follow my mom from shrine to shrine, lighting incense and praying at the different alters. I didn’t have a particularly religious upbringing so I didn’t always know what to pray. Instead, I followed her movements and thought of my family and the ancestors I never knew and hoped that would bring us just as much luck in the New Year.
If I could have done it over again, I would have been more patient to learn the customs and traditions so deeply ingrained in my blood. I would have insisted to my mom that I would one day leave this place, and one day, I wouldn’t be able to look to my neighbors, my coworkers, my friends and my family to carry on the traditions of our people. I would have skipped the moment in my childhood where I pretended I didn’t know Chinese and wanted nothing to do with my culture, all in a bid to be liked by the “cool white girls.”
But I can’t do it over, and instead will cherish every moment with my family when I become one of the nearly 3 billion people around the world who travel home for Chinese New Year this February 5th.