It’s that time of the year when red lanterns go up, 4D numbers rain gloriously down, good luck is ushered in and bad luck chased out. Well-known well-wishes will roll off my tongue – the most fluent I’ll ever be in Mandarin – traded for red packets. Remember to settle your debts before 初一, the first day of Lunar New Year, and avoid sharp objects or any variation of the word “death”!
Many Lunar New Year customs seem to originate from old superstitions. We may not even be aware of their origins. I, for one, only recently discovered the reason why we wear red and set off firecrackers during the Lunar New Year. Legend has it that it took the color red and loud noises to finally frighten off the monster called 年 (nian), a terrifying sea monster that would come ashore to hunt villagers near the start of each lunar year. Understandably, Lunar New Year is referred to as 过年 – to pass, or survive, the year (年 is also the Chinese character for 'year'). That was a big “ah-ha” moment for me, hearing this story from my mother for the first time.
Reading deeper into this story led to more intriguing details and a lesson worth remembering - the importance of community. It starts with an act of hospitality. Amidst the villagers’ frantic preparations to flee to the mountains as they did every year, they took in an old beggar and fed him. This beggar taught them how to scare off the monster. As the story ends, the villagers decide to come together every year to face and overcome 年, with much celebrations after.
While many may not subscribe to superstitions today, fear still prevents us from truly coming together and reconnecting: sometimes we hide and retreat because we're afraid we're not good enough or won’t be accepted for who we are.
Just two years ago at a reunion dinner, I had just returned from studying overseas and felt a little out of place. I caught myself portraying an idealised image of myself to my family. This affected the way I related to them. A mentor later helped me to see how tightly wound up I was by my list of “do’s” and “don’ts”, and how this prevented me from sharing what I really thought or felt. I wonder if you've ever felt pressured to wear a mask, especially during festive occasions when people catch up? I was so busy putting up a false front that I failed to really connect with anyone. Perhaps before any kind of reunion with family, we must first have a reunion with ourselves. Truth is, I’m probably the person I hide behind a mask from the most. It's impossible to be comfortable, open, and accepting of my loved ones if I can’t do that with myself.
My family may be coming together this Lunar New Year but it will not be a time of festivities. My grandma passed away very recently and suddenly. I get it now that death has a way of clarifying what is most important in life. When I think back on the Lunar New Year celebrations I spent with her, I also think of all the missed chances to connect with her on a deeper level. This year will be different. This year I want to have conversations that go beyond "what are you studying”, “where are you working”, or “when are you getting married”. I want to have conversations that I'll look forward to continuing the next time we come together. I want to go home with a satisfied stomach stuffed with pineapple tarts, love letters, and lo hei, but also with a heart filled with gratitude for the time we have together.
What conversations will you have this Lunar New Year?