Previously published on Meld Magazine.
CHINESE New Year is right around the corner, and Marcella Purnama shares her thoughts on celebrating this thousand-year-old tradition as an Indonesian-born Chinese.
Most of you know that I’m Indonesian, but if you want get specific, I’m actually Indonesian-Chinese.
Like most of my Indo-Chinese friends, my grandparents travelled straight from mainland China to start a better life in Indonesia, but we still pass down our (diminishing) Chinese tradition to each generation and celebrate Chinese New Year as a family annually.
As a kid, I’d look forward to Chinese New Year for the hong bao (red pockets) and to see how much money I’d earn for that year.
Nothing has changed, except that now I also look forward to the Chinese New Year’s Eve’s eight-course dinner (eight is considered a lucky number in China), which always consists of abalone, shark-fin soup, lobster and many other treats. Not to forget the glasses of red wine that always accompany the meal.
During this time of the year, Chinese families go visiting, which means meeting your grandfather’s four brothers and three sisters (and their children and grandchildren), and your grandmother’s ten sisters and two brothers (and their children and grandchildren).
You have no choice but to sit in the car, venturing from one house to the next, answering superficial questions, eating oranges and cakes, and wondering why these strangers look so friendly and are giving you money.
That said, I still think it’s a good tradition. It acts as the thin red line that connects you to your extended family, even if you didn’t know they existed before this celebration.
While every Chinese New Year falls on a different date (this year, it’s January 23), my family’s routine never changes.
I’m always the slowest to get into the car to go visiting, but always the quickest to get the money.
I hate sitting in the car, visiting someone I don’t know and probably never will, and seeing strangers act as if they’ve known me all my life, even though they just met me.
I hate the small talk: Who’s child are you? Where are you studying? What are you studying? How old are you? With each question, I’m forced to smile as a sign of respect to my elders, even though I know as soon as the conversation ends, they’ll forget everything about me.
But for some reason this year, I’m actually looking forward to meet my extended family. Sure, it will be the same old routine, but isn’t that what you do with your long distance friends as well?
When you’re an international student, you forget your old friends for a year and during those brief summer holidays, you frantically try to contact each other and demand a catch-up.
People are busy with their lives. We’re busy with our own.
In fact, considering how busy we are, it’s a miracle that Chinese living in other countries still respect traditions like New Year, especially when you factor in the influence of globalisation.
No matter how many years have passed since they left China, most Chinese will spend this time of year decorating their houses, cooking fancy meals, buying fruit and cakes and preparing red pockets of money for their extended family.
Chinese New Year’s celebrations are really worth the effort though. It’s a time of year when children can get to know their uncles and aunties, nephews and nieces can say hello to each other and brothers and sisters who may already have their own lives and families can meet each other and chat just like they did when they were kids.
I think, it’s tradition that’s worth preserving no matter how busy we get in the future.