Chinese New Year is almost here, and preparations are underway for new clothes, eve dinners and ang pow packets. Parenting books and websites often talk about the benefits of tradition and ritual and how they provide stability and familiarity for children.
But for the second time in my nearly four decades of life, I have no travel plans for Chinese New Year. Since Grandma passed on, we no longer travel to Sitiawan for the celebrations. Instead, we hang out in KL and PJ and get excited about driving around with hardly any traffic. Although these days, traffic in town can still be heavy, because many others have also stopped going to Taiping, Sungai Petani, Melaka, or whichever hometown they once went to.
So I’ve been wondering, how do you pass on traditions and rituals you grew up with when the context in which they were practiced no longer exist?
Chinese New Year for me, always started with the journey back home to Sitiawan. Loading the bags, Mum forgetting something and making Dad turn back, heavy traffic, and finally, driving up the 200-metre gravelly driveway to Grandfather’s house, set amidst six acres of rubber trees. Grandpa, Grandma, and Great-Grandma, would come out and greet us, and when he was younger, Grandpa would wash our car, travel-stained from our journey.
Then, would come the wait for my cousins. My sister and I were often in the upstairs front room, with two floor-length windows with wooden shutters overlooking the long driveway. I can still hear the crunch of the gravel as their car drove in, followed by banging car doors, loud voices, and the pounding footsteps running up the steep staircase with the dark timber boards. Once they arrived, Chinese New Year officially began.
The next few days would be busy ones – pinching Grandfather’s chalk to draw hopscotch patterns on the concrete outside, picking out new and shiny rubber seeds from amongst the dead leaves, and playing hide-and-seek amongst the trees. Once, in a modified game of team hide-and-seek, my oldest cousin placed me under some banana trees and told me to wait there; which I did, even when a long, black snake dropped at my feet from the tree above and slithered off.
My Great-Grandmother lived till I was 14, and we stayed in her house. She had 10 children, and they in turn, had many children of their own. So, over the course of Chinese New Year, it was normal for us to receive over 100 visitors. We would often peek into the living room to check if anyone of interest had come to visit or whether there was a chance of adding an extra angpow to our tally.
One uncle would take us on a motorbike around the estate – three kids and one adult on a bike – bumping on the roots, laughing our heads off. Another would light fireworks with more glee than any of us kids. The adults played Gin Rummy to pass time over long hot afternoons, and when they put their cards down, we would take over and imitate them.
After the first few days, we would go visiting too – to my aunt’s medicine shop in Dad’s little town, and to Grandaunt’s house full of flowering fruit trees. We went every year, without fail, a familiar well-worn routine.
Even when we were grown, we continued these traditions of gathering, visiting and being visited. Grandaunt’s fruit trees were cut down, as she couldn’t tend to them. But, we still crowded into her living room, ate groundnuts, and talked about nothing for hours, which only families can do so well. And the uncle with the fireworks still lit them with the same glee.
As they say, those days are now gone. Although not so long ago for me, as my grandparents lived long lives, and only left us in my 30s. The old traditions, practised for decades, disintegrated astonishingly quickly. Grandaunt’s family stopped going to Sitiawan after she passed. We stay in PJ, with one aunt still in Sitiawan, and others in various places, or on overseas holidays.
It’s a new era, and I know we can make new traditions for our kids; we don’t have to replicate our childhood for them. I’m organising a lunch gathering with some of the old crowd a week before Chinese New Year, before people disperse. And we have a four-table gathering with friends, which modern wisdom calls the new family. We visit and are visited, as before, just with different faces.
Still, a part of me misses the old days and wishes my son could have experienced some of it. And that watching the acrobatic lion dance at 1Utama and driving around KL because your mother loves the jam-free roads, doesn’t quite live up to six children running around unsupervised on a rubber estate, with snakes falling out of the trees.
I dropped my son off recently at my mother-in-law’s, and before we left, he protested, saying he wanted to go with me instead. He was asleep when we got there, so we carried him down. As we crossed the threshold, he heard his cousin’s voice and his eyes popped open. He got down and they walked off together chatting, my son immediately forgetting about my existence; lost in a made-up world of their own.
It was baking day at my mother-in-law’s and they were the first to sample Ma-Ma’s mouth-watering kuih bangkit, which she makes only for Chinese New Year. We will have a big feast on eve night, and new year food on the first day, which after 12 years of marriage, I am still not entirely used to (I’m looking at you – waxed duck and lap cheong). We will sit in my mother-in-law’s 50-year-old sofa set and talk for hours about nothing, as families do so well. There will be love, acceptance, familiarity and fun, which are all childhood memories really need to be precious. My son doesn’t know it yet, but he will miss these times one day.
By Ding Jo-Ann
Ding Jo-Ann is a full-time mum, part-time writer, and once-upon-a-time lawyer.
Makchic’s tips for creating new family traditions:
- Think about your family identity: Are you a musical family, or are you concerned about social welfare? A little cultural performance or volunteering experience together with your children may be the right fit. Think about what you would like to share with your children that is both fun and meaningful.
- Be creative: Don’t be afraid to think up new additions or tweaks to old family rituals you hold dear. Were there fireworks in the past? A little session with sparklers or lanterns with the kids could work just as well.
- Ease it in: Gently introduce new traditions or rituals in a relaxed and engaging way. Do not rush to implement ‘rules’ or force things on family, as that may create bad memories instead of warm ones! Remember to have fun with your family.
Image Credits: Ding Jo-Ann