Now that the dust has settled from the year-end festivities, I am hoping that life can get back to normal again. It has been a busy last two months, getting ready for Christmas and then Chinese New Year. Although Christmas is not celebrated on a large scale in my family, there is still the expectation of having a Christmas tree and exchanging gifts – a practise that has been faithfully followed for as long as I can remember. Back in the day, it was easier to select gifts for everyone but in the last couple of years, the thought of Christmas is synonymous with having to spend hours in the shops, agonising over what presents to buy.
The Lunar New Year is much easier in that sense. The Chinese have simplified the art of gifting in the form of a red packet (hong bao) that can be applied to all happy occasions – New Year, birthdays, anniversaries, weddings…only the amount of hong bao varies.
Welcoming the New Year involves cleaning the house to sweep away bad luck, making preparations for the New Year’s Eve reunion dinner, lighting fireworks and crackers at midnight, visiting the temple to pay respects to ancestors, exchanging mandarin oranges, giving out hong bao, watching traditional lion dances and pigging out on New Year snacks.
On 28 January this year, we welcomed the Fire Rooster with much anticipation. The last time the Fire Rooster crowed was 60 years ago in 1957. Roosters are known for being honest, trustworthy, outspoken, confident and responsible. They enjoy the spotlight – but can be vain and boastful. Famous faces born in the Year of the Rooster include Prince Philip, Serena Williams, Beyoncé, Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Lopez, Roger Federer, Peter Drucker, Li Xiaopeng, Guy Sebastian, Justin Timberlake and Renee Zellweger, to name a few.
A week into the Chinese New Year, I was invited to a Lion Dance performance organised largely for the condominium’s expatriate residents.
The lion is regarded as an auspicious animal that brings good luck. The lion dance is performed in a lion’s costume, accompanied by beating drums, clashing cymbals and resounding gongs. The dance imitates a lion’s various movements and demonstrates discipline, team coordination and martial arts agility.
The colour red features prominently during Chinese New Year. It is the colour of fire and symbolises joy and good fortune. It is the children who eagerly look forward to the Lunar New Year. They don’t need to go to school, get to stay up late, wear brand new clothes and receive hong bao from their elders.
For single young adults, Chinese New Year is a particularly stressful time especially when meeting relatives. “Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?” and “When are you getting married?” are typical intrusive questions that are enough to drive anyone up the wall.
For many households, methinks that too much time is spent in the kitchen, cooking, serving and washing up after the extended family of relatives who have descended upon your home. The tidy living room just a day earlier looks like a war zone, with zombies smiling quietly to themselves while they tap away on their mobile phones.
Often, dragon dances accompany lion dances. The legendary dragon is nothing like its fierce, fire-breathing counterpart in the West. Chinese dragons are seen as helpful, friendly creatures linked to long life and wisdom. Associated with storm clouds and life-giving rain, they possess special powers to fly in the air, swim in the sea and walk on land. In terms of physical appearance, the Chinese dragon is very handsome, having the horns of a stag, the scales of a fish and the footpads of a tiger.
While there are a lot of people out there who look forward to the Lunar New Year, I am not really a big fan:-
No change. It is only wishful thinking that each New Year will be better than the last. In reality, only the date changes. Everything else is the same.
Spring cleaning. I usually do New Year spring cleaning about three weeks beforehand, giving ample time for the garbage truck that comes twice a week, to take away all unwanted items. Nearer the day, I sweep the road outside my house so that the surrounds will look tidy. Unfortunately, others do their spring cleaning only at the eleventh hour. This means that on the big day itself, the road still look unsightly with rubbish waiting to be cleared.
Meet relatives. This is perhaps the only time of the year when you get to meet them, and you have to act like you are very happy to see them. You have to think very hard of a topic to kill the uncomfortable silence, and lean forward ever so slightly on the pretext that you are deeply interested to know further about their son’s fifth job change. Any topic related to travel or holiday must be approached with caution. If you’re not alert, they will whip out their iPad or mobile phone and invite you to scroll across all 300 selfies taken during their vacation in Bora Bora!
Shops and restaurants are closed. You would think that Chinese New Year is a great chance to spend time with the family and take a break from the daily routine. Too bad that most restaurants and retail outlets are closed during this time, so people have nowhere to go for the next 3 to 4 days except stay at home. If you have in-laws staying over, the stress level shoots to the ceiling. Not only does it become your responsibility to ensure that all extended family members are fed morning, noon and night, you also have to grit your teeth when they start comparing and commenting on every dish that is served.
Everything is expensive. During this period, prices can go up by 20% to 40%. Even if you knowingly allow yourself to be ripped off out of sheer desperation, there is a high chance that the product you want is completely sold out or no longer fresh.
Shopping fatigue. It’s like this. You just crossed the hurdle of Christmas shopping. This was followed almost immediately by Chinese New Year shopping, requiring at least six to eight different kinds of New Year cookies for visitors to your home, filling a bag full of New Year goodies for each family you visit, stocking up the refrigerator for New Year’s Eve reunion dinner, buying sufficient food supplies that will see you through when the shops are closed. Then, you are expected to wear new clothes, which means some more shopping.
Murphy’s Law. Anything that can and will go wrong will happen during New Year, when no services are available. I had a very bad toothache during one year and had to put up with the pain for four days before getting to see a dentist. Then there was that year when my car wouldn’t start and I had to wait until a week after the New Year to get it fixed. There were many other glitches over the years that I prefer not to remember. What about this year? Well, one car had a tyre puncture, followed by the demise of a crucial part of the engine.
Lousy TV shows. Lots of movie reruns and lame entertainment programmes that make you yawn and shift your attention to the tempting cookie jars waiting patiently to pump 260 calories into your already-expanding waistline.
Cardiac arrest. It’s 4:00am on Chinese New Year’s day. You are sound asleep, when suddenly BOOM!…BOOM! The silence of the night is scarred by some crazed insomniac setting off fireworks at that unearthly time of the morning. You can’t get back to sleep after that near heart attack and wake up to New Year morning with dark circles round your eyes. Happens every year. No exceptions.