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Goodbye CNY: A Filipino-Chinese Woman Reflects On The Diminishing Importance Of A Family Ritual

 

Growing up in a Chinese Filipino family, even one that’s in the middle of the strictness spectrum, means that you are beholden to some sort of tradition. Since my dad studied in a Western school, my mom is half-Pinoy, and all my grandparents were Christian, the specificity of our traditions were broad, our ties to them tenuous, though I wasn’t to discover that until much later.

 

 

We practiced all the basics, adding and subtracting as time passed and fashions changed. Growing up, we never missed celebrating Chinese New Year and the Mid Autumn Festival, more commonly and erroneously known as the Moon Festival. Our Chinese New Year celebrations included opening all the lights and windows in the house, having 12 round fruits at the table, having a specific set of dishes for dinner (rice, a whole fish, something sweet--all corresponding to various aspects of prosperity), making sure that we had something sweet in our mouths when midnight struck, wearing red for luck, and during an unfortunate period in the 80’s, wearing polka dots, which looked like coins, to attract money. It was essentially the same ritual we had for Media Noche (Western new year’s eve), except during CNY, there was also tikoy.

These things, we practiced without fail, partly because rituals and traditions are comforting, partly because we were anxious that any failure to adhere to even the least of the traditions would result in hardship in the new year.

I started realizing that it was all a sham when the Asian stock market crisis hit in the late 90’s, and we lost almost everything. First, there was the utter disappointment at my father losing his business even though we did everything correctly. And the next year, there was the more practical fact that we didn’t have enough money to buy food to complete the table. 12 kinds of round fruits, for example, was out of the question. Fruit was expensive enough, and their prices doubled during Chinese New Year.

 

 

My mother kept the easier traditions to comply with--having a whole fish at the table to symbolize completion (finishing something from--head to tail--start to end), rice for prosperity, and something sweet to symbolize a good life; keeping all lights on and windows open until midnight has passed, and wearing red. She stopped decorating the table with 12 round fruits, even when we had the money again to do so, probably because she realized that it was impractical, that the money could be better used somewhere else, and anyway, none of the rituals really worked. Obviously.

I myself only do the bare minimum--basically what my mother deems acceptable that year--only because it keeps the peace, and like I said, rituals and traditions are comforting. Honestly though, it’s become a nuisance, something to plan things around, an hour of awkward staring at each other across the dinner table.

Do I believe that CNY rituals work? Not anymore. Do I still see their worth? Only as a vehicle to bring the whole family to the table during a certain time of year, something which I’m not sure is worth it in the first place, given our hectic schedules and increasingly lukewarm affection for each other.

I’m going to continue observing the Chinese New Year rituals as long as my mom deems them important. I’m the eldest, and we like to keep the peace. But I wouldn’t mind if she one year decided not to observe CNY. In fact, that’s one thing I’d celebrate with all my heart.