Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Why traditions matter

Like I’ve said many times before, I’m turning into my mother! Not only do I try to make some of the food she used to dish up over holiday celebrations, but I’m also reverting to some of her idiosyncratic behavior, for no rhyme or reason that I can think of. This Chinese New Year, even though I came down with the flu, I was still lucid enough to make sure that I made some of the food that have come to be know as new year dishes in our family.

I didn’t come from a particularly traditional or religious family. I knew what Chinese values were but my Western education and years abroad kind of watered down whatever I vaguely knew of these traditions. Like making sure that I wore new clothes (especially underwear!) on the first day of Chinese New Year. Not cutting my hair for the whole duration (15 days) of the new year period. Or buying books. It has all to do with the way those words are pronounced (in Cantonese) , because it meant that you were cutting off your prosperity or making losses, all taboo during this auspicious season.

So well into my adulthood, even my forties and fifties, I kind of turned a blind eye and deaf ear to all of what I deemed superstitions. I didn’t bother to buy or wear bright colors, because my palette runs to more muted tones anyway. I purposely waited to have my hair cut after, not before Chinese New Year, because I figured the salon wouldn’t be so busy then.

For a period, I even made a point of going away during the new year festive season, because I figured it would be easier than facing relatives and making merry. My son, B, and I made a sojourn to Egypt one Chinese New Year and stood in the pyramids even though it was probably bad luck! Thinking back on all these times we were away, our absences must have pained my mother deeply even though she never reproached us.

My family has never been especially close, and with the passing of my mother, it has become even more fragmented. I haven’t seen a particular sibling in a few years even though we live in the same city and we certainly don’t make the effort to meet up.

I never thought the holidays were such a big deal. It was just another excuse to get together and eat again. Until the time when B went off to work, first in Singapore and now Hongkong. I did tell him that it was OK if he didn’t come back for Christmas or Chinese New Year, but he would make it a point to book his flights early and return for the occasion.

Pineapple jam tarts
Now that my mother is gone and B is away, I have come to appreciate the importance of keeping traditions alive, as a way to remember loved ones and maintain family values. So I’ll make the chicken soup that B knows as one grandmother’s recipe, and dishes for congee that he associates with his other grandmother. I'll put out his favorite cookies that my mother always had on hand for him. I’ll make sure we have new clothes (in bright colors!) and not cut what little there is left of my hair.

There are so many more beliefs and superstitions that I don’t hold to, and some that I never even knew existed. But I’ll keep whatever I can, so that B has something to remember his grandmothers by, and hopefully one day tell his own child about to remember me by!

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