The art of being together

Chinese lanterns dotting Paris's Rue du Temple

Chinese lanterns dotting Paris's Rue du Temple

When I was a little girl, I used to be very excited about Chinese New Year. To me, it meant being able to see my first cousin, who lives in Singapore with her family and is the only one from my father’s family whom I actually like, and it meant being able to be with my mother’s entire family in Penang. I used to spend New Year’s Eve waiting for my cousin to arrive, and spend New Year’s Day waiting for the day to end so that I could drive up to Penang with my mother and brother the next morning.

But as the years went by, that heady feeling started to wane. I began to look forward to it less, especially after my grandfather was diagnosed with colon cancer and my grandmother with Parkinson’s disease and they couldn’t travel as easily up to Penang anymore, and the number of my father’s relatives coming over to our house began to increase. By the time I moved to the U.S., I was relieved to have a legitimate excuse for not coming back for Chinese New Year, as it always fell during the Spring semester and I couldn’t have left even if I had wanted to.

And now, five years later, I’m back to celebrating Chinese New Year, with no reason, legitimate or otherwise, to escape it. I had thought that being away from it for five years would somehow bring that feeling back, but if anything, it somehow feels worse now. My grandfather is no longer here, my mother’s family now celebrates Chinese New Year in Kuala Lumpur, and the freeloaders at my own house have not dissipated. I sit and smile as my parents entertain their friends, sneaking naps in between visitors.

When we were young, we knew only what we saw and what we heard: our families all together in one place, sitting down to the reunion dinner, and the laughter. It is sad that as we grow older, we start to become more aware of the reality of life around us, learning of all the harsh truths and letting them steal what little love for celebrations like this we have left. And sometimes, as much as I don’t like to, I wonder what happened to the days when my cousins, brother and I reveled in having our own dinner table and pretended the adults didn’t exist, when our house in Penang was full of the energy and life that was usually so quiet at other times of the year, when I was allowed to stay up and watch my grandparents and grandaunts play mahjong so that I could learn because my mother didn’t know enough to teach me. And then I wish that I could give anything to have those days back.

All this makes me wonder why we can’t learn to set aside our differences and our grudges for just these two days, why we can’t learn to let go of certain things that have made us the unhappy people that we are, and why we can’t focus on the real reason we’re all here together in the first place. Right now my parents, my father’s brother and his family are all watching Ip Man together in the living room. So maybe it’s just me. Why can’t I?

And for the first time in my life, I didn’t buy any new clothes.

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