By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
Reminiscing about Lunar New Year during my childhood, I could count as many as hundreds of traditions my family followed. Some were fun, while some were silly and reflective of cultural defects.
As a child, I wasn’t smart enough to say, “Hey, just because it was done thousands of years ago in China doesn’t mean we have to do the same today!”
Nor was it my place to ask, “Why are we doing this?”
As an adult, I have skipped many of the requirements of the Lunar New Year to-do list due to two reasons. It isn’t meaningful to honor traditions if they are based on superstitions. It’s not practical to keep my cultural customs, living in America, which doesn’t celebrate the holiday like Asian countries, and not even normally celebrate other nations’ New Year.
So I made an arbitrary decision—only hanging on to the fun New Year activities and traditional food and crafts, to bring families and the community together.
Here is a list I will refer to before and after Feb. 19, the first day of the Lunar New Year, the Year of the Sheep.
Yes, “red envelopes!”
When I was a child in Hong Kong, I would dream of having New Year every day because there was no school, and there was plenty of money and an abundance of fine food.
My family was poor. Seldom did my mother give me an allowance. My mother was able to give me lunch money during weekdays. (The Hong Kong school system didn’t provide free lunch for low-income students.)
I usually only bought two pieces of bread (about 10 cents U.S.) as opposed to buying a lunch box (about 60 cents U.S.). Then, I hid the rest of the money. Yes, I hid it. Because if my mom knew that I had money left, she would give me less the next time.
So Lunar New Year became my temporary financial savior because adults, all my relatives, would give us “lucky money.”
My mom usually let me keep all the lucky money.
Red envelopes are a popular tradition, and especially popular with the receivers.
Married adults are supposed to give unmarried friends and relatives lucky money. The money is put in red envelopes for good fortune.
I give red envelopes to my employees.
Ever since we’ve published the Asian Weekly, I have always handed out lucky money, as well as treating them to a sumptuous Lunar New Year lunch. It’s something they look forward to every Chinese New Year. Of course, I give red envelopes to my sons and some friends’ children since they are single.
I will stick to this tradition because everyone is smiling when I hand them money.
Pay debt the Chinese way
It would bring bad luck for the debtors next year if they don’t pay before New Year arrives, according to Chinese tradition. That’s what we should teach our children before they become adults. I endorse this custom totally. Settle your debt before you borrow again next year; it is the right thing to do. In the modern world, people are inclined not to pay on time and postpone payment as much and as long as possible. That’s why so many Americans have lost their credit and are in financial trouble.
There are lucky foods, especially when it comes to the Chinese New Year.
The New Year Cake, made of solid cake, nien go, combines glutinous rice flour with some sugar. Eating the cake is a symbol that you will climb higher and higher every year.
Oysters signify that your affairs will be in order. If you don’t want something bad to happen, perhaps eating more oysters can ward off all those bad omens.
What about lotus seeds providing fertility? What about tangerines giving you wealth?
How about steamed fish granting you prosperity every year?
I don’t mind eating all those with my family and staff. I don’t care if it lands me fortune. It’s still fun to eat them anyway.
We can all buy our lucky foods at Lam’s Seafood and Uwajimaya if we don’t have time to make them.
Create the New Year look by hanging lucky posters, signs, and lanterns to decorate your shop, office, and home. These gestures make you feel festive. You can buy these items at Uwajimaya and Modern Trading.
I love to enhance my office with New Year greetings, but I never seem to have time to do it at home. Some folks might argue that if you don’t do it, you might have bad luck all year round. Sorry, I can’t help it. I would rather get enough sleep than sweat over New Year superstitions.
Avoid mean words
During the first two days of the Lunar New Year, we are supposed to greet friends and loved ones with “Gung Hay Fat Choy,” meaning “wishes for you to make lots of money.”
My parents and relatives got annoyed if anyone said anything like “You go to hell” at the beginning of the year. Now, if people say mean words, I just respond with, “Oh really,” and laugh. That’s a better defense mechanism than to be upset.
Today, we say the phrase “Gung Hay Fat Choy” so many times, as if it doesn’t mean too much. It’s more like a New Year greeting than actually meaning that the receiver will get wealth. The better greeting would be, “May your dreams come true.” “May you have good health.” “Million affairs will be in triumph.”
It doesn’t cost us anything to say nice things to others. So why make others feel bad?!
Cleaning is a no-no…
My mom used to clean our home before the New Year because cleaning means sweeping away your wealth. As she ages, she doesn’t do much. Could it be that she is wiser or she doesn’t remember to clean? Both. I try to schedule my cleaners to do the cleaning before the New Year. It’s thoughtful to do so, especially if your janitors are Asian immigrants.
Sometimes, it doesn’t work and that’s fine.
Go with the flow. And don’t blame yourself or rationalize that you have bad luck that year simply because you clean your house on New Year’s Day.
Washing dishes and showers are a “no-no.” But we can’t stop flushing the toilet! I can manage turning on our dishwasher two hours before midnight instead of that certain day. But a daily bath for me is essential to have a good night’s sleep. I cannot change this habit even if you guarantee me a thousand bucks. The day I came to America, I have been showering every New Year’s Day.
Perhaps, that’s the reason I can’t be a publisher of 20 newspapers, but only the publisher of two. I just disregard my luck with my act of bathing on the wrong day! But then, if I change my habits, I don’t think money will flood my house either. (end)