In Malaysia, it starts with the food. Walnut cookies, pineapple rolls, chicken wontons, Kuih Kapit and Kuih Bahulu, a collision of savoury, sweet, salty, spicy, jars and jars of cookies and crackers, steamed buns and baked buns sold in the lead up to Chinese New Year. Then came the sickly sweet Chinese songs, blared in supermarkets, air conditioned malls, in the passing vendor trucks and softly hummed by your local grocer. These songs of kitchy tunes and simple catchphrases ‘Gong Xi Ni’ (Happy New Year) were so embedded in me, in us, that whenever one comes on, all of us inadvertently hum along to the tune. Then came the cleaning of the house, the dusting of spider-webbed corners, throwing out old clothes; disposing the ghosts of the past, to make way for the future.
The night before New Year was the traditional ‘Reunion Dinner’ where immediate families would come together for a meal, usually involving a ‘Yee Sang’ of fish, vegetables, fruits and special dressing, promising prosperity and wealth for the New Year. At midnight, the firecrackers, sparklers, fireworks (anything that made a lot of noise, and a lot of light really) were dragged out. The days that ensued, of visiting relatives on number-specific days, were made up of wearing red, accepting Hong Baos with two hands, and repeating ‘Gong Xi Fa Cai’ extensively. You could almost call it Christmas for 15 days.
But these celebrations can be particularly hard to enforce if you’re not in the social milieu of your original home. Many Malaysian Chinese, and Mainland Chinese, celebrate the New Year in other countries. Out of all the ethnic groups in Malaysia, Malaysian Chinese are the largest group to migrate to other countries; more than 2 million have migrated since 1957. Thus, celebrating Chinese New Year in your ‘adopted’ home is somewhat common place. But this doesn’t make it normal; it can be confusing and underwhelming at times.
The beginning of Chinese New Year is a public holiday; in many other countries you go to work. The friends and family you went to visit, are no longer accessible. The cheap food and snacks offered at your local vendor, can only be found in niche (and often dingy) supermarkets. The festivities, the people, the celebration disappears.
But this doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate the New Year. Baking Chinese New Year snacks can be relatively easy and inexpensive. Food blogs with Malaysian ‘expats’ have popped up all over the internet, with easy recipes and adjustable ingredients depending on the availability of the food in the different countries. Many Western countries host Lantern Festivals, while Chinese communities have set up similar events.
Like all things, celebrating your culture needs flexibility and vision; an open mindedness to new circumstances, with the love for the traditions that come with it.