Today is Yan Yat, the seventh day of Chinese New Year, a day that is called everybody’s birthday because according to legend it was when humans were created. So Happy Birthday, everyone! We should all be eating seven-vegetable soup to celebrate being a year older and a new beginning.
It’s also my husband’s birthday, so this year we had a celebration pile-up with Chinese New Year (which floats on the lunar calendar), Valentine’s Day, and his birthday rolling in one after the other. We might as well feast all month, right? Of course the foods for Chinese celebrations are different from what I grew up with. Instead of cake and ice cream, my husband grew up eating eggs and noodles on his birthday. Sweet eggs for a good year and noodles (sometimes also sweet) for longevity. I appreciate the sentiment and symbolism, but having my savory and sweet expectations reversed still seems pretty weird sometimes.
Last week we welcomed the year of the Ox with three days of celebrating with family on Cheung Chau: New Year’s Eve when married sons return home, the first day when married daughters return, and the second day when everyone comes together. We feasted on fish, chicken, duck, goose, pork, bamboo shoots, and stuffed mushrooms and tofu skins. We had multiple desserts made from red dates, chestnuts, glutinous rice four, mung beans, and taro. Following traditions that most other Hongkongers have abandoned, every dish but the roast goose was made at home and by hand.
A new year is a new start, and last week I did something for the first I am embarrassed to admit took me so long. I wanted to watch the pre-New Year cooking marathon, so after over twenty years in the family and three years in Hong Kong, I made a solo trip to Cheung Chau and spent three days in my in-laws’ communal household while my husband stayed home to work. Sounds totally unimpressive when I say it, but I almost didn’t go because I was afraid. Once I recognized that as the reason, I knew I had to go. Once I got there, I realized that my fear was more memory than reality. Left over from when I was new to Hong Kong, new to Chinese culture, a shy American with culture shock.
Back then I felt like everyone was watching me. I worried about being unable to communicate, fumbling with my chopsticks, doing something inappropriate. I felt out of place and clueless. My small child shyness came back full force. It’s not that no one spoke English. An uncle and an aunt do—one fluently and one serviceably. Also my sister-in-law and the maid although less comfortably. But they weren’t always there, and it was work to keep me in the loop when they were. I leaned on my husband to translate, interpret, guide, and mediate.
I stepped way outside of my comfort zone twenty years ago when I first came to Hong Kong, but I didn’t realize then that beyond every doorway we step through, there is another threshold we must dare ourselves to pass. In other words, the process of getting over myself doesn’t stop.
Rabbit in the Moon, my memoir about adjusting to my Chinese family, is due out in May, so I’m especially attentive to what has changed over the years. If you have visited your grade school, or your child’s classroom, and thought Wow, the chairs and desks are so small! you have experienced some of the disconnect I felt last week. Certain things validated my memories. For example, I slept in the room where my husband and I slept in 2001—the one with its own bathroom—and the bed really is so hard it feels like lying on a sheet of plywood. People really do walk through to use the bathroom. But the furniture isn’t nearly as dark or as big as I remembered. The stored clothing on the top bunk doesn’t go ALL the way to the ceiling. I couldn’t even smell the mothballs I once found so overpowering.
The biggest difference is me. I no longer assume boisterous discussions are arguments. Where moving as a group once felt like an invasion, it now feels like family. My mother-in-law urging me to eat or sleep once seemed pushy, and now feels endearing. When no one remembers to translate, I ask someone to clue me in or just sit back and observe. When my back hurts from the hard bed, I speak up instead of suffering in silence. When everyone jokes that I can’t mange fish bones, I laugh at myself instead of feeling humiliated. I’m no longer embarrassed to walk around in my pajamas or bow out for a nap. I may still be clueless half the time, but I’ve crossed over.
When the family convened for the festivities this year, they were as loud as always. They roared out their new year greetings and bellowed over toasts and gambling games. My jovial husband the loudest of the loud Lau clan. I used to want to duck and cover, to escape, but their hilarity is infectious and it’s hard not to enjoy their joy. The food might be different from what I’m used to, but I witnessed the love and labor it takes to make it, and everyone’s pleasure in eating their favorite dishes makes me happy.
As for birthdays, I’ll still expect cake on mine, but I’m happy to eat noodles on my husband’s special day. And I wish you whichever you prefer, since today everyone gets a new start!