Chinese New Year. Hundreds-of-millions of travellers uniting with their families. For a week or so: tradition trumps modernity; family first, work later; fortune and food and fireworks; extended celebrations; seeing distant cousins, perhaps even the family on your mother’s side; special rice cakes, turnip cakes, and food that, when taken figuratively, can also mean luck or fortune.
Unfortunately, not a tradition I grew up with or know much about. My father hails from Taiwan and decided to settle in Europe roughly 40 years ago. Close to 30 years ago, I was born, out of his decision, out of his love for my Austrian mother. Five years in, I declared to my parents that I was Austrian, that I did not speak or understand Mandarin, and that was that. The result of a society seeping with xenophobia – and to what effect! Long, studious months spent in Taiwan only recuperated a bit of my language skills – but that’s a story for another time…
These days, living in Toronto, I feel closer to Chinese New Year than I ever did as a kid. Even at grocery stores (and not even just T&T Supermarket!), it’s hard to escape the capitalistic consumerist take on the culmination and new beginning of the lunar calendar. Speaking to friends born in Hong Kong and other East Asian metropoles but grew up in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), one quickly understands that Markham or Scarborough would be brimming with red and gold decorations – dragons as well as an overwhelming amount of Asian delicacies right now – were it not for COVID.
This year, spent mostly in solitude and reflection – and also as a writer for Speakeasy – has been a great opportunity to take another look at what is perhaps the largest globally-observed holiday in the world: Chinese New Year.*
So, how better to roll up my own history than to chat with the man whose tradition I inherited, but who did not raise me according to it.
“Baba, I am trying to learn more about Chinese New Year. Can we chat about it?”
“What can you even know about it? You don’t even speak proper Chinese! You didn’t grow up with it!”
“I know, that’s why I am trying to find out more.”
“Okay, keep practicing Mandarin then, son.”
“…can you at least tell me a bit more about your experience? What was it like, growing up in Taiwan and celebrating the holiday?”
My father proceeds to lecture me on the character ‘春 (chūn) – ‘spring’ for a solid 15 minutes. The roots of the word, how traditionally one hangs this letter upside down on their door for spring to arrive, blah blah blah…
“But baba, what did it mean to YOU?”
“Well, eating delicious food. And seeing everyone in our family. Seeing distant relatives by visiting your grandmother’s family. And of course 紅包 (hóngbāo) – the red envelope filled with little cash allowances that children get. I used to give you some of those, too.”
“Ohhh, I see why I got those. Much obliged, now that I know where that even came from…”
“See – you don’t know much about the holiday OR the tradition.”
“Well, yes, hence me asking. Why didn’t we celebrate the holiday?”
“The simple rationale is there are enough holidays for you already. We lived in Austria, and not Taiwan, and hence there were other holidays to be observed.”
“No. You, my son, have to choose and accept your own cultural belongings. Your life’s philosophy, the rites you choose to observe must be your own, not mine.”
“But…how could I make up my mind, without knowing half my traditions?”
“As I said, we lived in Austria. I integrated into that society. There was already Christmas – you did not need another big holiday just a month or so later. Also, we couldn’t afford going to Taiwan every year. And you know, no good Asian food in Salzburg.”
“Hmm, I see. Did you ever miss it?”
My father hesitates.
“No. I got tired of the [Taiwanese] community; too much talking.”
“But what about going home? Did you miss seeing your family?”
“Yes. I did miss it. But you know, the political history” –
I do not pry more about that.
This might seem like an unsatisfying account of Chinese New Year or my ancestral investigations. But let me leave you with this insight:
My father didn’t choose not to expose me to Chinese New Year. He did what he could to pass on traditions. But when it comes to traditions such as community and family, what is there to celebrate for one-and-a-half Taiwanese in a city of 150,000 Alpine Caucasians?
Community matters, but tradition is just a matter of scale. Respect and cherish whatever you grew up with, for there’s nothing else – except good reasons, probably, why it all was as (in)significant as it was.
* As a Global Affairs major, I need to point out at this point that calling the holiday Chinese New Year misrepresents the extent and origin of the holiday. More accurately, one could generalize and call it Lunar New Year, as it follows the lunar calendar, and is observed in many East Asian countries, ranging from Japan to Korea all the way down to Vietnam and other South-East Asian countries.