Monday is Chinese New Year. It is the year of the dragon and expressed as 4709 in numbers.
Chinese New Year is one of my favorite holidays; maybe even my favorite. Growing up on Long Island, I remember going to Chinatown. At the time, the Chinese community in the New York metro area was fairly tight-knit. We had family, my father’s father, his stepmother, his step sister, who lived there. Some of my mother’s aunts and uncles lived there, too. There were also long standing family friends who lived there or owned businesses. As this was also the only significant Chinese enclave at that time in New York, many Chinese (we knew many of them, too) came from the suburbs. We couldn’t walk down any of the streets without seeing someone we knew every several yards.
Food is a huge tradition for Chinese New Year. A lot of what we ate had symbolism, generally connoting wealth, good health, and longevity (noodles were a good one for longevity). As children we received red envelopes with money from our elders. Of course, it didn’t come without our acknowledging our elders and wishing them happy new year.
The lion danced in the street with firecrackers bursting everywhere. The shop windows were decorated. Red banners with gold characters or images were everywhere. And people … well, no one seemed to frown.
My father worked for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which gave him the day off (the agency gave days off to recognize different cultures). As my father learned to cook in my grandfather’s restaurant, he often made Chinese New Year dinner. I remember that he would get the freshest ingredients that day for our dinner, including a fresh fish (just caught) and a chicken (just slaughtered).
Although I knew that Chinese New Year was not celebrated by everyone, my first encounter without the food, the red envelopes, the family, the lion dance, and the firecrackers was college. If I was going to have any of those traditions, I’d have to uphold them on my own.
While it got better when I returned to the New York metro area (Brooklyn to be exact) in the 1980s, Chinese New Year had shifted for me. I was working and I didn’t get the day off (although I did work just a short walk from Chinatown). Many of the people who I encountered on the street as a child had died.
Since moving the the Berkshires in 1989, Chinese New Year feels even more removed. We don’t have a huge Chinese population around here. The only commercial establishments to acknowledge the holiday are the supermarkets with their weekly sales flyer saying something to the effect, “Wishing our Chinese friends a happy Chinese New Year.” No red banners in the windows or special foods. I have to drive many miles to get red envelopes and then I buy a big stack of them so I can have them for a few years.
This is hard to describe… I don’t exactly feel alien in this predominately white, western European/American dominated culture. After all, I grew up on the south shore of Long Island in a predominately white community. I went to school in Urbana, Illinois, not known for a sizable Chinese community. I worked in offices in which my co-workers were generally white. I functioned in a white world. Oftentimes, I was one of the few Chinese in a room. Even now, I often am in churches where I am the only person of color in the sanctuary. (And yes, some people approach me to say, “You speak English very well” – to which I smile because they’re not malicious; I take it that they’re feeling a little awkward and trying to say something nice while still acknowledging who I am.)
I don’t really get to celebrate Chinese New Year any more, unless I do something to make it happen. I work. My wife works. My children work. My life is jam-packed with other-than work activities – none of those activities pause to celebrate Chinese New Year.
So, while I’m more than comfortable in the predominately white, western European/American dominated culture, Chinese New Year makes me acutely aware that I’m still not exactly a part of it either because a part of me is not acknowledged by the dominant culture.
I appreciate that people will say Happy New Year or Gung Hay Fat Choy to me, but it’s not exactly the same as living out the day as I did when I was growing up. Maybe I feel this way because a part of me is not acknowledged. Others who are not of the predominant culture might feel this way, too. There are days when the predominant culture acknowledges other cultures, but those acknowledgements probably feel superficial, not unlike the words in the supermarket flyer.
And while celebrating these culturally significant days is good, it’s not the same as living as one who is of the predominant culture. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to be the only Chinese person in the room or to be asked questions about the Chinese and feel that my answer must speak for all of us. I don’t think people know how hard it is for me to hear the anti-immigration rhetoric knowing that in 1888 this nation passed laws specifically targeted to restrict Chinese immigration and that many Chinese in this country (including me) have family members who entered this country illegally. Although I receive compliments on my English graciously, do people know how truly weird it feels? And while for the most part living in this predominant culture poses no problems for me, there are moments, however, when I know a part of me remains outside.