There is a great coming together on the eve of Chinese New Year, where family members from all corners of the world gather for the yearly reunion dinner. I’ve been thorough a few handfuls of them, starting from as young as I could remember up till to now, as a twenty year-old. We will always gather at my maternal grandparent’s place. I believe there was once an era where my grandmother would cook everything from the soups to the mains, but for the last few years we have been relying on takeaways from nearby restaurants.
This year’s reunion dinner was satisfying. There was roasted chicken and duck, braised pork, boiled vegetables, ee fu noodles, sea cucumber, yong tau foo soup and a tantalizing seafood stew consisting of baby abalones, scallops, fresh prawns, pork knuckle, boiled chicken, fish maw and preserved oysters. This was all preceded by the traditional Lou Hei (prosperity toss). Shredded vegetables were topped with golden crackers and crushed peanuts, drizzled once over with a cinnamon powder, pepper, a sweet dressing, and finally the most important ingredient: strips of raw salmon. Chinese idioms in the form of homophones (the Chinese are obsessed with puns and wordplay) were used when each ingredient or dressing was showered over the plate, symbolizing hopes of abundance and wealth.
The toss is the most interesting part, where we all gathered in a circle around the plate of well organized ingredients with our chopsticks and began to mix it all up with exaggerated tosses. It is tradition to exhaust your vocabulary of Chinese idioms pertaining to wealth and prosperity as you toss, the height of your toss also symbolizing the “height” of your success in the coming year. So as we were doing this, my one hand was Snapchatting the moment and the other was making frantic attempts at hearty tosses. It was a harried way to make up for my limited range of idiom vocab.
At that moment I couldn’t help but feel fortunate. This is not something I normally feel at reunion dinners. For the past few years it was always just a routine to me, the same old tossing, feasting and red packet collection. But what changed my mind was that a few days ago, I was discussing with a friend about the value of reunion dinners.
I proposed that it was the size of our nation that undermined the significance of the occasion. I read somewhere that “all children are expected to travel from the farthest corners of the world for a reunion dinner with their parents on the eve of Chinese New Year. To ignore it is to be deemed unfilial, the worst crime a person can be accused of.” But then, how can you show you sincerity through a physical journey when this journey cannot take you more than an hour? Our country is just too small for any sincere gestures of filial piety. I observed this because I met my grandparents for dinner almost every week, through stressful exams and my grueling national service. We lived nearby and it was convenient. There was just nothing special about such meet ups anymore.
But you see, he told me, distance need not be physical. Not every family is separated by physical distance. There are families that drift apart and lose touch with each other despite living so close by. Ironically, being so close physically may even contribute to an erosion of kinship when we begin to take each other for granted. Like the roots of a banyan tree, family politics run deep and are tremendously complex. More than just being taken for granted, past quarrels, unpaid debts and character differences may even cause families to consciously avoid each other. Yes, distance may not be physical. How true. Sometimes all we need is an excuse to get together and to put all our differences aside, and the eve of Chinese New Year is the perfect time for that. We sit around good food and have a few drinks whilst ruminating about how it used to be, discuss the future and above all, are reminded of one inescapable fact: that this is where we come from, and that in at least one point in our lives, we had called this home.
To say my family is fortunate is an understatement. As I reach for my food my grandmother would smile at me and encourage me to take more. We talk about our daily lives, and about minor domestic issues. My grandfather asks me about how I’m taking my job from across the table, and I give him a short summary of my progress. We meet often so this is no different from all the other mealtimes. I can see from one sitting that we are comfortable with each other as an extended family, and this feels like less of a reunion than just a casual dinner. And it is somewhere between feeling comfortable and having them constantly there that I might have taken all this for granted.
We all come from diverse backgrounds, and bring with us our very own baggage. This baggage may have brought families closer together, or torn them clean apart. I am more than fortunate that it has been the former for my family, and I am aware that good fortune does not exist in abundance. We dream of prosperity and happiness, good health and long life, but forget that we can find all this right there with the ones that care about us. We are so obsessed with pursuing worldly possessions and self gratification that we often forget the importance of reunion.
We come together to reconnect with what we may have lost, and we reconnect to remember who we once were, and who we are today. What can be said of us if we start taking such festivities for granted? It would be as good as an abandonment of self. So let this festive season be the reminder to never take those around you for granted, to count your blessings like you count your red packet money, and above all, to be grateful that you have a family to reunite with once a year.
The Lou Hei is set in motion. The tosses get higher, and our voices grow louder as Chinese idioms fly across the table like arrows. Some of the ingredients spill out onto the table and many of our hands are stained with sweet dressing. There are twenty separate and seemingly unrelated vegetables, condiments and dressings, and these are tossed and tossed. But finally, when I scoop some of the mixture into my bowl and have a try, it is delicious.