It starts with a frenzy.
Mothers line up outside of the market with their sons and daughters in tow to help with the groceries-carrying. It’s an odious task that nobody likes, but somebody has to do it. My mother navigates the market with the map inked onto the back of her hand, the one holding a list of ingredients she needs to fight for before they are all sold out. This isn’t window shopping. This is war. We swerve between the crowds to locate ingredient after ingredient. I hold back a gag in the fish aisle, the dead creatures staring into the fluorescent lights above, unblinking. I stand behind my mother as she picks up vegetable after vegetable and dumps them unceremoniously into a basket so naturally provided by the vendor. The aunties nearby do the same. Fingers fly over the fields of green, picking up bundles, assessing the freshness, making split decisions by the second. I can only watch as everybody hollers out names of vegetables that I fail to catch. My efforts at learning are futile for the chatters in Hokkien overlap each other. My mother turns, hands me another bag that puts my arm strength to the test, and spins on her heels toward the next store. Lather, rinse, repeat. After what seems like a lifetime of bargaining and purchasing, we exit the market triumphantly. Although, I can’t say the same for my dear arms.
Then comes the preparation. Everybody is assigned a chore. We are divided up into small task forces. Some conquer the kitchen and others are in charge of making every corner of the house spick and span because tradition entails that we do not sweep for the next few days to come. Lanterns are hung, lights are switched out. The windows are cleaned and every surface dusted. Vegetables are diced and fishes are filleted. The broth is tasted and the table set. We are all busy, yet we flutter around helping each other around the clock as a series of CNY songs blast from the living room speakers. After a full day of labor, we are done. Exhausted, but excited for the subsequent celebration that is to come. I’m talking about Chinese New Year. Consecutive days where food and drinks flow endlessly, families get together to exchange pleasantries, and when unmarried youngsters such as myself make big bank. But until the morning comes, we gather around the box television and watch some satellite live recording of 春晚, the spring breeze piling in, making the boxed drinks in our grips all the more savorable.
Five minutes before midnight, we rush outside and mount our motorcycles, making for the temple. A lion dance is in progress. They leap from pole to pole, made up of a young and energetic bunch. We watch in awe, jaws dragging the floor even though we’ve seen this film too many times to count. Come the stroke of midnight, we shuffle around, in search of the perfect vantage point. The neighbor pulls her dog into the house, the streets are filled, and we welcome another lunar new year with fireworks. If you ride your motorcycle along the path, firecrackers are lit up. The blast and amplitude of it all rush into your mind. Sparks fly. Children giggle. Infants cry. Brothers and sisters balance sparkle wands between their fingers. Mothers and fathers try to keep everybody safe. Grandfathers and grandmothers kick back in their recliners, smiling at the busyness that has arrived in their kampung.
Soon, the racket ceases and we climb into bed, head ringing, yet smiling ear-to-ear.
The next morning arrives with the signaling of the local roosters, and rush hour commences. I make a beeline for the bathroom while munching down on breakfast. Gran’s house only has one bathroom and there are eight of us. When I’m done, the steamboat is already boiling. I quickly change into some shade of red and dreadfully swap my glasses out for contacts lest my mother nags at me.
Once the extended family arrives and we manage to figure out how to fit twelve chairs around a six-person table, we eat. Scratch that, we feast. The kitchen is flooded with the smell of tomyam, though I pivot toward the smaller bowl of clear broth thanks to my low-spice tolerance. An array of seafood is dumped into the soups, followed by sliced beef, a variety of greens, then wantans, mushrooms, and quail eggs. Finally, the love of my life—maggi mee.
Conversations fill the atmosphere as we wait for the food to boil. We catch up, talk about the past few months, our jobs and studies, health and wealth, and occasionally, a playful bicker worms its way in. Once the food is ready, we dive in whilst maintaining the conversations. My heart warms because the better part of my childhood was spent in busy and lively households, and this once-a-year gathering sends memories of my younger days flying back.
Once our stomachs are fueled, we set off for more relatives’ houses. The mandatory visits begin. When the vehicle comes to a halt, dread takes over (you will understand in a second). A sea of red greets my eyes and a chorus of ‘ayeee!’ greets my parents. I trail silently behind, my extroverted self retreating into the back of my body. I smile and wave like the Madagascar penguins and panic on the inside trying to recall the proper salutations for each uncle and auntie. Is that the first or second cousin? 五姨 or 六姨? 老姑丈? My brain storage is too occupied by Taylor Swift lyrics to remember. As always, there is a solution if you seek deep enough. Mine is to simply walk behind my brother because my mother reminds him who is who. It’s a game of having the right answers but seeing who shouts them out first.
The red packets start pouring in by the moment. It is de rigueur that I drop by every table to say hello to our fellow relatives. I do. I allow four-character wishes to escape my mouth one after the other, smile graciously as I shake their hands, and receive the heavenly red envelope. I give subtle hints that I am about to move on so I can make my rounds. However, more darling aunties and uncles approach the table that I’m at. I tense up. I know exactly how our conversations are about to go: unceasing with a bombardment of questions that result in me standing awkwardly, answering in Teochew while my mind goes on autopilot.
First, they ask for my age, an annual conversation starter. They guess it for a little bit but always think I’m two years younger than I actually am. Do I take it as a compliment?
Then, they claim that I have grown taller, that I have gotten fairer, and that I’m growing to be either like my mother or father. I reply: “No, you just haven’t seen me in a year.”
Then, they inquire about my recent activities. What am I up to? Am I studying form five? I blink for a while, trying to process what they have just asked. Do I look like I’m in form five? You literally liked mother’s Facebook post from my graduation. I explain that I’m in college, waiting to go to university in the UK.
Naturally, the next predictable question would be what I’m going to pursue in university. I see the flash of doubt in their eyes when I say ‘Economics and Politics’ instead of ‘Medicine’ or ‘Law’. No, I would not like to discuss our dear Prime Minister or failure of a government.
(Do you have a boyfriend? You’re so much older now, you should have one!)
My brain does a double-take as if this were a question I might have a satisfactory answer to. I do not. I laugh uncomfortably for a few seconds before saying “no lah”. What I think, however, is so much more than two syllables: God, save me. I could lie and say Shawn Mendes is my boyfriend but these people will blow it out of the water. To the older generation, all jokes lead to some kind of unwarranted lecture. Could I take the sarcastic route and say I plan on living in the forest in absolute solitude after I graduate university and live a frugal and disappointing life that does not involve a doctorate or getting married? Let me dig a hole and crawl into it. Let this interrogation be over. Place two coins on my eyes for the ferryman. Only white roses on my tomb. I will see you all in the next life. Maybe not.
At this point, mother interjects just in time and jokes that I will end up finding a boyfriend overseas. As mother takes over the conversation, I take that as my cue to excuse myself and escape an otherwise deadly situation. These are dangerous waters I’m treading through. I locate the more related cousins who are glued to their devices, sitting in a row on the couch. I interrupt their gameplay to ask them how things are going in school. We gossip for a little bit about which teachers are still teaching, which ones got pregnant, and the crazy tales they have to share.
Come evening, the crowd dissipates. We bid our goodbyes and go back the way we came. The sun hangs lazily on the horizon, waiting on his shift to be over. I call up my cousin and she appears at the doorstep of my grandmother’s house on her motorcycle within a minute. Our kampung is that small. I emerge from the front door with two boxed drinks and hand her one. We start sipping as we take a spin around the village in the late evening wind, trading gossips about our afternoons at the relatives’. When we both finish our drinks, we look for the closest house with a wide-open rubbish bin. Aiming as my cousin rides past that house, I shoot, and I score. It’s a little tradition that we have adopted.
Lather, rinse, repeat. Three days. Different faces, same questions. Different houses, same togetherness.
Sadly, that will not happen this year. If I had known the Lunar New Year of 2020 would be my last before leaving for university, perhaps I would’ve cherished it with more effort. It’s true what they say about not appreciating the moments you have until you lose them. That grief has a peculiar way of creeping into your mind and rooting there without paying rent.
But I know I’ll be back for it someday. In the blink of a few years, I will return to streets of laughter and lanterns. The ordeal that has prohibited this year’s celebration from happening will have been dealt with, and perhaps some part of my early adolescence will be preserved.
Maybe the conversations will grow more thoughtful. Maybe the red packets will grow thicker. Maybe I’ll return differently. Who’s to even say that celebrations will ever be the same five years from today? But for now, I’ll hold on to those maybe’s.