Letters of Life

A Chinese New Year Memory

Each Chinese New Year the four of us, my parents, my brother, and I, would drive to my grandfather’s Serangoon Gardens house in Walmer Drive. My mother’s father lived in a semi-detached one-storey cottage with my grandmother and a dachshund named Gretel.

There, we would meet aunts, uncles, cousins, eat pineapple tarts, drink F&N orange soda that was too sweet, and receive hongbaos.  Familiar scenes like this were played out all over the island over the two public holidays in many Chinese homes this time of year.

I must have been around fifteen or sixteen when the four of us were reduced to three at these Chinese New Year visits, my brother and I being the constants. At fourteen, this was embarassing, for no young person likes to show up at such events where the slow but eventual breakup of a family unit comes under the scrutiny of well-meaning relatives.

When I was about seventeen or eighteen, it was down to my brother and I. He could drive and I remember sitting in his second-hand Hyundai Pony as we drove to Walmer Drive to do the Chinese New Year round. We were mostly silent throughout the thirty-minute drive there and back. It was something that had to be done. At home, my grandmother who lived with us received relatives too. These visited once a year, and though I wished I could stay in my room I was constrained by Chinese values of respect and courtesy and sat, a prisoner in my own living room, on furniture no longer comfortable.

Reunion Dinners began to lose their meaning, for my grandma only had one son, my absent father, who over time, didn’t show up even for dinner on the eve of the New Year. I started to think of this most Chinese of rituals as a sham, a pseudo-event which could not accommodate bits and pieces of family without also acting as salt to a wound.

Then my brother went to the army and I went away to study. When I came back after graduation, I got a job with the magazines. Chinese New Year would roll around. There was one particular year I had to go alone. It took everything I had just to walk into the house and face my aunts and uncles, quietly seated and watching as I, still full of youth yet spiritless, approached. It took everything just to smile as if to pretend that everything was ok, and that I was happy to see them and wish each of them a happy Chinese New Year. I was jumping through hoops. Their polite smiles and reserved manner did not hide the fact that they knew it.

One year, it was when I was at the newspapers, I decided that if I wasn’t going to take it, I would leave it. So after the Walmer Drive visit, I headed straight for the golf club to meet a friend. He was a Malaysian who worked at the same newspaper and hadn’t gone home to Ipoh over the Chinese New Year break.  He didn’t mind hanging out with me by the swimming pool on the First Day. I stayed out all day and came back only when it got too late for visitors to come to the house.

Things got better when I didn’t have to go alone for visits. Still, I realize that for 23 years, I haven’t celebrated Chinese New Year with either of my parents. It’s just the way things were.

Things have a way of working themselves out for the better. It’s not something I made happen or wished could have happened, for I’d stopped believing a long long time ago that daydreams could come true. They don’t.

Yet we can always hope.



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