My parents have been reminding me the past couple of weeks about eating chicken these next three days for Chinese New Year: for good luck and prosperity, they tell me.
Even though I have celebrated Chinese New Year all my life, there are still some traditions and rituals I am unsure of. From my earliest memories of the holiday, I only recall wearing the color red, eating lots of delicious food, and receiving red pocket money. However, as it is a holiday, I always remember the happiness and joy that we have, spending the time with family and enjoying delicious food together.
I know that on New Year’s Eve, my parents put out incense to our ancestor altar and prepare food for the altar as well; technically, tomorrow February 19th is the start of Chinese New Year, but since China is hours ahead, we can already start celebrating tonight.
I haven’t spent Chinese New Year with my parents and siblings in awhile (looking back at my photo collection, looks like I haven’t spent CNY with family since 2006!); the alternative I have for celebrating the holiday has been to attend Chinese New Year dinners around town, generally banquet fundraisers thrown by organizations involved in the Chinese/Chinese-American community. Generally, back in Virginia, my dad participates in a few Chinese New Year banquet shows, doing kung fu demonstrations with his students. I can always tell that my dad is joyful after his performances since he enjoys kung fu and being in the spotlight.
Happy New Year to you all and may the Year of the Sheep bring you great prosperity! Gung Hay Fat Choi!
As children, my siblings and I already knew we didn’t have typical American childhoods: after all, my two oldest siblings started working at our family restaurant fairly young, helping with the register and also babysitting our sister Lisa, the first American-born child out of the five of us.
Aside from our ethnicity, we also felt the absence of our parents at ‘typical’ extracurricular activities, such as Field Day in elementary school. One time, my oldest sister came to cheer me on when my class was up against another class for Tug-of-War. I only have photos from that Field Day; all the other ones, I remember just being with my other classmates whose parents also couldn’t make it to the outing.
When I started performing in our school band, my parents were rarely at any of the concerts; only in high school, when my mother started spending more time at home, did she attend a few concerts and awards shows.
Even though I felt my parents’ absence at these special events at school, I also understood why they could not attend: they were working hard at our family restaurant, making sure we all had enough food to eat, reliable shelter, and other basic needs. They sacrificed their time in order to make sure we were well-provided for, so we could excel in school and not worry about where our next meals were going to be.
It is the price that many immigrant parents pay for in order to see their children excel and do better in their lives.
My parents are not particularly religious, but they do practice ancestor veneration, which is a part of Confucianism, Taoism, and Chinese Buddhism.
One ritual I have watched my parents practice over the years has been burning incense and praying to our ancestors before any of us embark on any travel: when all of us kids are back in Virginia for Christmas, our parents burn incense before any of us depart again; my sister Lisa believes this ritual is so we receive protection from our ancestors to travel home safely.
My parents also burn incense during Chinese holidays and other important dates; during those times, they also prepare food for the ancestor altars; when we kids are actually at home, our parents ask us to follow them to the altar to bow three times to each ancestor. After we have all paid respect to our ancestors, we proceed to eat the leftover food from the ritual.
In our first house, we had a large back room where my grandmother had her sewing machine and supplies, and we had our laundry machines and our ancestor altars with incense holders. These days at our current house, we’ve converted a small closet in our study into the ancestor altar. My parents close the doors to the altar whenever we have guests visiting so to not disturb the altars to our ancestors.
I think my parents also close the door so to not draw out any curiosity from the grandchildren, to explain the meaning behind the altars. None of my niece or nephews know about the altars; they may never know the true meaning behind this tradition since none of us kids practice ancestor veneration on our own.
Growing up, Christmas was not a big deal in my household: my parents are immigrants and haven’t been highly interested in western religion, but allowed for us kids to attend Sunday School with family friends. So we didn’t have Christmas decorations or exchange gifts; we simply received extra money from our parents and took time to relax.
Our oldest sister wanted us three younger siblings to have some sort of traditional Christmas, though, so we had a small plastic tree in her bedroom and she bought each of us a few gifts. The small tree had some decorations and the three of us eagerly waited for Christmas Day to open presents.
On Christmas Day, we also usually spent time with our extended family as most of our dad’s siblings still lived in Virginia at that point: our parents would have a large banquet of food and invite all our relatives at the restaurant for celebration. My grandfather’s birthday was also around Christmas, so we celebrated his birthday during that time as well.
For a couple Christmases, the three of us (Lisa, me, and Adam) put on a Christmas concert after dinner. We would practice in the large, strangely-shaped closet in our oldest sister’s room, choosing traditional and contemporary Christmas songs to sing.
We still have a home video of our first Christmas concert at our parents’ house: my sister Lisa introduced us with, “Ring the bells: the 3 Little Kwongs are here!” Our parents and relatives laughed at the novelty and we proceeded to sing. I was so shy around our aunt’s video camera and avoided staring at the camera while singing, even when my aunt would say, “Hey, Helene! Look at the camera!” At that point, a couple of our cousins also tried to be a part of the concert, although they were too little to be able to read the words along with us.
It was a fun tradition that we were only able to keep up for two consecutive years; then, things changed with family and the Christmas gatherings at our restaurant faded away.
This year on May 5th, my parents will celebrate their 45th anniversary together, and throughout my life I have seen nothing but true, genuine love between my mom and dad.
Like most children, I grew up assuming that my parents loved each other, because that’s how a family is made. But it wasn’t until February of 2002 when I realized how deeply they loved each other.
My dad is a cheerful, easygoing guy with a tough side; more or less a “typical” guy in that sense. I hadn’t ever seen him cry, not even at my grandmother’s funeral, his own mother. I forget what I was doing that February evening, but I was up late and for some reason I went downstairs to the kitchen.
I saw my mother crying softly and my dad turned to me, gasping, “Please, Helene! Give your mother a tissue!” When I went to get the tissue, I also noticed tears in my father’s eyes: he was also crying.
The sad news was that my grandfather, my mom’s dad, only had a short amount of time to live; he was in China. My mother hadn’t seen her father in over 20 years since she emigrated from China to join my father in the U.S. My parents had to make quick arrangements to get my mother back to China to see her dad before he passed away. My oldest sister accompanied our mom, leaving our dad home with me and my younger brother Adam.
Sadly, my mother and sister did not make it to China in time: my grandfather passed away a few hours/a day before they were to arrive. Still, they stayed in China for 2-3 weeks for the funeral arrangements and to spend time with our relatives there. During that time, my dad kept the family restaurant going by himself since Adam and I were still in school.
Our dad walked around like a ghost during that time though; we even attended a few awards show with our dad where he accepted awards from our hometown police department for his service to the community. Even though our dad was happy and appreciative of the awards, he also seemed a bit lost.
It wasn’t until one night at dinner when the three of us were eating and our dad said, “You know, without your mom here, I feel like somebody chopped off my right hand.” That statement made me suddenly realize that really, my parents had not been separated from each other for very much at all: they were separated from each other for several years in the 1970s when my dad came to the U.S. to find a better home for our family, leaving my mother and my two oldest siblings behind in China for the arduous journey abroad. Still, since they were reunited in the late 1970s in Virginia, my parents had been side-by-side with each other 24/7, even working long hours together.
That was the moment when I realized how deeply their love ran for each other. Once my mother and sister came back from China, my parents were so happy to be reunited. Since then, my parents have resumed their togetherness through work, travel, and now even into their retirement, playing ping pong at home and walking five miles in the neighborhood when the weather is nice out. I see my parents’ love and I wish to myself everyday that my relationship will emulate them in every way.