The season of red envelopes, ancestral offerings, and this year, monkeys. Growing up, my favorite part of Chinese New Year was the red envelopes, which usually contained a crisp twenty dollar bill. Now, my favorite part is the food. I enjoy fish on New Year’s not because the Chinese word for fish is a homonym for surplus, but because it’s delicious, especially slathered in sweet and sour red sauce.
I’ve had a complicated relationship with Chinese culture. I’ve gone from blind obedience to bitterness to finally opening my eyes, able to appreciate some things while disagreeing with others. Given the lunar New Year, I thought it’d be a great time to share some of my favorite parts of Chinese culture with you.
Papercutting is one of the ways I relax, as well as a unique way to create art. My version of adult coloring, if you will. When my husband and I first began dating, we were long distance. Throughout our two months on the phone, I worked on this piece with the help of a Bluetooth. In Chinese culture, horses often symbolize strength, and eight is a lucky number.
I don’t think I have to say much here. I love all kinds of food, but Chinese food is the only one I crave on a regular basis. I was lucky to have homecooked Chinese meals throughout childhood but didn’t appreciate at the time—I was too busy being laughed at for not knowing about meatloaf or how to use a fork and knife.
Shaved ice with red bean
Din Tai Fung workers making soup dumplings
The ability to express oneself in multiple ways—through more than one language, through dance, through affection—is always valuable. There are certain phrases in Mandarin that there isn’t an English equivalent of, and since I “think” in both languages, sometimes I find myself speaking Chinglish. My husband has learned 撈 (lāo: to fish through liquid for something), 熱鬧 (rènào: a lot of activity and chatter, lively), among others because I often insert these phrases into conversation.
I dedicated twenty years of my life to Chinese dance, even starting a non-profit dance organization in my previous home of Boston. Even though I love all forms of dance, Chinese dance will always hold a special place for me that no other style can parallel.
Growing up, there were frequent Asian gatherings, usually involving potluck, which were as 熱鬧 as could be. I haven’t had the staple almond jello, maraschino cherry, mandarin orange dessert in over fifteen years, and though I would have never predicted this back then, I crave it every now and then. So many things that felt so normal then—cutting pizza with scissors for the kids, 6-hour long mahjong tournaments, plastic-covered remotes and tables—I know now to be uniquely Chinese (and humorous).
Because my grandparents were still in Taiwan for most of my childhood, we returned to my parents’ homeland every two years, oftentimes for extended stays. Even though the bathrooms were unbearable, I have mostly fond memories. Taiwan was where my parents splurged, everything was cheap, and the food delicious. However, when we were kids, my brothers and I needed—yes, needed—to eat at a McDonald’s or KFC once a week. Now, I can’t get enough soup dumplings, peking duck, 3-cup eggplant, shredded turnip cake, or shaved ice. I wish Chicago had more Taiwanese food. I also dream of a Night Market popping up on State Street.
To keep this post rounded and to stay true to myself, I’ll also share some of the things I don’t miss. Ancestral worshiping, the…shall we say, different…medical techniques (acupuncture, cupping, bloodletting with a cow’s hoof), the lack of talking or expressing emotion, and the pressure to succeed in just the right ways.
For me, the culture evoked so many positive and negative emotions, often conflicting, that I needed to write a book to explore it. A book that has undergone three rewrites and is still in the works. The process of writing has helped me deepen my relationship with my mother as well as see the good, the bad, and the hilarious in Chinese culture. Somehow, I found a way to have my soup dumpling and eat it too.