Monday, January 26, 2009

On a Mongrel's New Year

I seem to have a new Chinese New Year tradition here in Portland - eating dinner alone and thinking about my lack of Chinese-ness.

Because the thing is, after all the ish I talk about being "Asian" and my Chinese roots and all that, I still don't have a single Chinese friend here in Portland. Seriously. In spite of my spoken-word odes to my Chinese ancestors, I only have my mom's generation left, and no Chinese family close enough to visit for dinner. Even though I'm on the planning committee for an Asian Youth Conference, I ate my noodles alone in a Chinese restaurant tonight.

I walked in the door, and the lady gave me a "Happy New Year," and it felt good. I sat down, and she came back to give me a fork (although all the rest of the place-settings were there: plate, teacup, napkin, and chopsticks), and that didn't feel so good. When she saw my red Chinese shirt (my mom got it for me when she returned my grandmother's ashes to China) under my jacket, she said, "Oh! You are celebrating the New Year! Thank you!" in the same way you would thank a little kid for trying to write you out a check with crayons on construction paper.

And, again, as with last year, I find myself quietly thinking about my Chinese-ness. How much I can claim - and how much I have no right to. Are my attempts to connect to aspects of Chinese traditions (our celebrations of Chinese New Year didn't go much past red envelopes and dinner with the grandparents when I was a kid) that I did not fully grow up with a matter of respect, or a bastardization and/or insult? I don't know. And each year I am faced with this same set of questions.

I ask myself why I don't have Chinese community or friends here. Certainly, Portland isn't the best place to find Chinese people (or any non-white people, in general), but that's not it because I have friends of other colors. So maybe it's that there are no Chinese folks where I work, which is a definite factor. Or that when I've tried to take part in what should be Chinese group activities, I've fallen short (I signed up for a Tai Chi class - my grandmother taught Tai Chi, and I wanted to honor her after she died - where I was the only Chinese-blooded participant, teacher included).*

But what I keep coming back to is the fact that I'm not really Chinese. Those Chinese "gangsta" youth I mentioned in my last post were calling me out as a "sell-out," remember ? I'm just a mongrel that doesn't look Chinese enough for people not to be confused when they see me wearing Chinese shirts. And that's what I'm always going to be.

And so I remind myself on this day that it's up to me to create my own traditions. I am the pooling together of many different cultures, and so there is nothing wrong in my personal "traditions" being as mixed and partial as the racial identifiers in my physical appearance. To me, Chinese New Year is as much about how I grew up and honoring my ancestors (which I do) as it is about figuring out what fits.

And so, for me, the CVT's Chinese New Year traditions look like this:

- I try to do some sort of house-cleaning (or self-cleaning) before the New Year for good luck and new beginnings (it's not the most thorough, though).
- The morning of, I wake up, go to my grandparents' (on both sides) little "altar" and bow three times to all four of them (they are all dead, now).
- I dress in as much red as possible (definitely wearing my red short-sleeve Chinese shirt), down to my red shoelaces.**
- I make a point of writing "Happy New Year!" (instead of "Happy Chinese New Year") on my board at school, so my kids ask me about it in every class, and I take some time to talk about it (which usually ends up with a short description of how I grew up, since, undoubtedly, a few are like "You're Chinese!?")
- I try to bring in some jellyfish and chicken's feet for the kids to try (chicken's feet because that's all my grandmother, aunts, and mother would eat when we went to Chinatown for dim sum; jellyfish because that was one of my favorites as a kid, and my students think it's so 'gross').
- I go by myself to the little Chinese restaurant near where I used to live (it's not the best, but it's hurting, financially, so I try to go there as frequently as I can) and eat some uncut noodles (for long life) and Chinese vegetables with rice, alone.
- I think about how this last year has gone, how far I've come, and where I need to get headed.
- And I spend serious time pondering my identity and all it means to me; and what I need to do to get a better grip on it.
- And, for the last two years, I've written a blog post about it.
- Finally, I'll light some red candles at night, bow to my grandparents some more, and enjoy flame-lit darkness.

Overall, I don't think it's such a bad set of traditions. I might add on a bit as I get older (I plan on going to live in China a while, maybe as soon as this coming Fall, so that should change my views a bit), but this is what works for me, right now. And that's all there is to it.

They say that what happens on the first day is a preview of the coming year, so if quiet reflection, good food, and some personal writing are what's in store for me, I won't complain. They also say that every dog has his day - and it's no different for this one. I may not do it up fully "Chinese," but that wouldn't be appropriate if I did, and so I'll just be content to do it up my own style during my Mongrel Chinese New Year.

And so I wish all my readers a Happy New Year (whenever yours began), and may you all have long lives, luck, and prosperity in the future.

And if any of y'all want to send me some hong bao full of cash, I'd have no problem adding that to my list of traditions above . . .

* Oddly enough, outside of Chinese restaurants, the most Asian folks (of any ethnicity) I've seen were at a b-boy battle I went to last Saturday night, but that's a conversation for another day.

** I made sure to explain the "good luck" of wearing red to my kids at school, since the majority are gang-affected.

*** And, just for clarity, I happen to be a monkey, not a dog, but the picture's about referencing my title . . .


Winifred said...

Happy New Year to you!

Sounds like you were a bit melancholy & lonely. I think CNY is a holiday that's best celebrated w/ friends and family.

Not that the tidying and thinking about self are not good activities, they are. But New Year is also about community and connection.

Maybe next year you can organize a dinner or a banquet w/ friends? A whole steamed fish; a whole chicken, a veggie casserole. Or, incorporate a northern tradition where you get together w/ a group of friends and have a jiaozi wrapping party and then eat them.

Other things you might want to incorporate into your New Year's celebrations:

1) Flowers. My husband starts getting daffodil bulbs ready for sprouting about 1 month before New Year (a lot of people do that here in HK and one of my colleagues fcrom Beijing says they do it up north too). People usually try to time it so that the blooms open on the 1st Day.

In the flower markets people also like to buy forsythia & pussy willows and red gladioli & yellow chrysanthemums. Key colors are red, yellow & gold.

2) Fruit - oranges, pomelos, and tangerines. A lot of people will also buy little mini-orange trees.

3) Sweets - chocolates are very popular as are giving and receiving tins of Danish butter cookies wrapped in red paper. People also like to eat melon seeds or pumpkin seeds. Also dried sweet fruit - candied coconut, candied lotus root, candied carrot. You might want to consider buying one of thise 8-compartment boxes for the sweets and bring that into your class. It would help dispel the "Chinese people are weird" message that the chicken feet and jelly-fish might inadvertently convey & it's more traditional (a sweet New year).

4) Good Messages written in Chinese on red. People like to put up the "Gongxi Facai" ("getting rich"), but also "Shenti Jiankang" (health) and Xueye Jinbu (progress in study). Put them up in the house and in your classroom.

5) Fire crackers, sparklers & bottle rockets.

I really appreciate your honesty about your life when you post. I read your blog to get some insight into what my kids face as Eurasians in the USA after they grow up. Of course, being raised in a Chinese majority culture, some of their issues may well be different.

Best wishes to you for the coming year. We're on our 2nd day here in HK and I'm being very lazy at home (hence the long post).

meeshtastic said...

Happy New Year!

It's awful to feel disconnected from family and culture. My mom's family are Geechee from Georgia but no one ever made a huge deal about keeping those traditions alive in part because the community was destroyed by the U.S. Army and in part because people used to make fun of Geechee people. (I'm going to post about it one of these days on my blog)

Since I spent all my summers as a kid in Georgia, I got snippets and bits of tradition but not "the full experience" so sometimes I feel like a fraud when I claim my Geechee roots. Plus I live very far away from the Geechee community so it's hard.

Anyway, I just wanted to say that I could relate on some level. I agree with Winifred though about making sure to have some people around you next year. I love your blog btw and I read it everyday.

Greg said...

Gosh, I must agree with with the previous commentors -- I couldn't help but read a bit of loneliness in your post. I thought about commenting to recommend inviting some friends out to the Chinese restaurant with you next year (and heck, that's more business for them, too). But then I wondered how much I was imposing my own values in interpreting your post -- maybe you are very happy for the time eating alone as it allows for greater introspection. But I have to say that even by the end of the post, rather than happily embracing your own tradition, you seem quietly resigned to these actions you happen to have carried out over the years.

CVT said...

It makes me feel lonely to think there are all these people out here that think I'm so lonely!

Call it what you will, but for me, Chinese New Year is my holiday for looking at my Chinese-ness and doing my part. So I would love to have a big dinner with my family (as my parents are doing this week), but there are none around. And if I'm going to do a big social dinner, I want it to do it with other folks to whom the day has meaning . . . so, until I have that in the immediate vicinity, I shall use the day for my own personal feasting and inner thoughts.

That said,

Winifred -
I do do the oranges. I forgot to mention that. I bring all the staff at work some oranges and keep some on my desk at school and at home. I also bring some candy to school (although I admit I didn't get Chinese candies this time around).

As for the food-choice: I actually use the "gross-out" factor as a learning opportunity. I talk to the kids about "weird" foods that they eat and talk about exposure - jellyfish isn't "weird" or "gross" when you grow up around it. Some kids eat turkey-neck, is that really different from chicken's feet? Do you all know what is in hot dogs or salami?

It's also really sweet - because all the kids, to prove their solidarity with me on this day - end up eating these foods that they would never touch in any other occasion, then commenting, "that was really good!" Nothing cooler than when the kids line up to ask for more jellyfish (or feet, but the jellyfish is more popular) after being so scared right before. Those moments wouldn't feel as special and have the same affect if I was just handing out candied fruits (being a teacher, I can't help but make everything a lesson for the future).

Greg -
Like I said, CNY is for me, in my way, and so - selfishly, I guess - I don't really want to share my evening traditions with folks that don't have a connection to it. Not on the first days, at least. And I am happy with the traditions I have going - the only thing I regret is my lack of - specifically - Chinese friends in the area. So - missing Chinese company and understanding on this day, but not upset about reflecting or being on my own in other ways.

CVT said...
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CVT said...

Oh, and Winifred -
It means a lot that you read this for the sake of your kids - that's some kind of amazing. I have no doubt that growing up in Hong Kong will very much change their actual experiences and perspective - but the whole "gray area" concept will likely remain, nonetheless. Obviously - they'll be a lot more connected to their Chinese culture for living there.

Maybe one of them, someday, will be writing some post about celebrating the 4th of July in Beijing and how they don't have enough American friends to barbecue hot dogs with . . .

L. said...
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L. said...

*Sorry, I sent the comment through without proofing it and saw an obvious typo, which is a pet peeve of mine, so I deleted it.*

At the risk of equating our experiences (a throwback to our multiracial/black discussion), I just wanted to say that I can relate to this post to some extent. Like Meeshtastic, I wasn't raised with the explicit cultural and historical aspects of my families roots. Which is kind of depressing since those roots are in New Orleans and Louisiana in general. With the destruction of Katrina, I feel like I'll never really be able to go there and try to connect with that unique culture. I have slight feelings of fraudulence when I tell people they aren't eating real gumbo or jumbalaya, or try to explain that funerals are celebrations. I mean, I know it's not the same, but this post just reminded me of how elusive certain parts of your identity can be. You feel deep ties to something, but there's also this feeling that it's not for you to own.

Oh, and I could also relate somewhat to the jelly fish as a delicacy thing. For me, it's chitlins, which don't go over well at all. I try to tell them that it's no different from eating any other part of the pig, but they just get hung up on the whole bowel issue. And then I'm all like, "Don't judge me!" So yeah, that made me giggle.

miri said...

I'm a few days late, but Happy New Year!

While of course my experience isn't exactly the same as yours, there is definitely something about your post that resonates. I do have a few close Chinese friends back home, but away at college I mostly celebrate it on my own, a sort of recreation of the few traditions I celebrated with my family (although it was nice, in the Facebook era, to see all the "Happy New Year!" status updates...).

It's funny how CNY both celebrates my Chinese heritage and makes me feel distinctly lacking in regards to that. While I try to steer away from the stereotype that all mixed people have identity conflicts, that they are neither here nor there - the sense of not truly belonging is a often a part of my reality. Also, sometimes it can become proof, a way of affirming my Chinese-ness to friends. However, for the most part CNY is truly a special time of year that really makes me proud of my background.

On a side note - just wanted to again say how much I appreciate your blog. A few days ago I was in a situation in which I felt more "other" than maybe I have ever happened to hit me pretty hard, and after some emotional turmoil I sat down and read a few of your old posts. They helped to make some sense of things and remind me that others are in the same boat.

Also - if you can, stick around in China for Spring Festival (CNY). I've been once during that time, and the level of excitement & festivities is really thrilling. And try setting off some firecrackers with friends!

Winifred said...


Thanks for your kind response. Trying to balance their USA identity is an issue. I've taken them to the States a few times in the past few years for the 4th of July and they've experienced the New England small town parade (contentious political flots and all) & fire works. But, Thanksgiving - I've never done it w/ them because w/ Mid-Autumn Festival & Cheung Yeung (autumn grave sweeping) & Harvest Home at church, I feel pretty much autumn-gratitude-family festivaled out, especially since Advent starts right after.

I expect they will have some identity issues as they grow up. My main hope is that whatever issues they might have, that they do feel firmly rooted in HK & in my part of the USA, at least they'll have something solid to butt their heads against. :)

Please keep writing, I do enjoy reading your thoughts.

Lxy said...

"I seem to have a new Chinese New Year tradition here in Portland - eating dinner alone and thinking about my lack of Chinese-ness.

Because the thing is, after all the ish I talk about being "Asian" and my Chinese roots and all that, I still don't have a single Chinese friend here in Portland. Seriously. In spite of my spoken-word odes to my Chinese ancestors, I only have my mom's generation left, and no Chinese family close enough to visit for dinner. Even though I'm on the planning committee for an Asian Youth Conference, I ate my noodles alone in a Chinese restaurant tonight."

Wow, this post was somewhat sad to read.

You should check out Thymos, which is an Asian American activist organization in Portland.

That's one way to connect with the Asian/Chinese American community.

jane voodikon said...

i think holidays are lonely in general if you don't have family around. i've been in china for the last five spring festivals and let me tell you it's the time when most foreigners get the heck out of town because it's that lonely and depressing (and cold). everybody is at home with their families, but when you don't have a family here, there's not much you can do. and because it's such a family-oriented thing, you generally have to be pretty tight in with a local (like married to one, or almost married to one) to be invited to the festivities inside someone's home. so in all these years i've never actually been invited to a family celebration because i've never had a serious relationship with a local. and i'm half chinese! but it's this time of the year when i feel the most like a foreigner. and what i end up doing is pretty much completely ignoring the traditions, other than the red-wearing, although even that i do only subtly with a scarf or something, since it's like a personal kind of thing. but then i just hang out with my other foreign friends, and we cook and eat together, as if we're family. the same thing generally happens on christmas, thanksgiving, etc. although i often just ignore those holidays as well. anyway today a young tibetan man asked if i was hanzu (han chinese), which doesn't happen that frequently (and yes, i'll confess, it makes me strangely happy when somebody can "see" my chineseness. it makes me feel cooler or something). well, cvt, for a bit of seriousness in irreverence by way of portrayals of asians in '80s european pop, you might like to check my most recent blog posts. kind of funny stuff.

Jennifer said...

A belated "Gung Hay Fat Choy!" I see that you are on hiatus for the month of February, and seriously, it's only been the last two days that I've read any blogs beyond posting on my own (and that has really fallen short as well).

For what it's worth, I actually didn't read your blog post as expressing loneliness. I think it was very self-reflective and asked some hard questions about culture and connectedness and community.

I like your description of CNY--that you have created it into a personal holiday for yourself that has connections with the rituals and traditions that you grew up with and that Chinese people around the globe participate in. I do similar things--and although I am not mixed, I feel a similar sense of "am I Chinese enough" just based on the fact that I'm Chinese American (well, and it is exacerbated by my Mother's Jamaican cultural identity--in other words, there is a good chance I may have grown up feeling more "Chinese" and less hybrid if I spoke Mandarin or if our meals didn't alternate between ma pa tofu and pig tail stew with red beans and rice).

I'm totally rambling so all I want to say is I feel you on this. And I also want to say that while I do understand that you want to celebrate the holiday with other folks where it has meaning for them, you may be surprised among your closest friends--the ones who *feel* like family in the absence of extended kin--that they are going to also see this as an important holiday for you and by extension for them.

This year I got together with my partner and my 2 best friends in this area (one of whom is Vietnamese American and thus she celebrates the new year, but in a slightly different way) and we ate at the local Chinese restaurant I always go to. It felt good--because my friends were excited to celebrate (and one actually does, although she calls it "tet") and because like in a large Chinese family where your aunts and uncles and cousins may not be blood related, I do feel like these friends are close enough to me that they are almost like sisters (or at least good cousins).

Anyway, I'm going to work my way through your archive and I look forward to hearing back from you when you are off hiatus.

CVT said...

Jennifer - thanks for not saying I sounded lonely!