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 . . .