Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine's / Chinese New Year Mash-Up

It's not just Valentine's today, but it's also Chinese New Year - year of the Tiger.  And because of this, Disney's Mulan is on TV.  Aside from all the racial stereotypes, sexism and historical inaccuracies, I love this movie.  Finally, Asians - specifically, the Chinese - get a shout-out from Disney.  YES!!! We can be officially added to the "cool-exotic-cultures-that-we-don't-really-have-to-accept-but-learn-about-through-cartoon-form" list in America.

Anyway, what I love most about Mulan is how her family is characterized - especially her grandma, who reminds me of my own (paternal) grandmother.  Tough, smart, and with enough survival instincts to weather any storm, she's also loving and wise. 

Spending Chinese New Year away from my family is always a little sad.  It's not even as if we have some over-the-top celebration or traditions to adhere to - usually it just consists of a huge dinner cooked by my mom or dad (or both) and the obligatory lining up afterward to wish relatives in Hong Kong a long-distance, hearty, "Gung hey fat choy, sun tai gin hong, sun lin yu yee" etc. and any other variation you can think of.
I atone for my absence by attending the Chinese New Year parade in London's Chinatown, which, bizarrely, always opens with an Anglo-Saxon man with a long white beard as the "town crier.  But then there are the dragons, the dancers, the lanterns, the firecrackers, the drums, the smoke, the sound, the songs ... everything is in Mandarin, hardly anyone speaks Cantonese.  But when I do hear the occasional familiar tones somewhere along the pavement, in the crowd, it comforts me and I don't feel so far away from home, even though everything else feels foreign.  There are more non-Chinese people in the crowd than there are Chinese, and this makes me happy.  It's a family affair, as fathers pluck their toddlers from their standing places and hoist them on their shoulders.  Parents push their children forward so they can see the dragon dancers and catch the Chinese candies and biscuits being thrown into the crowd.  Red envelopes are also thrown, but they contain vouchers or candy, rather than money.  I look at the envelopes strewn on the ground and remember the number of red envelopes lining my childhood desk at home in Washington, waiting for my return.  They have my (maternal) grandmother's familiar Chinese script and each envelope is carefully labeled, "Birthday" or "New Year" or some other holiday.  Some contain a couple dollar bills for luck and others contain carefully folded fifties, for spending.

Later, when the parade ends and the crowd disperses, I walk past a man demonstrating how to make Dragon's beard candy and buy a pack even though I don't really like it.  I don't know why I do it.  The dryness and the combination of peanuts and sugar make me cough and choke a bit.  I don't eat the rest. 

For a minute, during the parade, I felt a kind of happiness and pride that this is my culture, I am Chinese, I am a part of these dragons, these dancers, these lanterns, these firecrackers, this smoke, this sound, these songs ... and I'm glad that I'm able to attend a Chinese New Year celebration away from home.  But then Chinatown quickly reverts to its grimy, dirty, rude, honking self.  The Cantonese voices disappear and I'm left with the jarring, sharp and even piercing four tones of Mandarin, which makes me wince.  I eat the overpriced and tasteless pineapple bun I bought in a Chinatown bakery on my way home on the tube and cry when I get off at my stop.  How sad it is that I lose a bit of my Chinese culture every day I live here and even every day I live in the States.  I belong to nowhere.

1 comment

  1. Really beautiful sign off at the end. Exactly how I feel when leaving on a jet plane. The key is to start exploring nowhere now.


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