The sad thing about family traditions is that sometimes you don’t recognize them until you’ve left the nest and moved halfway across the world. Then the holidays strike and you suddenly realize that you miss things like dragon dances, steamed buns and sticky rice, and seeing your city washed in a sea of red decorations.
You realize that most people around you aren’t wearing red underwear because they were born in the Year of the Snake. Most of your friends aren’t cleaning their houses and getting haircuts on New Year’s Eve because it’s forbidden to do so on New Year’s Day (you’re sweeping and chopping away your good fortune for the coming year, you see).
When you’re little you think these rituals are just the way the world works; your family’s doing them so the whole world must be following suit. You don’t cherish these moments as much as you should, because you don’t know to. You don’t realize these moments are fleeting.
My first few years abroad, I never minded being away for the holidays. I was trying to assert my independence, to ‘find myself’ by spending Thanksgivings and Christmases and New Year’s overseas with other ‘worldly’ people.
But something changed at 23 — maybe because I’ve seen how close my fiancé is with his family — as this past Thanksgiving I had a good cry about not being back in Pennsylvania. And this weekend, as I stayed in Paris for Chinese New Year, I once again had to fight back the tears.
Even more painful was finally understanding exactly what my parents gave up by immigrating. Going home for Chinese New Year is such an intense feeling, an unquestioned ritual (it’s the world’s largest annual human migration) — more than any sense of obligation I felt for American holidays. Not being with my family for Chinese New Year felt like as big a loss as missing both Thanksgiving + Christmas, multiplied by 100.
But that was my choice. I’m able to go home, really, if I want to. My parents didn’t have that choice. They had jobs they couldn’t leave, kids to take care of at home.
I felt terrible not making it home for the last two Chinese New Years.
I can’t imagine the heart-wrenching pain of missing the last 26.
That’s not to say I still didn’t have a wonderful weekend full of joy and celebration.
Oh I made sure of that — it is MY year, after all.
By a happy coincidence of timing I was given four days off work, which made the weekend feel a bit more New Year’s-y (in Singapore all my friends were given four-day weekends as well).
On New Year’s Eve I went to dim sum with a group of friends in Chinatown; during lunch we happened to see a dragon dance with Chinese drums and fireworks pass outside our window. Bubble tea, of course, was dessert. Afterwards we stopped into the large Chinese grocery, Tang Frères — I didn’t need to buy anything, I just wanted to walk around and reminisce as I browsed through aisle after aisle stocked full of Chinese food stuffs I loved and recognized from my childhood.
That evening some Irish friends threw an impromptu gathering at their place and we ate and drank and danced till the wee hours of the morning. It was grand; I’m thankful to have found such a solid group of friends.
New Year’s Day
Traditionally, my first meal of the Chinese New Year is not cajun themed – but when given the chance to attend a pop-up three-course beer lunch, complete with a live band from Louisiana, I’m not going to say no. Especially when joined by two of my best friends in Paris, Emily and Diane.
Highlights of the meal — which took place in a fantastic little dive by Gare de Lyon — included shrimp remoulade, jambalaya with a Brooklyn IPA, and beignets with chicory caramel sauce paired with a chocolate porter. Start as you mean to go on, am I right?
We expats all make sacrifices in order to live out our dreams. It breaks my heart a little more each year that I’m not home for Chinese New Year.
But for now, to be able to spend an entire weekend filled with nothing but good food, good beer, good music and good friends — that’s not a bad substitute, and I’d say a pretty good start to any year.
With decorations this adorable, it’s hard not to have a good year. Gong xi fa cai!