The Chinese New Year Bondage

Chinese New Year celebration involves traditions that can begin from weeks before the actual day to at least the 15th day of the first Lunar month.  To most of us, Chinese New Year involves spring cleaning, getting new clothes, new bedsheets, new shoes, and of course visiting relatives and getting red packets.  

Like most of my friends, at some point, I started dreading Chinese New Year because you always would get asked All Those Questions.  “Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend yet?  Are you getting married soon?  When are you going to start a family? ” And even when you think that you have checked all the checkboxes, the next one of Those Questions you will continue to get is “When are you going to have the next baby?”  which you will continue to get until it is obvious to everyone that you are more likely to have a grandbaby rather than another baby. You will still get All Those Questions except now they are targetted at your children.  In my younger foolish days, it took great resolve to not reply with some snarky rude answers. As I become older and wiser, I have learned to not let them bother me so much anymore.

 The thing that caused me to continue to face Chinese New Year with a sense of dread was what I call The Bondage that somehow became ingrained in me. If you are a Chinese, I am sure you know that there are a lot of taboos around Chinese New Year.  For instance, you must not sweep the floor on the First Day because you will sweep all your luck away.  You must not use any sharp object.  You must not say negative things. If you get scolded by your parents on the First Day, it means you will be scolded for the rest of the year, so behave! You must not cry or quarrel (try telling that to young kids).  In my family, the house must be cleaned and spruced up.  There must be new towels, new bedsheets and new pajamas by the Eve, and new clothes and shoes on the First day.  On the night of the Eve, all the windows and doors must be opened and lights turned on to invite luck to come in. Of course, there will be the Reunion Dinner that must not be missed or risk the unhappiness of your elders.  I even heard of people who must finish Reunion Dinner in time for the house to be thoroughly cleaned before the strike of midnight because after that you are not supposed to do any more cleaning if you do not want to throw out all your luck.

All these must-dos and must-haves were like laws to me.  For many years, I stressed over them every Chinese New Year.  Even though reunion dinner was never held at my house after I got married, and seldom did I get visitors on the two days,  I must still make sure that my house has been spring cleaned and cleaned again on the Eve and everything set in order.  That was a lot of things I must remember to do just before the clock struck twelve.  I even stressed over having my nails clipped in time because sharp objects were not supposed to be used!  Even though I was already a Christian for many years by then and did not believe in things bringing me bad or good luck, I just felt very uncomfortable to break these rules because they were so ingrained in me.  I remember one year I literally threw a fit when my baby boy peed on my fresh new bedsheet on the Eve of Chinese New Year while I was changing his diaper.  My husband had to appease me by putting the bedsheet into the wash and iron it dry in time (we did not have a dryer).  Looking back now it was just so ridiculous but it shows the extent of how much I was under The Bondage.

I wanted Chinese New Year to be special to my children. With the abundance we enjoy these days, new things and good food are no longer things that we can only enjoy on Chinese New Year.  We can have them any time, all the time.  Singapore is such a tiny place, visiting families and even relatives frequently is not a very difficult thing.  Many of us still live with our parents or are at our parents’ houses nearly every day because our children are being cared for by them.  Hence, the idea of ‘reunion’ is not such a big deal to us.  If we do not make an effort, Chinese New Year can easily lose all significance in our lives.   I did not want it to become ‘just another day’ like it has for so many people.  

That is why I still want to preserve some of the old traditions, such as wearing new clothes, decorating the house, having special food, and visiting relatives.  However, the struggle to fulfill all the laws stressed me and was making Chinese New Year a dread rather than a joy. I could not help but wonder why we loved Christmas so much but Chinese New Year so little.  I did not want my children to grow up disliking Chinese New Year as I did.  Yet, I knew that if my stress was evident, and it was evident because the laws were also imposed on my husband and children, my children would only learn to hate Chinese New Year, especially when they start getting asked All Those Questions.

For many years I struggled to break free from The Bondage.  I was determined to not pass on The Bondage to my children, so I must be free from it myself first.  It took a long time, one step at a time, to get out of The Bondage.  As a start, I made up my mind that spring cleaning is not necessary because it can be done any time in the year as needed and I keep the house pretty clean on a consistent basis so there is no need to have a major spring clean just before Chinese New Year.  Of course, I still clean the house before the clock strikes midnight on the Eve – so that I can enjoy the next two days without lifting a finger to do cleaning.  I still decorate the house to make it look festive.  However, if any cleaning is necessary (e.g. if someone spills something) I will sweep and mop it whether it is Chinese New Year or not.  I tell myself that if someone comes to my house for Chinese New Year visit and passes judgement on the cleanliness of my house, they are the ones with issues, not me.  

Now I am much more relaxed about Chinese New Year.  There are things that I still do, like making some special food.  But I tell myself I can choose not to do it if I do not feel like it.  I plan out the work I want to get done for Chinese New Year so that I will not get stressed over having too much to do just before the deadline.  If I do not have the time, I drop some things off the list.  So if I think a spring clean of the kitchen is due but I really do not have the time to get it done before Chinese New Year, or I just do not feel like getting it done right now,  then it will get done after.  Except for new clothes, I stop buying everything new for Chinese New Year because it just does not make sense and definitely is not financially prudent.  If I buy new towels for everyone every year, over the years, I would accumulate a large quantity of towels which I do not have the space to keep them.  Likewise for bedsheets.  When I do want to acquire new bedsheets, I will do so just before Chinese New Year.  The department stores offer great prices and nicer designs just before Chinese New Year, and I get to have new bedsheets for Chinese New Year, so it is a win-win.  Otherwise, what I do is to set aside one particular set of bedsheets for use during Chinese New Year only (yes, it is in Chinese New Year colour).  So it becomes like taking out my Chinese New Year decorations once a year.

My husband will probably tell you that there are still parts of The Bondage that still has a hold on me.  But I definitely have come a long way.  Of course, there are still traditions that I want to hold on to.  As I said, I do not want to go to the other extreme of treating Chinese New Year like just another day.  It is not about what I do.  It is about having the power to make choices.  If I so choose to throw all traditions out of the window this year, I will not feel like the sky is going to fall down.  

Whatever that I do to make Chinese New Year special, I remind myself that I am doing it out of love for my family and for them only. I try not to impose the demands on my children, except for dragging them out to shop for their new clothes and telling them to please choose colours other than black and grey.  I may get them to help with some things but I remind myself not to nag or get unhappy if eventually, I have to do everything myself. What I want is for everybody in the family to look forward to Chinese New Year as much as possible and enjoy the festival as much as possible.  Hopefully, there will be more to enjoy than to dread that my children will want to carry it on when they have their own families.

Festivities are there to mark occasions and for people to spend time with loved ones. All the to-dos must not distract us from the relationships with our loved ones. For festivities to be enjoyable and meaningful, they have to be restful as well. Though there may still be much physical work to do, restfulness is an attitude of the heart and is especially important for the person who has to do the bulk of the work for the rest of the family and friends to enjoy. So if you are used to being stressed about Chinese New Year, take a break and focus on your family and friends instead. Start enjoying the festivities and stop being a slave to it.

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