Saturday, Feb. 10 marks the start of the Lunar New Year and many families have their ways to celebrate the Year of the Dragon with their traditions.
Growing up, preparing for the Lunar New Year in Edmonton began days before the new year itself, with frenzied chores and last-minute trips to the hair salon and visits Chinatown or West Edmonton Mall to enjoy festivities like the lion dances, acrobatics, martial arts and musical performances.
I love watching people during these celebrations – many children and elders wear traditional clothes for these celebrations and it is beautiful to see my culture on display. My family opted for new clothes or wearing red and gold to bring about good fortune, an auspicious practice I still observe as an adult.
My parents always called our extended family in Hong Kong to wish them a happy new year. This meant 4 a.m. calls on Lunar New Year’s Day to account for the 15-hour time difference. Calling home was a luxury because international calls were so expensive and the new year was a chance to catch up with everyone at once as the extended family would be gathered for dinner. I remember waking up to my mother’s laughter and my father’s boisterous voice as they spoke with their siblings over the phone. If the noise didn’t wake me up, my parents would drag me out of bed to wish my aunts and uncles a happy new year and to give updates about my school in halting Cantonese, my words and tones jumbled from sleep.
Growing up Chinese Canadian
Growing up in a multigenerational home as a second-generation Chinese Canadian meant moving between different cultures and languages. My grandmother followed the Buddhist lunisolar calendar and we relied on a Chinese almanac and calendar (a staple in many Chinese households) on our kitchen wall to keep track of the days, as she observed vegetarianism on the 1st and 15th of every lunar month. Her one exception would be the Lunar New Year when she preferred a festive dinner with family and friends.
I would coach my brother through New Year’s greetings and fix his pronunciation before dinner so that we could properly wish our elders a Happy New Year. If our tones were off, some of the stricter aunties and uncles withheld red pockets (利是) filled with cash until we greeted them correctly, which often led to snide comments about losing our language during the dinner chatter.
Apart from the many four-word greetings to ring in the new year, I now realize how many traditions are tied to language. For example, my family always tries to eat fish during our New Year celebrations because the Cantonese words for “fish” (魚) and “surplus” (餘) are homophones. Eating fish is our way of wishing for abundance in the upcoming year. Another superstition tied to language is to avoid cutting your hair, as the words for “hair”(髮) and “fortune” (發) are also homophones. Cutting hair means cutting your luck short, which is why we cut our hair in the days leading up to the new year! Maintaining my mother tongue is very important to me and language learning resources at the library like Pronunciator are great tools to keep my skills sharp.
Strengthening Family Bonds
The Lunar New Year continues to be an opportunity for my family to gather and celebrate and years later I now play a different role in this special day. Instead of coaching my brother with his pronunciation, I teach greetings to my nieces and nephews so they can greet their elders with respect (like I did when I was a child myself). I get to introduce my nephews to lion dancing and the many traditions that are tied to language – a language that they do not speak but understand bits and pieces of from their grandparents. Instead of scolding children for not knowing how to pronounce words in their parents’ mother tongue, we film videos with carefully rehearsed well-wishes to send to our Cantonese-speaking relatives. I now bestow red pockets and sentiments of health and happiness to the next generation, even if their words are slightly off. Rather than adhering to traditions for auspicious reasons, every Lunar New Year is an opportunity to celebrate my culture and to build connections between the different generations in my family.
I hope you ring in the Lunar New Year with your own traditions – whether it’s wearing red and gold to bring about good fortune or eating fish or a vegetarian meal with your loved ones – may the Year of the Dragon be filled with good health, happiness and peace in all your endeavours!