Cultural Loss Over the Years

Tomorrow is the Lunar New Year or, as we’ve been calling it for many years, Chinese New Year.

My memories of this holiday growing up are vivid. My mother would spend days scouring the house from top to bottom like a mad woman, because a huge part of the tradition is to clean out the old and presumably evil spirits in order to ring in the new year on a literally clean slate. With a traditional (read: didn’t lift a finger) husband who was always at work anyway and two uncooperative children who couldn’t see the point, my mother was at her crankiest on the days leading up to New Year’s. Every year we spent those final days of the year wishing we could have our old mom back.

Then there were the rules. We had to get our hair cut the week before New Year’s, even when we didn’t need a haircut. We weren’t allowed to say anything remotely hinting of ill fate or that included any version of the word death (as in “Ha ha ha, you’re killing me!” or “Wow, I would die for those shoes!”). Worst of all, we were forbidden to shower, bathe, or wash our hair on New Year’s Day lest we cleansed all the good that had by then reached our bodies (which only led to more cursing about how we were going to die of stink).

And there was the food, lots of it. Chinese New Year is celebrated on not just one day but over a period of two weeks. We had an enormous dinner on New Year’s Eve and another large meal on New Year’s Day to “open” the year. Two weeks later, we would close out the celebrations with another final large dinner.

My brother and I met these meals with some groaning. Because Chinese New Year dinner is not spring rolls and sesame chicken and sweet and sour pork (well, not that my mother ever made those dishes (they’re not real Chinese food, you know)). New Year dinner was a big, pimply, ghost-white chicken with its loopy head and neck still on the plate. It was dishes and dishes of healthy blandness that we normally never saw during the year, with ingredient names like “dizzy ear” and unidentifiable foods that looked like tangled hair.

Chinese New Year, to me, was a lot of Chinese-ness that went against my whole plan to be American and “normal.” So I mopped the floor (reluctantly) and skipped the showers (until I was brave enough to dare the evil spirits to take me on) and ate the bloody chicken (there was literally still some blood in the cracks of the bones). Until about fifteen years ago, which is the last time I celebrated Chinese New Year. Because of my time in Japan and then my work schedule, I haven’t been back to spend any of the holidays with my parents in all these years.

During this time, of course, I’ve formed a family of my own. We’re a tri-cultural family now living in America and following American traditions. Lack of access to ingredients, information, and shared celebratory spirits is one major reason. There’s also the lack of confidence. My Singaporean friend suggested getting together for New Year dinner, and I immediately felt overwhelmed at the prospect of cooking for the occasion. I wouldn’t know where to start. What to cook? How to cook it? How to shop for ingredients?

But maybe saddest is my lack of connection. I’d spent so much of my youth rejecting my heritage, seeing and looking for all the parts that threatened my chances of being accepted in America. By the time I became more curious about my Chinese roots, I’d already distanced myself too much. I sometimes view the Chinese culture now the way any foreigner would.

I only realized how far I was when Fred once remarked, in a crowd of Chinese people, that he and I were the only non-Chinese. He knew he was American and he knew he was Japanese, but he did not know that a significant part of him has its roots in China.

But is this something that I need to worry about? Why does it need to be important for me to maintain my heritage, when obviously I had made my choices long ago in terms of how to live and who I wanted to live as? I think the sadness for me is that in loosening my connection to my heritage, I feel I am losing some part of a shared identity with my parents. We all disconnect in some ways and to some degree as we mature into adulthood. Being on the other side of the cultural divide within my own family just seems more severe, an ultimately necessary part of feeling at home in my own country but a division I hadn’t anticipated.

24 thoughts on “Cultural Loss Over the Years

  1. You know how we’re connected in so many ways because of shared heritage, beliefs, and parenting angst? Well, this is probably foremost on the list. I so feel your pain, Cecilia. This year, after “over-celebrating” the “American holidays”, and hastily putting something together to celebrate my favorite guy (and I still feel guilty I didn’t do better), I am tapped out. I literally am exhausted by the thought of putting together another celebration, so with today being the eve and tomorrow the day of the Lunar New Year, I have nothing planned. NOTHING.

    Oh, except for the “hung pao” that I happily found in my drawer, which they will receive in the morning. Like they really need to think that money is the only aspect of this holiday that matters…Sigh…

    • YES – I hear you on the exhaustion and holiday burnout. December-January is back to back festivities and Chinese New Year is a big one. I didn’t plan a thing either until my friend asked me if I wanted to go over for dinner tonight…and I hesitated at first because I didn’t want to go empty handed but at the same time I couldn’t even wrap my head around trying to cook something. So I said yes because she is going to cook everything (I feel so bad) but we’ll bring a take out and I am trying to cook a red bean soup dish right now in the slow cooker.

      Too funny about the red envelopes – I know, it’s the easiest thing to do at this point!

      So glad you can relate, Justine. Thanks for your comment here.

  2. I hear you on this one. As a second-/third-generation American of German heritage and a fourth-generation American of Irish heritage, I was sad that my relatives were so concerned about becoming American that they basically discarded their heritage. I didn’t learn German in the home. I frankly think my father didn’t speak it, even though his father was born in Germany. And we didn’t observe any traditions from either country. I don’t even know what they might be. And even though we always hear about Americans exporting their culture around the world, it really doesn’t feel to me as if we have a culture. Certainly we don’t do anything like your mother’s New Years celebration. All we ever did for New Years at home was order a pizza and watch the ball fall. If you wanted to bring back some of the tradition into your family, you could start smaller. It could be fun to sit down with your friend and plan a smaller version of your mom’s cooking extravaganza. Some of those superstitions you mentioned are really interesting.

    • Thanks so much for sharing, Kay. It is very interesting to hear your story as well. I am sure that by the time my son grows up we will be in a similar situation. My parents came to the States in their early 30s and it was really only my mom who was insistent on keeping the traditions going. I think I can understand what your parents and grandparents must have felt…and if there was any prejudice at the time then it was all the more reason to try and acculturate as much as possible.

      Our culture has so many superstitions! I still roll my eyes at some of the things that my mom believes (e.g., cats are bad luck and she kind of freaked out when she thought that my brother had a cat calendar). It’s kind of funny because she is a rational and intelligent person otherwise.

      • I perfectly understand the reasons why they felt they had to acculturate, especially Germans in the first half of the century. I just always thought it was a shame that our environment wasn’t more rich. And I would have liked the advantage of learning a foreign language when I was a kid!

        • True – I see what you mean. As much as I protested as a kid, looking back I’m grateful I got a good dose of our family’s culture. I can still speak Chinese even if it is not great. I think it would be so hard to learn it at my age now.

  3. I feel disconnected at times, but I also know I am connected in many ways too. I think this comes from being apart from all my family year round – live in 4 States right now. I feel connected because I am with my greatest someone creating our own traditions and making memories too:) I am excited to see where my husband’s family came from this Fall in traveling to Ireland for the first time. Great Post – thanks so much for sharing – Happy Day!

    • How wonderful that you are headed to Ireland! That should be eye-opening. I hear you on the geographic separation. I guess we have to find different ways to connect. Technology has definitely helped, though my parents have not moved forward in that arena, so it is still weekly phone calls 🙂

      • Technology is great in staying connecting when you are miles apart from each other:) I still call my parents because I love to hear their voices and usually can hear if something is up or not with them getting older now.

  4. Being very Canadian (a mish-mash of many different backgrounds), I don’t feel like there is anything culturally special about me or my family. On the one hand, this sounds kind of sad, but on the other, I don’t ever have to feel like I’m stuck between cultures or like I should be celebrating something I’m not. One thing I like to do to feel like our family has it’s own little traditions, is to make them up as I go along. If there is something the children have really enjoyed or piqued their interest, I can turn it into a tradition if I want. Nothing big or fancy, just something to help make a memory. Keeping it a positive experience helps too. It sounds like your experience with the New Year celebrations weren’t all positive, so, maybe if you scaled down a bit, it would be more fun for everyone (including you!). And maybe you could find other ways (more meaningful to you) to stay connected to your family.

    • I really like the idea of making your own traditions. And it seems that more and more of us are having to do that, with families becoming more diverse and also more separated geographically. I think I would really enjoy my parents’ traditions now. I was just so stuck on the idea of being “cool” and wanting to reject everything Chinese that I made it miserable for myself as a kid. Whenever we visit my parents now I relish in all the things that I used to complain about. I like the idea of keeping things positive – thanks for mentioning that!

  5. I have often struggled with my cultural identity and the loss of certain traditions in my household. I ultimately came to terms with my identity as being very mixed (American, Vietnamese, Jewish, now too) and firmly believe that a mixed identity with traditions I value brings a lot to the table. I am sure your household benefits in many ways from being tri-cultural. I think we live in a time and place now where different cultural perspectives can be an asset. As for feeling like losing the common connection with your parents–I completely understand this. Perhaps you should consider the traditions you may have introduced to them that can or has become part of your common language.

    As for celebrating New Year’s tomorrow or this weekend, I suggest going to a restaurant where they do all the cooking for you or ordering in. 🙂

    • I love that, Ngan – that a mixed identity can bring a lot of value. I guess our family will never go all out on anything but we get to enjoy a little bit of 3 cultures (or even 4 – one of our good friends is Jewish and I’ve been borrowing his family recipes (and he invites us over on Hanukkah, etc.)).

      We’re heading to our friends’ now with some take-out (and 2 home cooked dishes) 😉

  6. I’m sorry you feel disconnected, Cecilia. Is there a way to rediscover the cooking bit of your heritage as a family project, perhaps? Like cooking classes or an outing to a shop that carries traditional ingredients?

    Coming from a very non-specific background (last I checked, about 9 nationalities just on my side of the family), we’ve tried as a little family to build our own traditions around the holidays and events we like best. I gather that a few generations back some of our family’s Native American heritage was covered up, and I feel that as a loss — I really wish I knew more.

    • Wow, Carolyn, that’s definitely a rich part of your background. I wonder if there are relatives you could talk to to learn more about the Native American heritage?

      I’m trying to spend a little more time at our local Asian grocer, and to cook more authentic dishes. It takes a bit of advanced planning and discipline but over the last couple of years I’ve made a few dishes that I never imagined being able to make. I think taking small steps will help!

      • I think the cooking is a great idea. I don’t have a great Chinese culture to react with or against, as my parents were less into all the superstitions and traditions than yours, but I am really enjoying cooking from scratch, including Chinese food – I did spring rolls the other day! I agree that advance planning is the key – to me it’s not about being able to cook a wide variety of dishes (not enough appropriate ingredients easily available) but I am enjoying following the same processes that my ancestors might have followed…

        • I think I’d like to really get more into Chinese cooking this year…when my mother shares her recipes I’m usually shocked at how simple they are. I think that Chinese dishes are often simpler and faster to make than many other cuisines. I’ll look forward to seeing some of these dishes on your blog? 😉

  7. That is exactly how I feel right now, in a very desperate way. WIth the loss of my mother, that bridge to my heritage is gone. And people tell me I can carry it on on my own, but I can’t. She was the one that was the cement of it all. I’m just a crumbly brick that lost its mortar. I love how much I feel like you. xo

    • Oh Alexandra, I know…I can imagine. I do imagine it. I think that part of the urgency of my feelings right now is due to the fact that my parents are aging. I know that if I don’t start paying attention now it’ll be gone when they’re gone. Like your mother my mother has been the cement. Maybe it’s not too late, Alexandra…and you can talk to and learn from extended family..? Hugs. We are like sisters from different families.

  8. Cecilia, it sounds like you’re losing part of what’s unique to your family, or family tradition–I mean, what was constant within your family and felt like part of “normal” life at the time. But in terms of cultural heritage, I tend to think that there should be a lot of flexibility. My parents never went overboard celebrating Chinese New Year when I was growing up. Maybe my mom wasn’t into it, plus my parents are also Christians who aren’t that into certain aspects of these things. We probably ate nian gao, etc., but it wasn’t anything strict. But I don’t really feel any less Chinese–or Taiwanese–because of this. I often have a sense of comfort when I’m in Taiwan. I like interacting with people, checking out places in the city, eating good food, speaking a lot of Chinese. For me, being part of that daily life (enjoying it, being comfortable) is what makes me feel like a “part” of Taiwan, too.

    In the future, hopefully I’ll have a family for whom I can make delicious food that I ate when growing up, but it won’t be exactly the same either. Tradition was once totally new, too, and probably more recently than one might think. Cultural authenticity is really kind of a suspicious concept anyhow considering the huge numbers of people with Chinese heritage spread throughout different regions of the world. I mean, just on my mother’s side, we have northern Chinese heritage mixed with southern, plus maybe some totally non-Chinese thrown in there, too…it would be pretty arbitrary to try to pick one specific set of traditions. I think everyone has her/his own take on identity issues, but I am pretty chill about it. lol

    That said, I can understand the desire to carry on with yearly family traditions, and I wonder about how to maintain a sense of history in my own family one day, too. Rather than loss, what about thinking of it as a chance to think of a fun solution to this sense of loss? I’m a fairly incompetent cook, so the idea of preparing complicated meals horrifies me. Maybe your mom could suggest one “unidentifiable” food for you to try next year? 😉 Even that would be pretty cool, I bet! On a different note, would Chinese language class for your son sound like a terrible idea? Or have you thought about traveling more & bringing him to Chinese-speaking regions? Taiwan is really nice, seriously! 😉

    • Thanks for sharing your childhood experiences, Grace, and I like how you mention flexibility. You’re right. There should be a lot of leeway in terms of how to define our traditions. I think my guilt stems from doing *zero* – just not even thinking about Chinese New Year until the day before, and realizing that the house is a mess and that we are likely headed out for pizza or something. I feel as though I am not even acknowledging that part of me and our family. If it were important enough to me – like Thanksgiving or Christmas is – I might give it more thought and advanced planning. But I had a great new year’s even dinner last night with my Singaporean friend and her family so now I’m inspired, and have some ideas about what to do from now on.

      In terms of language and my son, sigh…that’s another set of issues. My son at one point was studying Japanese and Chinese, and got pretty far along in Chinese. But due to scheduling we’ve cut both back…but I’m looking for a Japanese tutor for him now. He doesn’t have time for both languages and it was such a difficult decision to choose which one to drop (for now anyway).

      • Yes, the dinner looked so great!! Now you’re making me think that I should try to do something for CNY next year, too. 😉 (At least go out for a nice dinner~)

        Wow, yeah…studying two languages sounds pretty tough for a kid (well, it’s tough in somewhat different ways for an adult, too). I know that my Japanese and Chinese are uneven in various ways because of my background. This might be a dangerous route, but I will say that I could read basic Chinese growing up only because I started reading manga in Chinese. I picked up vocab naturally that way. Maybe he can study Japanese officially, but watch an occasional wuxia/kung fu series for Chinese practice, too? (Sorry, now I’m just giving out bad advice involving possibly addictive activities!)

  9. I’ve come to expect nothing but thoughtful and reflective posts from you, and this one is no exception. Have you ever watched the movie “Saving Face?” It’s about a Chinese-American girl who falls in love with a ballerina. But at the same time, it’s about her struggle to both identify with and separate herself from her Chinese heritage.

    As for me, I suppose I’m lucky, in a way, that I don’t get the sense that I’m being pulled in two different directions by two different cultures—at least, nothing anything as prominent or difficult as navigating two different nationalities. But I will say that as someone who was born in Alabama but has a very liberal mindset, it’s often hard for me to relate to my extended family simply because their views are almost the direct opposite of mine.

    Regardless, I wish you luck in your journey. And the fact that you’re able to examine it in such a thoughtful way is, I think, a promising start.

    • Oh, thanks so much for saying that. I really appreciate it!

      I am not familiar with “Saving Face” but I just looked it up. It sounds intriguing. The Asian culture overall puts much (too much) stock on shame and it is difficult for many to be true to themselves.

      I can imagine it is very difficult if sociopolitical views are the direct opposite, and in some respects can be just as challenging if not more so than cultural differences. I remember balking at some of the things my parents used to say but I have been grateful to see them growing much more liberal over the years. I want to say that that is a result of their “Americanization” but I guess it can’t be entirely attributed to culture.

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