“And now I also see what part of me is Chinese. It is so obvious. It is my family. It is our blood. After all these years, it can finally be let go.”
Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club
I love my Chinese heritage. That might be obvious, given the name of this blog. I never let it define me growing up, but it certainly became a big part of how I grew up. Although my grandmother, the family’s matriarch, died when I was relatively young, she was always a guiding force behind my motivation to stay connected to family and teach my future children about their customs and traditions. Thankfully, my father and uncle are a living reminder of that heritage passed down from my Ying Ying (grandmother). Most important of all, I’m glad my DNA implanted a quarter of Zelda’s genetic makeup as Chinese.
Zelda was born a day after the Chinese New Year in 2016, which is why she is a “monkey” instead of a sheep. This year would be her first year of celebration, and Angela and I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to show her more about Chinese culture first hand. My parents were also in town, which helped convince us that we could make the day of it. What’s better than some loud Chinese music to help a baby get tired out, right?
We began the day with a visit to my sister’s house in nearby Del Rey (A neighborhood in Alexandria, VA). After a quick breakfast, we gathered the kids together to receive their red packs, or lai see. The red packs are filled with money. Receiving a red pack was always one of my fondest memories growing up. I loved looking at the bright and colorful designs of the packs and the smell of the thin red paper. I can clearly remember a time when my grandmother smacked my butt because I snooped around her house for the red packs. “Ai yah, Matt Matt!” she said, as she went back to her kitchen to make our celebratory feast, the sweet smells of Chinese sausage, oxtail soup, long noodles, and crispy skin chicken wafting through every inch of the home. I can’t describe how good her cooking was. Nobody will ever cook better food than her. Period. But that is a story for another time.
The kids graciously accepted their gift of lai see. I think Zelda had more fun playing with the red pack than acknowledging what was inside. Maybe in a few years, she’ll start to smell the red paper and enjoy the designs.
After we said our goodbyes and left my sister’s house, we eventually made it to Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax where for a Chinese New Year celebration. By the time we got there at 1 pm, the mall was already packed. We fought our way through the crowds on the top floor just in time to catch the great Chinese Lion Dance. I grabbed Zelda and held her high on my chest to give her the best view possible. Remarkably, she sat through the entire dance and paid attention the whole time silently. The dance consisted of three lions receiving lai see offerings from children, and in turn use their good fortune to help fight off a demon (evil spirits) and bestow health, wealth, and good fortune for the new lunar New Year.
Zelda’s favorite part was when the lion (some call them dragons) dancers chewed and spit out lettuce greens into the audience three times (symbolizing the dispersal of wealth and good fortune). I hope she doesn’t do that later when we try to offer her salad. Happy and overstimulated, we packed her back in our car for the ride back home, stopping by the grocery store to pick up a few oranges to eat for good luck in the coming year. We were both surprised to find she loved them! Zelda’s first Chinese New Year is now in the books. Gung Hay Fat Choy!
Good Fortune vs. Being Fortunate
This Chinese New Year comes at a very tense and disconcerting time in American history. As a student of history, I am keenly aware of the steps the current administration are taking and the damaging effects of their actions. By far the most heartbreaking of his executive orders is the immigration ban. Watching the throngs of people in the audience today, most of whom were Chinese, it struck me how important it was to honor why people want to come to the United States: for a better life. I am the son of an immigrant from Hong Kong. My grandmother wanted to ensure her family had the best possible life possible. My grandfather, who was murdered by the Italian Mafia years before I was ever born, came to the United States and worked until his hands bled in Chinese laundromats in New York and New Jersey, most likely facing extreme racial prejudice in the process.
The Chinese call America the “Golden Mountain.” It is a land of freedom and opportunity. Let’s keep it that way. I would not be here without immigration. Zelda would not be here. I’m sure somewhere along the line, you wouldn’t, either. As proud as I am of my Chinese heritage, I am equally honored to be an American. Just like the thousands of men, women, and children who come her for the same opportunities. Or others who want to live their lives without fear. If my grandmother were still alive today, she would undoubtedly have a few things to say about the President’s latest assault on American life. We are all different races and ethnicities. But beneath that, we are American. Let’s remember that, and hope this year brings double happiness to everyone.
Either that, or we need to start sending lettuce by the truckload to the White House.