Feb 2, 2009

new year, the second

[i started this in transit from singapore to cambridge, but the exigencies of life as a minimally-occupied student got in the way.]

in any case, just take vast quantities of food as a given.

i haven't been home for the chinese new year since 2000 owing to assorted poor excuses; first it was inconvenient class scheduling, then work obligations. this year, classes for the spring term start on the second day of the new year, so i got to be home on the eve of and the first day, which are the only two days that really matter.

when i was younger, i didn't quite grasp how unusual my extended family is. my maternal grandmother had 11 siblings, most of whom have 3 or 4 children, some of whom have had their own children (11 at last count); there are well over 90 people on that side of the family alone. most of the grandchildren are between 0 and 4 years of age and look the same. doesn't make it less embarrassing when you forget their name. i'm part of a middle cluster of about 10 cousins, the oldest 8 years older than the youngest.

other than one cousin who hasn't been seen in almost a decade, i'm the one who's made it back for the fewest of the new year gathers--it was stranger and more wonderful than i recall. when all the cousins were younger, the days when the family would gather together were intolerable. the new year week was a prolonged series of visits to relatives in order of seniority during which the adults would talk for hours about things that weren't very interesting and all the children would end up face-down on the floor, sullen with boredom. scratchy new clothes and social pressure to be on best behaviour made everything worse. don't even want to start in on the bizarre practice of giving red packets stuffed with cash, which are impossible to receive with good grace.

coming back to the family new year after a lapse of some years, i saw how they'd survived 8 years of people growing up, dying, going away. some things never change: the mad rush to clean the house on new year's eve (difficult, though not impossible, if you get back from reunion dinner 45 minutes before midnight), starting the new year with a sweet soup of assorted dried fruit and nuts, my dad scaring the babies with his beard. some things get updated mildly: instead of visiting each one of my 12 aunts and uncles in order of their seniority, we all just cluster at the biggest house (and it is an enormous one; so big it has wings and its own generator).

but the best thing is that the cousins now have actual things in common to talk about. at dinner, among the hordes of people (about 60-70 people showed up), we cleared off one of the many tables scattered about the house and spent a few hours catching up--one of them is in new york (i don't see her often though) and the others are in singapore. we are all so different from our parents that its a little startling. so that was nice.

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