Karaoke music blares through speakers and the smell of delicious food fills the house. Messages on red paper decorate the walls. My cousins run up and down the stairs screaming with delight. I sigh as I sit in front of my computer listening to the commotion. Once again, it's Chinese New Year. Every year, my mom makes me wear bright red clothes and clean the house until it's spotless.
Chinese New Year is like Christmas in America. Gifts are exchanged, and everyone dresses their best to get together for dinner. My mom tells me stories about different New Years when she was young.
"In China," she says, "people prepare for the new year weeks
before the day. It was extremely exciting and I could never wait until it was New Years again." The more she spoke the more it became clear why we do what we do on Chinese New Year. Suddenly I had questions:
"Why do we always go to Chinatown and buy a bunch of candy? What do the dancing dragons and exploding firecrackers mean? What do the words on the red paper mean? Why do we always eat the same food on Chinese New Year? And, especially, how come I can't take a shower on the New Year?"
My mom was surprisingly patient and happy I was so interested. "Calm down! Let me explain one at a time. Come and sit with me," she beckoned.
"First of all, New Year's is the beginning of a new year. This also means it is a chance for people to clear out the bad luck and evil spirits and start fresh. Chinese New Year originally lasted 15 days, with each day representing a different thing. For example, the first day is the welcoming of Gods of Heaven and Earth. The second day is the birth of the dogs, and the seventh day is the birth of humans. So on each day we do different things." She paused to collect her thoughts. It seemed as though she was lost somewhere as she remembered her happy childhood. Thankfully, she continued her story.
"The best day was always the fifteenth day. It is the last day of the New Year's celebration and also the prettiest. Lanterns of all designs are lit everywhere, brightening the sky. It was indeed very beautiful. Unfortunately not everyone follows the old tradition anymore, things are more simplified." She looked over to see if I was still interested. I smiled.
"There are reasons for everything we do on Chinese New Year that you may find odd and even silly. You can call it a custom, or you may call it superstitious, but we believe that many things are signs of other things, good and bad. For example, I tell you not to wash your hair on New Year's because it means you are washing all your luck out. We wear red because we believe it is a happy color. The words on the red paper you see hanging on the walls are happy wishes. We eat certain types of food on New Year's because they represent things, too. Chicken means prosperity, uncut noodles represent long life, and your favorite - black moss seaweed - is a homonym for wealth. Remember?" I nod as I think of the table laden with food. My stomach suddenly growls and Mom smiles. She looks like she is ready to get up and leave.
"Wait!" I cry out. "What do the firecrackers and the lion dragon mean?"
"Exploding firecrackers is the act of sending out the old year and welcoming the new year. The dancing lions are to scare the evil spirits away. Are you done asking questions? I have to go help cook for tonight's banquet. Why don't you go and memorize the phrases and happy wishes I taught you so you can say them to your relatives tonight?" She was already heading out the door.
"Whatever," I mutter and go back to my computer. A few minutes later my brother yells that dinner is ready and I race downstairs. My eyes grow large and my stomach growls again as I stare at the food.
"Kung hai fat choi, everyone!" I announce. "Kung hai fat choi!" my family replies and soon everyone is talking at the same time as chopsticks pick at the food. My mom looks over at me and winks. I feel warm and glowing all over.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.