Make It Your Own

August 7, 2011
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Chinese New Year has been an important tradition ever since I can remember, and even as a child I can always recall the warm smell of Chinese rice deserts and the pungent smell of spilled champagne that would linger in the air for days after the celebrations. At around 6:00 in the evening, the guests would start arriving: mostly relatives from all around the country that would regroup on this one special day, ushered inside by the brisk February night wind.
Lazy conversations would start in the warmth of the kitchen, with the occasional sniff being heard as one of the guests appreciated the smell of my Mom’s traditional Chinese cooking. Long-lost family jokes would be brought back to life: “Hey, nice cooking Shaoli, just don’t let your little brother near the vegetable oil, right?” Laughter rang through the hallways like a contagious disease, with people joining in at random times as they roamed the halls of the brightly lit and (for once) clean house.
At 7:30 sharp, my Mom would bring out the steaming platters. Every year there would be different dishes, but there were always ones the whole family loved. Wild duck, dripping with every bite, so spicy one’s tongue shivers when it’s thought about but so good one can’t help but keep eating. Eggs with fresh chives straight from the garden. Sweet boiled eggplant nearly drowned in sauce, a family recipe my mother cherished almost more than me. The kids would take one look at all the good food and start eating so fast we would choke; the adults would drink wine and pick at their rice, all the while laughing and exchanging a year’s worth of stories.
The kids, on the other hand, not at all appreciative of the adult’s banter and teasing and how they swapped embarrassing stories of our childhoods, would group under the large dining table. It had been the same, since I was 4: and yet, ten years later, nothing had changed except for the fact some of us had to scrunch to keep our heads from bumping the dining table. There was Janet, 20, the eldest sister and infamous party-pooper; Kathy, 18, the carefree and creative cousin; Kevin, 17, the reserved and competitive family friend; me, 15; Christopher, 7, the wild cousin prone to violence; Allison, 6, shy and playful sister; and Zachary, 4, Christopher’s brother who could pass for his twin in both looks and personality.
There, under the table, we would have our own little version of the Chinese New Year. There, a second layer of confusing conversation would augment that New Years Eve, as all of the kids adored Monopoly, and the game began in the dim darkness under the table.
“Wait, guys, that’s against the rules. You can’t sell back your houses when you are in debt, look it says so right here, and - ”
Kathy interrupted Janet with, “Ugh, this is getting booooor-ing. How about we create a new game, like Poker except with Monopoly cards and money?”
Kevin was counting his cards calmly, ignoring the chaos building around him, and calculating his chances of victory if he should choose to buy the B&O Railroad. It would be his third railroad, increasing the tax, but then would he have enough money to buy Kentucky Avenue?
Christopher’s voice is heard over the din, causing a temporary silence from the adults above us. “WHY IS ZACHARY WINNING!!! HE CHEATED!” This outburst is followed up by Christopher swiping his hand across the board, demolishing Zachary’s houses and everybody else’s houses and hotels too. Zachary responded by roaring in despair, crying a little, and then promptly throwing himself at Christopher in a confusing tangle of limbs.
We pried the two apart with promises of lollypops, and everything settled like nothing had ever happened. In the meantime, Allison and I were creating a Polly Pocket neighborhood with the hotels and houses Christopher had made available.
There, in the dust of the carpet under the dining table, surrounded by the feet of adults, we would laugh the night away, echoing the adult’s laughter above us but in a more natural way that we could understand.
Traditionally, we would stay under the table as we were so preoccupied with our games we would not shift until dessert (except for those years where the dessert should have been the main course), and then retreat back under to play again, giggling like two-year-olds and gossiping about our parents like teenagers. This usually involved us to miss the actual counting-down to the New Year, what all the guests had truly come for, but we didn’t really mind at all.
We made Chinese New year all our own.

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