White cabbage is death. If there is a Creator, it is one of his less glorious moments. The only thing worse than white cabbage is white cabbage soup. I am a soup maniac, but white cabbage soup I do not touch with a ten foot pole. I cannot even sit at the same table when it is being drunk. The sight and smell of it makes me want to throw up. Because of these vile leaves, I am unreasonably opposed to all food that is white in colour but is not a carbohydrate or dairy product.
White cabbage soup is Chinese New Year is a vile, hateful thing is I hate the both of them.
For reasons unknown to anyone currently alive, we must drink white cabbage soup at reunion dinner every single Chinese New Year. Without fail. I suppose someone must have liked it once upon a time — perhaps one of my ancestors in China. We have continued this tradition since. And I have started a tradition of setting up another table next to the main table, just so that I can have soup I like. My cousins have joined me. It’s the table for young people and for people who don’t like cabbage. I have not rested in my crusade against cabbage, and this year I shall continue.
I didn’t use to hate it so much. Now, in the run-up to reunion dinner (I have mine tomorrow, one day early), I am fretting about everything and I am happy about nothing. I do not exaggerate when I say the thought of Chinese New Year fills me with such intense hatred, I can almost smell the bak kwa, and hear the loud, extended family I am somehow related to by blood. I find my mind wandering back to the not-so-good old days of a childhood spent reading ten books in a corner every single day of every single Chinese New Year because I was bored to death.
Now, at age 26 and counting, I am still trying to find out what we are celebrating.
Some of you will say, oh, silly person, it’s about spending time with your family of course. Sure. When I was living in the Middle East, I looked forward to coming home because I missed my family so much. I love my tiny immediate family. I see them every weekend. It’s the extended web of relations, the sort you see only at weddings and funerals, who I don’t understand. Why do these strangers give me oranges once a year? Oranges are not the only fruit.
Other than family, if there is a meaning at all to this celebration, I am not able to divine it. If anything, it reminds me excessively of a culture whose values I do not understand.
As you know, I identify not as a Chinese person but as a Teochew-speaking yellow M & M — yellow outside, very, very brown inside. I’m a fake desi in the wrong body, someone who was probably an Indian man in many lifetimes past. The only Chinese thing about me is my love of soup and pork. Other than that, nothing. The festive music bothers me. I am still waiting to hear one, just one, Chinese New Year song that is not about money. The values of this festive music bothers me even more. Why is it that I must either sing about how much money I have, how much I’m looking forward to money this year, how money has suddenly appeared in my life, how money’s just… you know, rolling in the deep. /rolls eyes
What about money that you made through sheer hard work? Why won’t you sing about it too, bloody dong dong chiang people on the loudspeakers, who have followed me to haunt, tease and kacau me all my life?
Why about money that you made through smart investments? Why won’t you sing about prudent financial behaviour and clever business acumen, you stupid gong xi gong xi gong xi people who will one day gong me until I si?
What about family? Love? What about adding in the message, “don’t be a douchebag!” in your songs about striking it rich? Or about how happiness doesn’t lie at the end of a slot machine, mahjong table or lottery queue?
Then there’s the music. And the movies. The Hong Kong or Taiwan or Mainland China variety shows and concerts. It’s always the same movies every year. Chinese New Year movies are the worst. Actually if I wasn’t such a self-hating Chinese person, I probably wouldn’t hate them so much. I don’t mind the kungfu. I don’t mind the awful, not very clever humour. Somewhere in my brain, multiple negative associations have been made repeatedly ever since I was a little girl: Chinese New Year movies and variety shows are the soundtrack to my many miserable hours sipping ten chrysanthemum tea Tetra-Paks in a row, stuffing my face with too much bak kwa, reading and re-reading every magazine, book and newspaper I have so that I don’t have to talk to people, seething in rage that I not only have to be a part of such a superficial culture that judged me first by my grades then by my wallet, but also deigns to tell me I NEED TO GET MARRIED, AND TO A MAN TOO?
No matter how much I hated it, Chinese New Year always had a silver lining. If there was one thing I loved about it, it was to see my grandfather excited, filled with a sense of purpose — he did not cook at all, but he took pride in making his awesome secret chilli, and he also loved to prepare reunion dinner. Ah gong and ah ma worked together as a duo at their finest, waking up at five in the morning so that they can get the best braised duck and whole chicken, roast meat and fish for the family. Next to going for walks in the park together, reunion dinner preparations were when they were the closest.
This will be the third Chinese New Year without him around. Every Chinese New Year without him, without his stupid jokes, without him stringing the grandkids along on some ridiculous, elaborate joke, feels like a joke itself. I keep wishing this was one of those times when he stood outside the house, rang the bell ten times then ran away to hide. I keep wishing this was one of those times when he told me he had gone away on a holiday but hadn’t. I bought it a few times when I was a little girl, not knowing he didn’t believe in vacations. It’s been more than 3 years but the banter-less silence from my grandparents’ room still freaks me out. I still miss him everyday. My tears still well up uncontrollably when I think of him. When I see his photo. When I see a video and see him there and hear his voice but cannot reach out across the binaries to hold his hand.
Tomorrow, when I sit down for reunion dinner I will still panic when I don’t see him at his usual spot. I know I will wake up on the first day of Chinese New Year and expect to see him in his best set of singlets, shorts and sandals, and be sorely disappointed when I don’t.
I hate cabbage soup but it was one of his favourite foods, and I would drink a thousand bowls of cabbage soup if it meant I could see him for just a minute more.