Learning to appreciate CNY reunions before it’s too late
Instead of simply enduring a gathering with relatives, try turning it into a time full of meaningful connections with loved ones
I have made it for every single Chinese New Year (CNY) reunion for the 20 odd years I have been alive.
And I hated most of them.
I would have much rather swopped socialising with distant relatives with staying home with a book and a mug of tea.
All that changed about three years ago, when I finally realised what CNY reunions could mean to those I love.
Every year, on the first day of CNY, my paternal grandmother would be sitting in her chair in my cousin's home.
Since she spoke mainly in Mandarin, I could not communicate well with her. My cousins and I would chat with each other and use our mobile phones, while she sat watching us.
Every CNY, I would barely speak a few words to her, before skipping off to the table where the food was.
But, one one occasion during CNY three years ago, she beckoned me over to her chair just as I was about to walk past her to fill my plate for perhaps the fourth time. She proceeded to have the longest conversation ever with me, wishing me well for my studies, my future career and everything that could happen in my life.
I was confused but I just nodded and thanked her as an obedient granddaughter should before turning my back and walking away.
Those were perhaps the last words she ever spoke to me.
The next CNY was sombre.
Her chair was empty.
She was 77 and died after her pacemaker had unexpectedly failed. It struck me then that I had never realised what her hovering, gentle presence meant until she was gone.
With so much going on in our daily lives, be it work or school, it is easy to take others for granted.
Both Singtel and Tiger Beer Singapore have created CNY video campaigns about elderly parents being left alone during the festive season because their children live and work overseas and were not planning on returning for reunion dinners.
MILLIONS OF VIEWS
The Singtel video has been watched more than 4.7 million times on Facebook.
From the comments, it is clear the video struck a chord with people who, like me, had never thought much about reunion dinners or their elderly loved ones who may have been looking forward to the gatherings all year.
The scene of an elderly father sitting alone at his table, wishing his children would return to eat with him, left me in tears.
Yes, I had always been in Singapore for reunion dinners. But perhaps I was never really present in spirit.
I have heard of friends who described reunions as "torture", especially when they have to endure the "interrogation" of nosy relatives.
"Do you have a boyfriend?"
"What are you going to do with your literature degree?"
That has changed.
CNY is no longer just a period when I have to grit my teeth and endure the gatherings.
It is a time that can be full of meaningful connections with family members, if I just give them a chance.
Last Christmas, I visited a hospice where volunteers cooked up a feast for patients who had less than a year to live.
I was told many would not survive past three months.
As I spoke to a man in his fifties with liver cancer, it hit me that in my next time, he might not be there.
Our grandparents and parents may not have such a prognosis, but every moment spent with them is still a precious one.
Because of my grandmother, I know any reunion could be the last. In that final conversation, she gave me so many blessings and so much love. As I stood there awkwardly clutching my phone, I did not wish her the same.
With CNY round the corner, it is a poignant reminder of what I have lost and the new perspective I have gained.
Home for CNY for first time in four years
"Cai shen dao, cai shen dao!"
A popular Chinese New Year song proclaims the arrival of the God of Fortune.
Call me crazy, but when the speakers at the FairPrice supermarket play the familiar New Year tune, I choke up.
It will be Chinese New Year soon, and I cannot believe that, this year, I get to be home for it.
Having lived and studied in Edinburgh for just over four years, my semesters always cut into Chinese New Year, so I have had to miss out on the yearly celebrations.
I have never been the kind of person who gets homesick or overly emotional - to a point where my mother sometimes gets mildly offended at my lack of sentimentality.
Looking back to 2013, when I first boarded that flight to Scotland, Chinese New Year was the last thing I thought I'd miss.
Why would I miss "interrogation sessions" with nosy relatives, nodding mindlessly during conversations in Mandarin I barely understand?
Then, endure a full day of home visits in the sweltering heat?
Or so I thought.
By the second year, I missed the familiar warmth, both figuratively and literally, of a quintessentially Singaporean Chinese New Year - complete with the garish decorations, impossible-to-avoid tunes and proclamations of "Huat ah!".
My immediate family always had loud, rowdy and delicious gatherings, with a good bottle (or three) of scotch and hours of eating and gambling.
Concurrently, I might add.
My grandmother would make her signature dishes, the same ones every year, which she would slave over days before the event. I never used to value such celebrations. In the years I spent abroad, twice I deliberately avoided coming home.
I had made a new life, new friends and new traditions.
I was done with the old.
But soon, I began to feel a strange emptiness in my chest - and in my stomach - come February. All those missed pineapple tarts.
I remember, during Chinese New Year last year, I took Lucy, a Scottish friend, to a hotpot restaurant in freezing Edinburgh - a futile attempt at recreating the loud, drunken and inimitable reunion dinners of the Cheow-Tan clan.
I spent two hours boring poor Lucy to death with anecdote after hilarious anecdote of my family's yearly gatherings.
Returning alone to my cold flat that night, I realised how much I missed the festivities at home.
From the traditional sweet soup served at midnight on the eve, to staying up late with my sister to wish my parents a long life, to the karaoke sessions with relatives.
I could not wait to be back because I had already missed so much. In the four years I was away, I lost both grandfathers and missed their last Chinese New Year gatherings.
I had taken things for granted for far too long.
But it is never too late to start making the most of what I have.
I cannot wait for my first Chinese New Year here in four years.
I cannot wait to stuff my face with pineapple tarts, kueh bangkit and my grandmother's delicious curry.
I cannot wait to lose money to my cousins who are far more gifted at gambling than I am.
And I cannot wait to drink and laugh excessively.
But more than anything, I cannot wait to spend time with my family - nodding at an onslaught of "Wow, you've grown!" and chatting with my aunts and grandmothers.
I also cannot wait to take a million selfies with my sister, infuriate my mother with my perpetually messy room and cackle at my father's awful (just kidding, dad!) jokes.
And for the first time, I am actually excited to hear the questions relatives are going to lob at me.
Provided they are generous with their hong baos.