The Year of the Monkey was drawing to a close when I touched down on Malaysian soil for the first time 38 years ago. The day of my arrival also coincided with the eve of Chinese New Year, so I was immediately taken to my future in-laws’ house to join in the customary reunion dinner.
That Chinese New Year was a crash course in the traditions and customs of the festive season. In retrospect, I should have paid more attention to what was going on around me and less to the amazing food that my fiance’s family had cooked, because two years later this foreign devil returned as a fledgling daughter-in-law.
The first day of the Year of the Pig started off with a grunt and a groan in my new house. While my house guests lay fast asleep, resting their ang pow red eyes (the legacy of an all-night mahjong session), I carried out my usual household chores.
Later that morning, while pottering around in the garden, the old lady from next door peered over the fence and wished me Gong Xi Fa Cai. I returned her greeting. But the words were barely out of my mouth when she said, “Whatever you do, don’t sweep the floor for three days. Otherwise your luck will be swept out of the house.”
I nodded guiltily in response. I hadn’t done the unthinkable and feverishly swept the luck out the back door along with the dust, shouting in Lady Macbeth fashion: “Out, Luck, out!”
But a few hours earlier, I’d vacuumed the lounge carpet. I was in a quandary. Would the act of sucking up have the same ramifications as that of sweeping out? I went to the storeroom and eyed the vacuum cleaner. I had this irrational feeling that our good fortune was incarcerated inside that contraption’s dust bag.
Undertaking certain domestic duties on the first day of the lunar year does not constitute a grave transgression in my eyes, but I felt I’d violated someone else’s belief system. Even though, technically speaking, the dust was still in the house, it didn’t do much to ease my guilty conscience, and I was convinced that my spouse and his family would experience nothing but misfortune for the next 12 months – should they find out.
Over the years, I committed many other festival blunders. Once, while in an advanced stage of pregnancy, I ravenously devoured a mandarin orange taken from a bag which had been earmarked for one of our numerous house calls.
After the visit, I received a regal ticking off when it was discovered that our friends had been given an odd number of oranges (not the done thing). However, in light of my condition, I was eventually forgiven.
I was also responsible for the distribution of ang pow during the festivities. A simple enough task, you might imagine. But in my foreign hands, that wasn’t the case. I once developed a code of dots and dashes, enabling me to tell at a glance how much money was in a particular ang pow.
But before it could even get off the ground, my so-called infallible system failed me: I gave an overly generous packet to a passing neighbour’s child while a close relative ended up with a token amount. I can still hear the whispers of kium siap (stingy) whenever I think of that household.
One year, I handed an ang pow to a familiar-looking young man. One of the nephews, I thought as I wished him Happy New Year, but he immediately rejected my offer. “Auntie,” he said, making me feel ancient, “don’t you remember me? You attended my wedding last month. Married people don’t receive ang pow.”
“Oh, silly me!” I mumbled, suddenly realising who he was. Then I muttered something unthinkable like, “You guys all look the same to me.”
Even now, I don’t pretend to understand or even believe some of the beliefs that my husband’s family passed on to my two children as they were growing up, but I do respect them and their right to have those beliefs. When you live in a multiracial, multicultural melting pot, you learn quickly that mutual respect for each other’s belief systems is vital if we are to live in harmony together.
Here’s to another year of mutual respect! To all Chinese readers, I would like to wish you Gong Xi Fa Cai, and may you find peace, health and prosperity in the Year of the Dog.