THE bumper-to-bumper highway traffic before Chinese New Year gives an inkling of the difficulty one braves just to be home for the special occasion.
With the high number of Malaysian Chinese abroad, thousands also take to the skies to return to their birthplace for the sole purpose of reuniting with their families for the festive season.
For the Chinese, the reunion dinner on the eve of Chinese New Year is the most important meal of the year.
This year, the reunion dinner will be extra special as it coincides with li chun – the beginning of spring.
Many would have fun balancing eggs upright on a flat surface, which can be done on this day because of the sun-moon alignment that alters the Earth’s gravitational field.
For Loh Sook Kuan, 40, Chinese New Year is the once-in-a-year opportunity her siblings meet – as her brother returns from Singapore while she and her sister travel from different parts of the United States.
“The hardest part of the journey is the time required as it takes 24 hours door-to-door to be back in SS2, Petaling Jaya, with my parents, but it is worth it.
“Also, my husband and I save up our leave days throughout the year to stay here longer for the joyous occasion,” she said.
To make sure she does not miss the trip home, she bought flight tickets in August and managed to save $600 (RM2,475) per ticket.
“I want to be home every year for Chinese New Year,” said Loh, who has lived in California since 2006.
“My family is rather traditional in the sense that we want to be together for the reunion dinner. My parents are getting older and I really treasure the time I spend with them,” she said.
Loh returned two weeks before the big day to help out with the preparations, and organise excursions to Genting Highlands and Melaka with her siblings.
“What I love most about Chinese New Year is simply being with family, as my siblings are all over the world.
“Also, it matters a lot that my parents are happy that we are home.
“They are really grateful that we take the effort to come back, as they know it is not easy for us to take the time off from work, including the expenses and traveling,” said the bank executive.
Adhering to customs, her family of Hakka and Teochew heritage would stay up past midnight after the reunion dinner for prayers in which her entire family, including her American husband, would kneel for 30 minutes before the altar.
“On the second day of Chinese New Year, we visit the temple in Jalan Tun H.S. Lee in Kuala Lumpur and it is a must for us to bend forward to walk under the main General Sze Ya altar three times each.
“It is quite amusing when my 6ft-tall husband does that!” she said, adding that the family also observes a vegetarian diet on the first day of the new year.
Gertrude Wan Patane, who has been living in the United States for 18 years with her Argentine-born American husband, makes it a point to return to Taman Suntex, Cheras, for the festival.
She bought her flight ticket three months in advance. The trip from San Francisco will take more than 24 hours.
Prior to returning home, she diligently picked out presents for her family members.
“It is all about family. When you are away from your family for so long like in my case, you crave that togetherness.
“The reunion dinner means so much to me. It is not so much about the food anymore, but the joy of seeing each and every member of my family coming together,” said the 55-year-old who has had a food blog for 11 years.
While Patane and her husband return to Kuala Lumpur, her brother and his children would come back from Australia, to join three other siblings at their aged parents’ home.
“I just want to be with them. This is the time I look forward to all year round,” she said, adding that being child-free made logistics simpler while her friends with children lamented about missing the celebrations.
They could not take a long break during this period which is not a school holiday in the West.
“My mother is getting older and so are we. In our younger years, we spent time tending to our respective careers and families; now, we cherish the time we can spend together more than ever,” she added.
Excited about the celebrations, Patane and her family painstakingly follow the Hokkien traditions required of Chinese New Year even though she is Catholic.
The Sungai Long market is almost always the first place she visits upon returning to ensure that the reunion feast lives up to its significance.
“Our 85-year-old mum will still pamper us with her speciality, pork stew while we, her children, will each cook a few dishes which definitely includes fish, prawn and yee sang for their prosperous meanings,” she said.
Kelly Tey awaits this year’s Chinese New Year celebration with greater anticipation as she is returning home to Subang Jaya after more than six months in a new job in Hong Kong.
“It feels different definitely. Somehow, I am looking forward to the celebration more than I usually would.
“Coming home for Chinese New Year is the tradition, it is the one time of the year we truly celebrate our culture and family values,” she said.
Having the chance to experience first-hand the festive atmosphere in Hong Kong, Tey said the celebrations in the Klang Valley do not pale in comparison.
“But, I am partial to Malaysia because there’s no place like home,” she said.
Asked what she loved most about the celebration, she said: “The food! Just what any true Malaysian would say. I’m prepared to expand my waistline.
“Mostly, I’m just really excited to spend time with family and friends,” she added.