DURING the first day of Chinese New Year, I am obliged to look good. Mum checks me from top to toe with a solemn look on her face, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose to study me more carefully.
“Now, remember to bend and snap!” she says with an upraised finger. The term is code for ‘maintain a straight posture and project confidence’.
This is extremely important as I am about to be ‘thrown to the wolves’. I mean, as I am about to meet my relatives and greet them “Gong Xi Fa Cai” with a saccharine, obsequious grin.
I usually take a deep breath before I enter my grandma’s house.
My grandpa has passed away, and my grandma still stays in the same large house with that large garden which is dotted with dog droppings and dried leaves.
Fruit trees and chilli plants grow in the garden.
During Chinese New Year, relatives whom I see only once a year gather at her house, filling it with their raucous laughter.
They play mahjong games while their children run around and make a lot of noise.
“Hello, wah why so many pimples, lah?” “Eh, why so skinny?”
I swallow and greet aunties and older female cousins with a weak smile.
Then I quickly grab a handful of biscuits from the nearest cookie jar and stuff my face that is drained of colour.
I am pelted by questions.
“Where is your older brother?” “How about the eldest? Is she still overseas? What is she doing now?”
“Oh, she’s busy working on a human rights project at the moment.” “He’s in his houseman year right now.”
I bask in the afterglow of my siblings’ sparkling successful careers.
Then I withdraw into the shadows of the house to lick my wounds of self-pity and wrestle with life-threatening questions:
What am I doing with my life? Why am I not meeting their expectations? Am I really that worthless?
My self-confidence slipping away, I comfort myself by scurrying to the nearest cookie jar once more.
I am hardly the classic social butterfly who effortlessly flutters from home to home. I don’t have any social graces. I am not grega-rious.
Going to my grandma’s place for Chinese New Year is one nerve-wrecking experience.
Jokes aside, the festive season is more than me wallowing in self-pity or moping in morose madness.
If I am reunited with my older siblings, it is a time to catch up with them and make up for lost time.
Coming home after being grilled with never-ending queries on my siblings and hours of blushing and self-conscious socialising among the crowd of relatives is a huge relief.
When I get home, I come to a place of rest and acceptance that my parents can provide.
I enjoy mum’s cooking during Chinese New Year. She makes special dishes like curry chicken or claypot chicken rice to treat the family.
Dad updates me on the latest book that I should check out for leisure or for academic purposes.
Books with titles like ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ by Steven Covey or ‘The Case for God’ by Karen Armstrong fill up the house library which also happens to be my bedroom.
During the festive break, we will probably watch television together.
Maybe mum’s favorite cooking channel or the show ‘Law and Order’ that always seems to feature strange paedophiles preying on children.
Dad will slap his thigh dramatically in amusement if we’re watching a comedy.
Mum will lean back in her favourite chair and tenderly hold my outreached hand in her wrinkly hands that have fed and clothed us for several years.
This is what coming home means for me.
Household decorations of red glittery gold don’t have any meaning.
The festive spirit in the house must be anchored with sweet warmth and laughter.
Tangarines are but orange balls whose succulent sweetness beg to be shared.
Pineapple tarts and love letters make one sick if one plans to finish them all by oneself.
This is what Chinese New Year is for me. Coming home.
CHEAH WUI JIA,