Naomii Seah finds connection with her Chinese heritage through the lunar new year.
Chinese New Year (CNY) – also known as the Lunar New Year – is, undoubtedly, a pretty sweet deal. Since time immemorial, children from families who celebrate CNY have enjoyed a big party with lots of food, new clothes and free money every January or February. I was among these lucky children. From as far back as I can remember, CNY was a time when colours seemed saturated neon. Everything was overstimulating and everything – tastes, smells, sights and sounds – was supernormal in its scope and intensity.
Every year, my parents would brush my hair vigorously, dress me in new clothes and undies, allow me one swipe of lip gloss, and off we would go to the Taoist temple in West Auckland. The air would be hazy with the smell of incense as throngs of people gathered outside and talked over one another excitedly until the volume reached fever pitch. Banners in the intricate festive style – firetruck red edged with gold glitter – were strewn all over the walls, depicting the animal represented that year. Garish cartoon pigs and sheep rendered in bold primary colours with foam-padded pop-out eyes still haunt my dreams.
I would be assailed by well-meaning Aunties, decked out in their most ostentatious jewellery and drenched in overpowering floral perfumes. Beaming, my parents would brag about my latest grades and the Aunties would press red packets into my hands that I’d dutifully give to my parents to ‘hold on to’. In this way I could collect hundreds in five-, 10- and 20-dollar bills. Standing there with a stack of earthy-smelling notes in my hot, sweaty hands – I was rich.
Chinese New Year often felt like the only acceptable time to celebrate my ethnicity
After a certain time, a deafening crash would cut through the din and an expectant hush would fall over the crowd. Men dressed in white would emerge onto the lawn, leading an ensemble of similarly dressed tweens carrying an outsized rendering of a lion’s head trimmed in dirty crimson faux fur and glittering sequins. The eyes were as large as my head, and ‘blinked’ in time to the music through some mysterious internal mechanism. The glittering thread woven into the cloth body of the lion reflected hot summer rays right into my eyes. In the background, musicians banged drums as big as armchairs into stirring bass rhythms that shook my bones.
Afterwards, the smell of roast duck, pork crackling, green beans, shrimp fried noodles and coconut rice desserts would waft into the air, and the hordes of hungry people on the deck – sun-drunk, chatty and laughing – would descend upon the feast, cheering.
As a child,CNY often felt like the only acceptable time to celebrate my ethnicity. At school, I tried my best to eradicate all aspects of my ‘Asianness’, begging my Ma to give me Le Snaks and celery sticks in lieu of last night’s fried rice. At home, around my family friends, gossipy Aunties who assumed I couldn’t understand Cantonese would bemoan my dark complexion and ‘Western’ disobedience right in front of me. At CNY, however, the event itself superseded all anxieties. Public celebrations were attended by people of all ethnicities. The food, the decor, the music and the dances were for everyone – and for once, I didn’t feel self-conscious.
Growing older and more self-aware, I began to understand the source of my feelings as I learned more about colonialism and white supremacy. I discovered that although I had been repressing my Chinese identity all these years, I wanted to learn more. It made sense, then, that my first foray into reconnecting with my culture would be facilitated by my favourite event.
The first time I celebrated CNY without my family I was 19, living in my first flat in Dunedin. It was a far cry from the festivities back in Auckland. Having experienced CNY as a passive bystander all these years, I had no clue how to celebrate CNY – or, indeed, what I was celebrating. I only knew that food was essential. I called my Mum. I had barely even cooked before, let alone a group meal for a special occasion.
“Ok, you must cook fish! And leek. And prawn,” my Mum advised me.
“Uh… ok. Why? And how?” I had visions of my flatmates doubled over in the bathroom, retching up half-cooked seafood. I had a lot of questions.
“No substitutes!” yelled Mum, “年年有鱼! 每年哈哈笑!”
Dutifully, I took myself to the fish market, returning with a bag of frozen shrimp and three whole flounder. The fish were cold and slick to the touch when I slid them out of the bag and onto the kitchen bench. All their eyes stared blankly at me, almost accusingly.
Maybe it was the lingering colonial thought that spiritual practices of non-white traditions were less valid
“You don’t know what you’re doing,” they seemed to say. “Go ahead!” they mocked, “just try and scale me.” I closed my eyes and thought about my family in Malaysia. The wet markets where tables stacked high with dead fish had begun to smell putrid in the evening heat, and my Aunt, who would parcel one up, take it home, and butcher it on an old tree stump outside, by the mango tree, chatting merrily with my Ma as she did so. I gripped the handle of my knife. I could do this.
In the end the dinner was a success – my flatmates still talk about the lemon-baked whole flounder, the fried leek and shrimp. I explained the dishes to them:
“We have to eat fish because it means the year will be prosperous. Leeks make sure we always have money. Prawns ensure we are always laughing.” When I was younger I had taken these explanations from my parents bemusedly, keeping my head down and my mouth full so they wouldn’t see me roll my eyes. My flatmates were rather more raucous.
“How did you say it in Chinese again?” They asked through mouthfuls of leek. I told them. They inevitably butchered it, tongues wrestling against unfamiliar syllables and flaked flounder. I didn’t mind. They were trying. And in this moment, at least, I had brought my friends wealth and happiness. More importantly, I had clawed back some semblance of cultural identity. I hoped my Aunt would be proud.
That was the beginning of my newfound appreciation for Chinese spirituality. I had never before considered myself a spiritual person. I still don’t. In fact, for years I fought against my own superstitious tendencies. When my Dad called me and berated me over the awful feng shui in my room, I laughed and said I would change it, but I never did. Of course the position of the furniture in my room wouldn’t do anything real. Would it?
Over the next few years of my time at university, like everyone else, I got increasingly into Western astrology. I followed astrology accounts on Instagram, I tagged my friends in memes, examined birth charts, and discussed their moon and rising signs. I didn’t believe in it, per se – it was simply my mind, picking out traits and characteristics I could relate to. At the core of it, astrology was about being seen. It was about knowing myself. If a stupid meme could help me realise my strength in mediation and tell me I needed to work on my decisiveness, what did it matter that it wasn’t scientific? And yes, I am a Libra.
There was only one problem: most of the faces I was seeing weren’t like mine. Everyone knows a white astrology girl: the Geminis of the world, bless them. Western astrology was fun, but it was disconnected from the almanacs my parents consulted: the lunar calendars they bought in the aisles of the Chinese supermarkets. If astrology was helping me know myself, what was stopping me from tapping into centuries of Eastern practice – the practice that was being handed down to me, even now, in the middle-class suburban home of my parents, half a world away from East Asia? Maybe it was the lingering colonial thought that spiritual practices of non-white traditions were less valid, somehow. Maybe it was the idea that Chinese traditions – Chinese astrology – were somehow uncivilised and backward. I had unquestioningly swallowed the values of the Enlightenment era: buying into a centuries-old superstition and tradition was irrational. And I was a good colonial subject.
I felt as if I was hearing only echoes of the wisdom that my ancestors tried to tell me in my dreams at night
But at the core of it, I still wanted to know where I came from. It’s hard to know what to embrace and what to reject. The teachings of Confucius traumatised generations of children, including me. My whole adolescence had been spent struggling against traditional ideas of womanhood and filial piety. Throughout my life my parents had used the idea of Chinese culture to tell me that my whole way of being was wrong. It’s not surprising, then, that I rejected wholesale every idea that I associated with Eastern philosophy.
Then, I had a string of incredibly bad luck. Within a week, I dropped a whole bowl of yoghurt, shattering it and sending white goop all over the lino, fridge and cupboards. I took a trip to Queenstown with my best friend, only for someone to back into my car, leaving a dent in my passenger door. I lost a contact lens on a night out, costing me hundreds in appointments and replacements (I have a stupidly high prescription), and then I came down with tonsillitis. When I called my parents, my Dad told me it was the feng shui in my room. I laughed and said “yeah right”, and then a nationwide lockdown was announced. Of course, the furniture in my room didn’t cause a worldwide pandemic. But it was as if the universe was giving me a sign. I could feel my ancestors yelling through a metaphorical bulletproof glass barrier. Maybe it was time to stop ignoring my lineage.
I began reading about Chinese astrology. Not the stuff that is touted every year. Because not everyone born in a certain year has the exact same personality, just in the same way that not everyone born in the same month shares the same traits. But similar to the way Western astrology has moon and rising signs, Eastern astrology has month, day and hour pillars, each associated with an element and an animal.
This year, I will refuse to feel ashamed of my Dad’s feng shui charts
Much of the material that I encountered was written in the early 2000s by well-meaning white people, translating ‘exotic’ Eastern philosophies for a Western audience. My Chinese was rudimentary at best – these books were all the resources I had. It was like trying to translate the Romance of the Three Kingdoms with a pair of binoculars, through scratched Perspex from a kilometre away. I felt as if I was hearing only echoes of the wisdom that my ancestors tried to tell me in my dreams at night – but it was a start.
As I explored my birth chart and that of my friends, something clicked into place. Here was something that I could connect to, that I could embrace. Here was a tradition largely (but not completely) unfettered by problematic notions of femininity and filial piety. Here, at last, was a cultural connection that I could trace to eons of ancestry, a tradition that grounded me.
As we move into a new Lunar New Year – the year of the Metal Ox – it is again a time of celebration. It is again a time of supernormal colour, music and activity. It is a time to celebrate what is good, and it is a time for rediscovery.
I am grateful for my life in New Zealand. Yet, like countless other second-and-above-generation Asian New Zealanders, I have always felt a massive sense of cultural disconnection. Reconciling these two parts of myself was never going to be an easy journey – and I am still learning.
I still don’t believe in astrology. I still don’t think that the position of the furniture in my room will do anything real, in the physical sense of the word. Butthis year, I will refuse to feel ashamed of my Dad’s feng shui charts, printed in grainy black and white off a dubious website, touting ‘expert’ feng shui advice. This year, I will gladly place crystals in the southwest corner of my room, sleep with my head to the north, and wear my lucky colours.
After all, it’s a part of who I am.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.