On the last day of the Year of the Metal Ox, I spent hours cleaning my small flat, vacuuming, dusting, washing linens. Out with the old, in with the new. My husband swept dead leaves off the pavers of our small courtyard: away with ye, old year, away with ye. We were almost ready to welcome in the Year of the Water Tiger.
Back inside the flat, I asked for his help, and together we strung up two leeks in our living room. In Mandarin, leeks are a homophone for ‘to count’, and in Chinese culture, symbolise wealth and fortune during the new year. Both of us have been working from home for the better part of two years due to the global pandemic, and so I bought two pineapples, ‘ong lye’ in Hokkien, one for each of our businesses, so luck may arrive at our doors.
All over the world, East and South-East Asian cultures were celebrating Lunar New Year—nearly 1.5 billion people worldwide mark this festival of the lunar calendar. The spring festival is celebrated across China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, in Okinawa in Japan, Malaysia, and Singapore. Lunar New Year is of course, also observed by the diasporic peoples of these cultures overseas.
My husband and I dressed in festive clothes, and left for my parents’ flat for reunion dinner. My mother had been hard at work preparing for the feast for days—shopping for the freshest ingredients, shredding radish and steaming them into cakes ready for pan frying, cutting up the eight ingredients for yee sang, the prosperity fish salad. Yee sang is a Cantonese dish invented by the Chinese diaspora—both the ethnic Chinese of Malaysia and Singapore lay claim to its invention.
Over the past few days, my mother had been sending me photos of her progressive work for our feast, which made me feel both excited and guilty. I have lived away from my country of birth, Singapore, for 15 years now. I had not expected to be away so long, or to have learned to be so comfortable being apart from my country. In the first year I moved to Australia, I was so unmoored, so completely lost without my family, my friends, and yes, the familiar food of home, that I realised: if I were to survive in Australia, I had better learn how to cook. I did not cook, not seriously, when I lived in Singapore, because there had been no need for comfort food.
We arrived at my parents’ flat, the smell of my mother’s cooking thick in the common corridor. In Singapore, the corridors between flats are designed to be open to the outside, partly because of food smells, partly for ventilation and airflow in a very hot and humid country. My father opened the door, and I felt awful that we had no mandarins to offer him. I had been to five supermarkets and grocers and there were simply none to be found. I said to him: ‘I have no mandarins.’ And he replied, ‘Don’t have. Not in season here.’
I showed my parents photographs of the leeks I had hung up. For years, my parents had nagged me to decorate my home better, to take Lunar New Year more seriously. This year, I have finally taken heed, because at age 41, I feel I am finally an adult. The last of my grandparents, my beloved grandmother Yeap Ah Choo, passed away in October 2020. With her passing, I have become the second generation in my family. I am no longer a grandchild. My parents are growing older before my eyes. My father’s own eyes widened. ‘Wrong leeks la! These are angmoh leeks. You need Chinese leeks.’ I was chastened, and also angry: at the mis-translation of culture, of language, of tradition. At my continued misunderstandings of my own roots.
We sat down to dinner, and I arranged the raw fish on the prosperity salad. The word ‘fish’ is a homophone for ‘abundance’, and each ingredient in the salad has a symbolic meaning, many of them beyond my knowledge at the dinner table. I was prepared for this moment: I held up my mobile phone, and recited Chinese proverbs as my parents added the various dressings to the salad. I had to show my father the screen at times as I can no longer read some Chinese characters. My mother cannot read Chinese, so she was of no help. We tossed the salad, full of joy, the four of us a pale shadow of the extended family, spread across four round tables of ten, my grandfather and grandmother presiding over the main table. When you are diaspora, you make do. When you are diaspora twice over, sometimes, you have to make it up.
Dinner was over, and my mother packed away the leftovers for us into takeaway boxes. I laughed at myself: how Asian is this, I think—to go to your parents’ home for dinner, and take food home. The following day, the first day of Lunar New Year, my husband and I ate the leftovers for lunch—symbolising an excess of luck and resources from the past year that has flowed into the new. We eat of the old year, and grow stronger into the next, full of our ancestors’ gifts to us.
On the fourth day of Lunar New Year, I went to the supermarket to buy fresh flowers for the home; the ones I had bought before the new year had already faded. The celebrations for Lunar New Year conclude on the 15th day, and I was determined to continue to celebrate each day. I decided on impulse to buy some Chinese leeks to correct my error.
I was full of glee, and again, enlisted my husband to hang the new leeks. I took a photograph for my father and sent it to him. ‘This one is spring onion! The first day you hang is leek. Cannot find Chinese leek here, so just make do.’ That evening, we sliced up the leeks for soup, and I looked up a recipe for scallion pancakes. Next year: I will find the right Chinese leeks. There is always next year. And we, Asian diaspora, limited in our options, will have to make do. But what matters is that we still do.
Eileen Chong is a Sydney poet of Hakka, Hokkien and Peranakan descent. She is the author of nine books. Her work has shortlisted for many awards, including the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, and twice for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. Her most recent poetry collection is A Thousand Crimson Blooms from the University of Queensland Press. She lives and works on Gadigal country of the Eora Nation.