We had a lovely Australia Day, on balance. Had a few families over for BBQ and 25% round of Cranium, and Arddun was mostly cheerful until the end when it was a battle of wills regarding bedtime (she won today). Then the skies opened and cooled our part of the world, and the smell of freshly fallen rain is comfort and delight indeed.
About 15 minutes before our first guests arrived this morning, however, I was having a small meltdown.
It’s just this: I haven’t celebrated Chinese New Year. The sadder part is, I don’t know HOW to celebrate Chinese New Year. For the last 6 years since we bought our house, we’ve hosted Chinese New Year at our home. The program usually entailed silly dress ups, a token effort at decor, a potluck which consisted mostly of non-Chinese food anyway, some atrocious lion dance ching-chong music, and the requisite cheesy group photo.
Hard enough in a small house with no baby. But this year, I looked at Arddun’s meal times and nap times, thought about juggling that along with 40+ guests, and chickened out.
So the night before Chinese New Year, we did nothing special. And the first day of Chinese New Year, we did nothing special. Ditto the second. Ditto the third. And then today, I felt I was letting myself down, and I was dooming my girl to a white-only upbringing.
What is it about having a baby that throws your family values and traditions into the spotlight? Suddenly, I want to define everything and I’m starting to panic that I haven’t gotten good habits in order and that I lack enough Chinese customs and tradition. The laughable bit, of course, is that I’m not even ‘typical’ Chinese Singaporean. I barely manage conversational mandarin, and I slip into Singlish out of nostalgia, rather than necessity. My immediate family has never been superstitious, so we’ve never bothered with many customs and practices typical of Chinese New Year preparation, as so many of these traditions stem from the worship of fortune and luck.
I am, as they call me, a kantang. A potato. Brown on the outside, white on the inside. And yet, here I am. Feeling like I’ve completely sold out.
Because I think I have.
In leaving and cleaving, I wonder if I’ve wandered too far off track and embraced too much of my new home and culture. In dutifully integrating into Australian life, I wonder if I’ve been too willing to apologise for my individuality and where I’ve come from. I’ll be straight with you – Australia, for all her multiculturalism, believes in One Australia. One culture. One identity. She is not a plural society. Her people, on the whole, are not interested in where you’ve come from and the God you believe in. Race, for instance, doesn’t usually come up in polite conversation. She is a melting pot of cultures and countries, but believes ultimately that unity is best celebrated in embracing common habits, customs, and a common language.
And I’ll tell you, it works. I’m not knocking the country I’ve come to love and now call home. I love her vast land, her sometimes devastating beauty, her people and their zany sense of humour. If anyone were to put Australia down, I think I love her enough now to feel pretty insulted and rawr about it.
All I’m saying is that there is a part of me that feels largely unacknowledged and neglected. Always. Because I’ve learnt over the 9 years to play down my roots and my past and my experience, and to focus on what is common. What is shared. What is mainstream Australian.
And so here I am, on Australia Day, trying to celebrate my new country’s anniversary while trying not to forget my roots. So that I can continue to be a beacon of light for Arddun, shining on my past and my heritage. (Pretty daunting and lonely responsibility, by the way.)
Except what did I do? I made a cob loaf dip (without the cob loaf), served up two flavours of potato chips, and a platter of sweet chilli Philadelphia cream cheese together with a small block of Camembert. This was to complement the barbeque, which consisted of sausages and rissoles and grilled eggplant, onion, and mushrooms. The only thing remotely Chinese New Yeary were the 6 mandarin oranges that Sean brought. Even then, I didn’t get organised enough to give him an ang pao.
I didn’t even give Arddun an ang pao.
Tony says I’m being too hard on myself. That there’s still lots going on with a baby who needs attention constantly; that she’s not going to remember any of this anyway, and that we have time. But I still feel awful. What kind of Chinese mother am I, who doesn’t even get organised enough to cook a reunion dinner? And yet yesterday, I felt so knackered and unwell, I slept through dinner. All the while with a sick feeling in my stomach because I didn’t get organised enough to bake fortune cookies – my one lame token effort at a Western version of Chinese culture and tradition. (But mine were going to be dipped in dark chocolate and peanuts. DIFFERENT!)
And maybe the answer is hooking up with more chinese Chinese Singaporeans. I look at my friends in Melbourne and almost envy their enclave of Singapore/Malaysian friends because at least they have a home within a home. As much as I love Aussies, sometimes it’s comforting to be with “your own people”. To finally be in your comfort zone and not have to explain yourself, or put your Australia hat on. Because that hat… sometimes, it’s exhausting. Like wearing stilettos a half-size off the whole day, every day. It fits… but not quite. And my bunny slippers are a lot more forgiving, and roomy, and comfortable, and me.
And maybe the answer is forging new roads, and new traditions. Maybe it’s not trying to emulate some version in my head that I grew up with. I’m here now, and no we don’t get 2 public holidays for Chinese New Year, and no one here exchanges ang paos, or visits each other’s homes with 2 mandarin oranges, or gets excited about new clothes, spring cleaning, and cooking for 8 hours, then eating for 8 hours. And if we can’t find the ambiance here, maybe we need to take a trip – just us three – to Sydney or somewhere, and soak it all in.
Because I want Arddun to grow up understanding that she ISN’T all white. And I want her to be fiercely proud of her blended heritage. I want her to enjoy being a little bit different, and it would break my heart if she were to grow up wishing desperately that she looked more white because she didn’t feel even a little Chinese.
I just don’t quite know how to set things up here so that we can be both Australian and Singaporean.
But I pray I never stop trying.