Whole steamed fish, tangerines with the green leaves attached, dumplings curved into ingot shapes. The foods of the Lunar New Year are round and whole, representing the unity of the family, as well as health and prosperity for the coming year. Wholeness of the family is a big thing in Chinese culture. The word for everybody is represented by characters which literally mean “big” and “family”. The gang’s all here! But how to celebrate the new year when the whole family can’t be together?
I’ve been thinking about how to celebrate the closure of the Year of the Rat and the beginning of the Year of the Ox. My friends have been joking that Asians get a do-over for resolutions and general intention setting, if the Gregorian calendar doesn’t get off to a good start. But our whole family will not be together for the holiday. The pandemic makes travel and large family gatherings unwise, and on top of all that our college-aged son just moved out of our family home to spend the spring semester with housemates 500 miles away.
The last time my extended family—both of my own kids, my husband, my parents, my brother and his wife and children— ate dinner together was to celebrate the last Lunar New Year. It was January 24, 2020 the beginning of the Year of the Rat. In a small restaurant, we dipped paper thin slices of beef and lamb, along with cubes of tofu, leafy greens and clear noodles into hot pots filled with soup. The small metal pots were placed on electric burners in the center of a two-top; I shared a pot of pork broth with my brother, seated across from me. Although the restaurant provided serving spoons and strainers, we didn’t think twice about dipping our personal chopsticks into the pot to snag a thin enoki mushroom or slippery glass noodle.
While we ate, the news on TV broadcast images of from the city of Wuhan, China. It had just gone into lockdown because of the deadly coronavirus. My mother asked if I was wearing a mask during my hour-long train commutes. I shrugged off her concern, noting that the Surgeon General just held a press conference telling people to stop buying masks. The coronavirus seemed like SARS or bird flu, or a number of faraway diseases that never seemed to impact us. However, I did cover my bases by washing my hands as soon as I reached the office and again when I arrived home. As we parted at the end of the evening, my dad wished my older son a good trip. Any fears about this possible pandemic were not enough to prevent us from flying out the next weekend for an overnight visit to a college in Portland, where I was looking forward to drinking Stumptown coffee and eating Blue Star donuts.
Fast forward one year: that indecisive high school senior is now a college freshman. He didn’t end up committing to the school we visited last February, although the overnight stay helped him confirm what he did and didn’t want from his college experience. Most universities shut down overnight recruiting trips not long after that, so we couldn’t visit any more campuses. At the end of the fall semester—still living in his childhood bedroom and attending classes and club meetings on Zoom—my 18-year-old announced that he wanted to live with roommates closer to campus. While lectures and discussions would still be remote, he was hungry for independence, even if it meant cooking and washing dishes.
I humored this exercise; Scouring through Craigslist and real estate web sites trying to find a house that was big enough, cheap enough, and owned by a landlord willing to rent to four college students wouldn’t be easy. The search would keep him busy, and then we’d laugh about what a learning experience it was to search for housing. As I mixed ground lamb and leeks to stuff into dumpling wrappers for the winter solstice, my son burst out of his bedroom, excited that a landlord had called him back. Buoyed by the freedom within his reach, he picked up a circle of dough, and out of habit scooped a bit of meat from the bowl and started pinching the bundle closed, as he told me about the house: four bedrooms and right near a trendy street filled with shops and restaurants. As he set his dumpling on the tray, he deflated just a little bit, noting that his was big and lumpy next to the dainty, evenly pleated row I had already made. I’ve been making dumplings for a long time, I consoled him. With practice, his would look better, too.
To my relief, they didn’t get that house, but as we lazed around the house on Christmas morning, I wondered how many years it would be before I would get a phone call, telling me he won’t be coming home for the holidays. Just a few weeks earlier, I had laughed out loud at a Saturday Night Live skit about mothers who blasted nuclear levels of guilt when their adult children called to say they would not be visiting because of the pandemic.
But on one of those numberless days between Christmas and the end of the year, my son got another call back. This landlord was willing to rent a furnished house, beginning in the middle of January. As parents, we know that one day our baby birds will eventually leave the nest. Over the past year, I’ve been getting my son more involved in cooking, teaching him college basics like fried rice and chicken curry from a spice brick. Now, with just two weeks to count down, I wondered: what else could I teach him? Always curve your fingers under when chopping vegetables, I warned him, as I watched him cut up a carrot. Always wash the meat when you take it out of the package. I know it’s going to be cooked, but it’s better to be extra safe. Never rely on a timer, you need to watch and smell your food to know if it’s ready. I wanted to give him a set of do’s and don’ts to guide him in adult living.
On January 1, I grated a daikon in my first attempt at making turnip cakes, a dish associated with good luck for the upcoming year. They also happen to be a favorite of my kids. I sauteed the white shreds and tossed them into a bowl with rice flour, minced red sausages, and a few diced shiitake mushrooms, then poured the slurry into a loaf pan to be steamed. After 30 minutes, I carefully unmolded it from the pan. The vegetable bits were still a bit distinct, not uniformly melded into a cake, like in restaurants. Maybe it should have steamed a bit longer. Oh well, this was just a dry-run for the real deal, the Lunar New Year, which would begin on February 12.
During a typical year, celebrating Lunar New Year is not just the equivalent of watching the ball drop in Times Square. It’s not a holiday season after-party that ends at the stroke of midnight. We prepare for the occasion by getting haircuts and buying new clothes, maybe even doing a deep-cleaning of the house, which feels refreshing after the clutter of Christmas. Then there’s the multiple celebrations. Traditionally, this means returning to the one’s parents’ home (if you’re male) on the first day; you’re supposed to think and say positive things, as your actions set the tone for the rest of the year. Married daughters visit their parents on the third day. The festivities start small, with immediate family, and gradually widen to visiting friends and celebrating in public. In Asia, the holiday isn’t even called Chinese New Year, or even Lunar New Year, but the Spring Festival. The two-week period culminates with the Lantern Festival—often marked by evening parades with lighted floats in Asia and American Chinatowns.
For my family, the festivities over the years have included passing out red foil candies at school, restaurant banquets with extended relatives, rolling out dough and wrapping dumplings at home, and visiting Asian strip malls in Silicon Valley to buy live fish, rice cakes studded with bits of daikon or taro, and blue tins filled with butter cookies. I’ve even hauled ingredients for a Chinese New Year dinner to a rustic lodge in the Sierras when a ski trip coincided with the holiday. I wanted my kids to be proud of these traditions—and their identity—in a way that I didn’t experience growing up.
This Year of the Ox will enter as quietly as a lamb. We aren’t making plans for any big celebrations. With the infection rates still high and the threat of the more transmittable variants of the virus, we aren’t asking our son to come home for the holiday. After all, one year ago, the downplaying of dangers while people in China returned to their ancestral villages for the holiday may have accelerated the spread of the coronavirus.
The last things I bought before my son moved were a Zojirushi and a sack of Calrose rice. As I loaded them up in the back of the minivan, I thought about how my mother packed a rice cooker when she boarded a plane from Taiwan to the United States for graduate school. She was just a few years older than my son is now. By the time she returned home for a visit, she was a married mother of two; my parents never go back to Taiwan for the Lunar New Year. After all, the plane tickets are more expensive and everything’s crowded during the holidays. In fact, when I reflect on my childhood in the Midwest, I don’t remember ever making a big deal out of the new year. My mother taped up a red square of paper with a gold Chinese character on the kitchen cabinet, and we might have gathered around the Westbend electric skillet which served as a makeshift hot pot.
We come from ingenious people, so I’ll find some way to spoil my college kid – a care package of homemade cookies? A gift card for local Chinese takeout? This year, it seems so obvious, yet no less bittersweet to me, that the Lunar New Year marks the end of one season and the beginning of another.