Lion dance, red lanterns, snacks, intense red and gold decorations as well as New Year songs looping in shopping malls. This is the typical scenario one would surely experience when the Lunar New Year is approaching. Celebrating the festival may seem effortless in Asian countries compared to the western countries. In many of these countries, Lunar New Year is just another day. There are no indications that it is a special day. Sometimes, when there is no existence of ethnic enclaves like Chinatown or Little Korea, it makes it difficult to find culturally related food or decorations for this festive season.
Since Lunar New Year celebration reminds us of our childhood memories, family and friends who are dear to us, those who are living abroad try their best to acknowledge the day. Even without grandma's cooking, red packets from the elders or the constant chatters of relatives and friends, we try to make the best with what our host country offers. If you’re living abroad and think that there is no way Lunar New Year can be celebrated joyously, get some ideas from Kelly, Mark and Ericson who are kind to share how to have a meaningful occasion filled with warmth and happiness.
1. A ‘hygge’ celebration
Hygge is a Danish word which is commonly associated with cosiness. That was exactly how Kelly celebrated the day with her husband in Denmark. They recently relocated to this Nordic country and it is their first New Year celebration away from home. Whipping up some dishes for reunion dinner, Kelly and her husband stayed in to enjoy a cosy dinner.
Despite just starting out to making new friends and getting used to the new environment, Kelly did a great job with the decorations to usher in the year of the golden pig. Kelly told me how they “used a pineapple (a must for Hokkien household) and upcycled some red packets as decorations.”
Not forgetting a little traditional touch, Kelly even made her own glutinous rice cake (Nian Gao) to complete the New Year celebration. Kelly showed how we can definitely recreate the Lunar New Year atmosphere, although on a smaller scale and that it does not need to be extravagant as it is the togetherness and warmth of being with our loved ones that count.
2. Introducing and upholding cultures
As for Mark, he began preparing for the Lunar New Year celebrations a few weeks in advance by baking delicious cookies. He has not been back to his home country, Malaysia for the Lunar New Year celebration since 2012. I bet he misses home dearly because it is reflected in the hard work he puts in to recreate the New Year atmosphere. He definitely did his best. Just look at the decorations and outfit!
“I wanted to re-create the dishes that I used to have growing up in Penang - flavours that, to this day, take me back to a time of youth and innocence.”, Mark told. Two of his friends were very lucky to join him and his brother for the reunion dinner. His friends were introduced to the delicious delicacies Mark used to enjoy back home and had the opportunity to understand more about the festivity. It was important to Mark to cook up a storm on this special day as he wanted to “pay homage to all the people back home who continue to work tirelessly, year after year, to keep this precious Wong family tradition alive”.
After 7 years of being away, Mark is planning to celebrate Lunar New Year with his family in 2020. I am sure his family and friends are looking forward to his return and to enjoy the food he cooks. Mark is the type of friend we all wish to have if we are living abroad!
3. Teamwork makes the dreamwork
If you prefer to celebrate in a big group, you will love Ericson's way. It was huge. Yes, HUGE! I’ve heard about how students have potluck parties but when Ericson walked me through the whole process on how he and his friends relived the Lunar New Year atmosphere, I was amazed. They are a group of students who are currently in Moscow, Russia. Aside from cooking a feast, they enjoyed a few activities associated with the New Year. Their reunion dinner preparation started at 3pm but was shortly interrupted with ‘mandatory FaceTime’ calls with their families back home to send their best wishes to usher the New Year. The dinner preparation continued as they prepared dumplings, roasted pork, bakkwa, steamed chicken, prosperity salad and sweet sour chicken.
Thankfully, Ericson was home a few weeks ago and he managed to bring back some peanut cookies, pineapple tarts and some crispy seaweed chips. I can imagine the effort associated with transporting these fragile snacks. Such treats from home bring so much joy. If you have celebrated the Lunar New Year in Malaysia and Singapore, you’d agree with Ericson who insists that pineapple tarts are a must-have during this time of the year. Of course, not only these goodies but also all the other dishes they prepared.
The celebration did not end after dinner as they began to try their luck at poker, just like how it was back home. The strong belief of fortune and luck is deeply ingrained, hence it is an accepted form of a fun social activity during this time. We at Nyonya Cooking do not encourage gambling. 😉
On the first day of the Lunar New Year, they performed a symbolic ritual to make raw eggs stand. This act of ‘egg balancing’ is related to ‘li chun’ which is the first solar term of the year. Ericson shared that if one is successful in making the egg stands, he/she will enjoy a year filled with good luck and prosperity.
Celebrating an unknown festivity away from home may seem meaningless to others. However, keeping up with traditions is important as it brings us closer to home especially during this time of the year. If you have not had the chance to introduce your culture to friends who are not aware, use this celebration to invite them and get together to enjoy the food and snacks you love from home. Otherwise, celebrating on a small scale is just as meaningful. After all, the whole celebration is about togetherness.
These are the stories from our people in the Nyonya Cooking community which fills me with pride. We hope to feature more of such personal stories in future to celebrate our community. Through this, we get to know those who are living abroad and missing the big festivity, celebrating it in their own special and meaningful ways.
Fun fact: Besides Singapore, Malaysia, China and Hong Kong, many other countries celebrate and declared the Lunar New Year a public holiday. Brunei, Indonesia, Macau, Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea and even Suriname, a country situated on the coast of South America are some of them. Although the community of Surinamese Chinese is only 1.5% of the population, the day is declared as a national holiday and is one of the many big celebrations in the country.
Where did you celebrate Lunar New Year this year?