“Sweetie, are you coming back for the New Year? We’ll wait for you.”
Grandmother is getting older; her memory slowly fading. She keeps asking me the same questions, but I, being on the other side of the world, can only hold back my tears while Facetiming her. I answer, “I won’t be”… I couldn’t bring myself to say any more. I’m scared I wouldn’t be able to control my tears if I do.
Kemaman is a small town located in Terengganu, Malaysia – the place where all of my childhood memories were made. I can remember how every year in the past, the children of the town would be so joyous for the Lunar New Year. Other than receiving red envelopes from the elders (monetary gifts commonly given out during the Lunar New Year celebration), there was the opportunity for a fun and memorable family reunion. That was the most important part of the New Year celebration for me, since everyone lived far away from each other.
During Lunar New Years Eve, my mother would be at home cooking a whole New Year feast, especially my favorite dish, stew pork with taro. My mom seemed to cherish this particular dish since she only cooks it once a year, which also means I can only satisfy my craving once a year. Our family will gather together at the dining table to eat. Joyous conversations and laughter is commonly heard at our table. After dinner, we will continue to talk about our past year, then proceed to light up firecrackers, gamble and drink (when we attained the legal drinking age, of course).
The first day of the Lunar New Year is the day I look forward to the most. Though we might have partied hard on New Years Eve, I still wake up bright and early, feeling excited. After getting dressed in my new clothes, my parents, siblings and I would go door to door to bless harmony, wealth, and health upon our relatives and friends. After each blessing, they would give out red envelopes to us for good luck. Night time falls and I will meet up with my friends to hang out and catch up with one another. Together as a group we will not only party hard but do the craziest things.
In retrospect, those years when I was younger, celebrating the New Year, were so carefree, so joyful, and so taken for granted. At the time, I didn’t think to cherish those precious moments, but now, it is only a silent aftertaste while I’m in a foreign land.
This year is the second year celebrating Lunar New Year in the United States. Although my mom said that nowadays technology makes it easier to contact each other, I don’t know how to tell her that when I look at the other end of the screen– where family members are enjoying a reunion dinner, counting down to the New Year, and setting off fireworks to ring in the New Year– that on the other side, I sit at my own table eating alone, miles away, feeling like thousands of acupuncture needles are piercing my heart. The loneliness that resides within the cheerfulness of my family far away from me only strengthens the unobtainable memories of when I was carefree with them, back at home. I want to tell my mom that I really want to be with them, celebrate New Year with them, mischievously ask my parents for red envelopes, play around with my sister, tease around with my nephew, and personally witness the changes in my friends’ lives.
All alone in a foreign land, my yearning doubles on this festival day.
This line from the poem, “Thinking of my Brothers on the Double Ninth Festival”, impacted me the most when I was in high school, however I never fully understood its meaning until recently. Sometimes, when I look at my family members’ pictures or videos, I feel sorry for my absence. I also ask myself: how have they been? Did they forget about my existence? Do they miss me? Does it not make any difference whether I’m home or not? This Lunar New Year, as I am in this foreign and hectic city, just looking at everyone casually going through their busy routines like clockwork – rushing through what is an ordinary day for them but an anticipated holiday for me – I finally noticed that “distance”, no matter how far, is not something technology can fully solve. Ironically, looking at them through a screen makes me realize more fully how far away I truly am.
There are a lot of times when I can’t understand why someone would choose not to go home, despite it being a stone throw away. Sometimes they think it’s annoying to have their parents constantly on their back. Now, I find myself often persuading them otherwise. I feel a pang of jealousy and at times, anger. I don’t know when I’m going back, and this makes me ache for home even more. Now, I am really looking forward to my family’s reunion and gathering with friends.
My friends envy my opportunity to study abroad, but to a girl that’s not truly independent, it is too hard. Remembering my first flight to the US, my eyes swelled from the tears pouring down throughout the whole journey. As I arrived in this new, strange, and unfamiliar city, my first thought was “I want to go home”…I regretted this decision, but studying abroad has always been about fulfilling my parents’ wish, and becoming a daughter they can be proud of. However, I overestimated myself as I was not as independent as I thought. Slowly I realized the girl that was eager to grow up, eager to leave the house was a silly and naïve girl. Distance magnifies my yearning for home, clouding my dream to make my parents proud. To my old self who wanted to grow up, leave home and study abroad: you might find your family annoying, but when their absence makes you anxious, that’s when you know their presence is a blessing.