Better Than Ang Pows

February 14, 2010

This entry made as a guest blogger appeared on Six Degrees Asia on Chinese New Year’s day 2010.

I need to get this post up on Chinese New Year’s day. It’s very important. See, I am ethnically Chinese. (There are people who think that I’m Welsh.) I have heard that folks like me may soon need to describe ourselves as Chinese-Chinese. That’s quite a different issue. What I want to say here is more urgent.

This is about finding sanctuary. You know what I mean if you’re an old-enough single Chinese in a typical Chinese family during this Chinese New Year period and not (yet) conscripted into the ranks of militant house-visitors. You need sanctuary, even for little pockets of one minute. You need to hide away from the annual sudden stream of grinning relatives you have not little but nothing to say to. You struggle to breathe in the midst of the Chingay procession that’s passing right now through your living room.

I don’t mean to be rude. But we — you’re already one of us if you’re reading this while people are outside munching on pineapple tarts and drinking Sarsi (Do they still make this? I’ve been in here since 1990) — know the routine. We know because it’s the definition of routine: you get asked the same questions by everyone every visit every year. I won’t make it worse by repeating the questions here. These do get increasingly awkward as you grow older, when both visitors and visited (visitees? inmates?) start to sense that we are all stuck in a time loop and nobody knows how to get off. The pauses grow longer, the eyes begin to drift around while the mouths are moving…

Your better judgement, too, tells you that things are different now. It is not just that you are all grown up from being that little wide-eyed kid who loved being the centre of your local circus which pinched your cheeks and ruffled your hair, giving you fat happy-coloured ang pows. It’s not just that you are turning into that quietly sneering or embarrassed unmarried uncle or auntie in the corner. (Don’t look at me.) It’s the ang pows themselves — they feel more and more like token ang pows instead of real income. You know your fears are right when you get the occasional ang pows with nothing inside. Receiving money during Chinese New Year isn’t just less of a thrill; it really is less.

And that’s why you’re here to read this pathetic post. I know. We know. You are being nice to tradition, running away to make room for it to have its day/week in the sun. But the problem is, everything else is conspiring against you. TV doesn’t really help because, try as you may to look like you’re concentrating on those loud gaudily-dressed singers prancing around, you can’t fool your relatives. They have been there. And the shopping centres are shut. Orchard Road is a harmony of disoriented shoppers with nothing to buy and nowhere to eat or drink. You can’t find a single coffeeshop that is open for business. You can go to McDonald’s, but that’s also where your relatives are grabbing a bite between visits…

So you’re here on the internet because, like many of us, you have discovered the great secret. You have found, through a first brilliant moment of sheer daring, a fail-safe formula to stave off these yearly invaders of your mental space and the thinnest of faces to prepare to meet the faces that you meet. You must have encountered the following scenario: you hear the echo of a relative asking for you before he or she barges into your room where you’re cowering in fear. You try not to show your fear.

The well-meaning question is posed to you: “What you are doing?”

“Computer.”

“Oh OK.” The relative leaves.

It’s that simple. Why it should even work remains one of the great modern mysteries of evolving culture in the East. Why “computer” should satisfy an otherwise aggressive probe befuddles me because it isn’t really about work, busyness, emotional crisis, etc. It is as if there’s a remarkable mutual acknowledgement of a disinterest to engage that is followed by a mutual acknowledgement that it would be too embarrassing to acknowledge that. The universe pauses, and then it kicks back in reverse gear. Once again, tradition survives in the face of modern science by conspiring with technology to live and let live. I should feel dirty and you should too, but it’s OK. We feel our lives affirmed.

So, on this note of triumph, I like to remind you that your one minute of sanctum is more than up. Now go back to your relatives. Shoo.

Gwee Li Sui

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