by Jiéyì 杰意 Ludden
新年快乐 Xīnnián kuàilè!
I was born in 1991 on the first day of Lunar New Year in Nagoya, Japan to a Chinese mother and a white American father. My brother, my dad, and I moved to the States when I was 5 and my mom followed a couple years later. Throughout elementary school, we would go back to China to stay with my mom’s family every other summer. We’d spend the whole school break there, almost three months at a time, and come back just in time for school to start in the fall. One year in early elementary school, we landed on the first official day of school, so I started school a day late. The, at the time, 14-hour time difference meant that I was so sleepy that first day back that I fell asleep during class. I’m grateful that my teacher was understanding.
Being raised mostly in the States first in Iowa and then in rural Kentucky meant that my relationship with Chinese culture and Lunar New Year has been complicated. It has been a process of relearning the things I wasn’t quite raised with. I knew that I was born in the year of the sheep. 羊 (Yáng) is also sometimes translated as a goat or ram in English. I also knew that Lunar New Year was an important time to spend eating celebratory meals with family and to say 新年快乐 (Xīnnián kuàilè), but many other traditions were lost with time.
A Chinese American friend said recently that they were today years old when they realized that moon cakes were for the Mid-Autumn Festival, not Lunar New Year. I resonated with that statement. One of the things I’m supposed to know — information right at my finger tips, but forgotten because our small ways of celebrating as a family in Iowa and Kentucky did not include my many relatives still in China. And once we moved to Kentucky — no other Chinese immigrants at all.
Another diaspora friend posted a picture that has been floating around Weibo of two people in a lion dance costume, fully decked out in PPE — and the lion costume itself fitted with a big mask. Another friend responded that they wouldn’t be spitting cabbage this year. I responded “What does this mean?” They were kind enough to explain that during the lion dance, the lion would be “fed” cabbages, that would be torn up by the dancers, and thrown out of the lion’s mouth. That experience felt buried in me, like maybe I had seen it when I was very young, but I couldn’t quite remember.
In the past five years, since moving to Seattle, I’ve worked hard to reconnect with my own relationship to China and build community with Chinese Americans here. It’s meant both new traditions for celebrating Lunar New Year with chosen family and relearning the stories and traditions of my ancestors. It has also been a mix of grief knowing that I’ve forgotten, and joy relearning and reconnecting.
Folding dumplings though has always been a tradition in my family and continues in my chosen family today. I wrote a poem about it a few years ago.
Have you eaten?
In Shanghai they would ask me:
你吃了吗 (Nǐ chīle ma)? Have you eaten?
It is one way to say hello
Because food is what unites us together as people
By asking if someone has eaten, you are saying that you see them.
I shared food with my family:
We would roll dumplings together and
Even as I struggled to keep up in conversation;
And when they switched from Putonghua to Shanghainese, I could not keep up at all—
But at least I could fold a dumpling.
Rolling the skins,
The dough is soft and pliable
You want to leave a little mound in the middle
That will be the base of the dumpling
The base needs to be strong.
Use your chopsticks to grab
A little ball of filling
Place it in the center
Bring together the tops.
Pinch in on each side to make 4 points.
Flatten a point on each side so the dumpling comes together as a crescent
Pleat the back to follow the crescent shape
Dumplings can be fried, steamed, or boiled.
I like them best when the bottoms are crisp
And the tops are soft, slightly chewy
And the insides are hot and tender
And drip with juices
吃饱了吗？(Chī bǎole ma)? Have you eaten to fullness?
These days I also share the zodiac race legend to the kids I teach, and we create dances and artwork about it:
Many, many, many years ago, before there were names for the years the animals of the kingdom were arguing because they wanted to be named after the years. The Jade Emperor stepped in. They would hold a race and the first 12 animals to finish would be names for the years. The Rat and the cat decided that they would do the race together, but on the day of the race when the Rat saw that the cat was still sleeping, it decided not to wake up the cat and continue on its own. When the Rat got to a great river, it asked if it could ride on the Ox’s back, and the Ox was generous enough to give the rat a ride. But in the last moments of the race the Rat jumped off the Ox’s back running first through the finish line. The second animal to finish was the Ox. Soon followed Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. This cycle repeats every 12 years. When the cat woke up, the cat realized it had been tricked by the Rat and missed the race. This is why the cat and the Rat aren’t friends. The Ox is good natured enough not to hold it against the Rat and they are still able to get along.
Welcome, Year of the Ox.
Jiéyì 杰意 Ludden
Featured illustration by Jiéyì Ludden.
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