New culture stirs longing for traditions

Memories: A former resident of Singapore finds the warm experiences of her childhood fading six years after she moved to the U.S.

September 19, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

SEPTEMBER, for me, used to be the month of mooncakes and paper lanterns.

A time when grocery store shelves teemed with soft, round mooncakes full of sweet lotus-seed paste.

When kids spent days agonizing over whether to choose a dragon, goldfish or helicopter paper lantern for the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival -- when children filled playgrounds to show off their picks.

But not anymore.

These days, September is just another month to me, indistinguishable from August, April or June. After six years of living, learning and trying my best to assimilate in the United States, I have to think hard to remember the sweet smells and warm experiences of my home country, Singapore.

Lately, I've been struggling more with this issue. It's not that I care deeply about the Mid-Autumn Festival or other ethnic holidays. It's that I feel I've lost what they stand for. As with many immigrants before me, assimilation in America has become a struggle to preserve aspects of my native identity while constantly realizing I've discarded more than I meant to.

While it is easy celebrating festivals that have become part of American culture, such as Chinese New Year, I find it hard to keep track of festivals less known outside of Asia.

This year, I had to surf the Internet to learn the date of the Mid-Autumn Festival -- which Chinese celebrate in honor of Chu Yuan-Chang, a rebel who brought down the Yuan dynasty in 1368. Chu incited a revolt that he publicized through the distribution of round pastries (mooncakes) stuffed with secret messages. (This year, the festival is Friday.)

I no longer know the starting and ending dates for the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts, during which Chinese believe the gates of hell open and spirits roam the earth for 30 days. In this country, there aren't the reminders of food and wine offerings -- laid out on sidewalks to appease the hungry ghosts -- to tell me which weeks in August and September I should avoid swimming or staying out late so evil spirits won't get me.

Also, my mother has given up reminding me that the Qing Ming Festival -- a memorial day for ancestral worship -- comes in May, because I'm a tad far from Singapore to trek to the cemetery there and sweep my grandfather's gravestone.

These festivals are not just events in my family. They are times for reunions that call for elaborate, home-cooked feasts, which my grandmother would spend all day in the kitchen creating.

Over these meals, my aunts and uncles would talk about how they used to place live crabs next to banana trees during the Hungry Ghost Festival as an offering to the angry, long-haired banshees that lived within the plants.

I also learned about the time my Uncle Chris accidentally kicked over a sidewalk food offering during the festival when he was a child. He came down with a high fever that night, which broke only after my grandmother prayed for the angry spirits to forgive him.

Through these occasions, I learned not only about my family but also about my culture and identity. My mother often told me colorful stories about the legends behind the events.

On the Dumpling (or Dragon Boat) Festival at the start of summer, I mainly cared about watching the bright, long dragon boats race down the harbor and the fist-sized, pyramid-shaped rice dumplings (zhong) stuffed with sweet pork and wrapped in fragrant banana leaves that my grandmother made.

But my mother made sure to tell me that the festival commemorates the death of Qu Yuan, a Chinese patriotic poet who flung himself into a river in despair after a neighboring province conquered his Chu state around 300 B.C. As the story goes, fishermen trolled the river but could not find the body of the popular poet, so people threw dumplings into the river to feed the fish, hoping they wouldn't eat his corpse.

I didn't enjoy all these festivals. There were many times I wanted to stay at home and read, rather than squish all the way up a muddy hill to the smelly, bug-filled cemetery to sweep my grandfather's grave on Qing Ming. But my mother dragged me along, because each of his grandchildren had to light a joss stick for him.

Since I've been in the United States, holidays such as Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July have fascinated me. While I don't feel the patriotism my friends do, the history buff in me enjoys the significance of the holidays.

My boyfriend, David, who is Jewish, has welcomed me into his family's home for their Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations to teach me about their culture. And I have to say the pecan pie his mother serves at Thanksgiving rivals many mooncakes I've had.

This doesn't mean that the new culture I'm discovering negates the one in which I grew up. I have to find a way to assimilate, yet not forget my native identity.

I think I'll save some mooncakes for Thanksgiving dinner this year.

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is a reporter for The Sun.

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