Here is Jon Carroll on celebrating the New Year each day.
Monday, February 11, 2008
Last Wednesday night, we did a little Chinese New Year's Eve celebration, with chicken soup and seafood and noisemakers and dyed watermelon seeds and red envelopes. Alice is from China, which is why we were having the party, even though none of the rest of us are of the Asian persuasion.
In her immediate family (parents and grandparents), she has relatives of Russian, Irish, German, English and Caribbean ancestry. Three of those six people are Jewish, one is Christian and two are declined-to-state. Alice also has an aunt (Russian-Irish-Jewish) living in Canada, where the government thinks circus performers are worth cherishing. God bless Canada, for that and other reasons.
Also in attendance were a woman of Greco-Gallic ancestry and a man of you-pick-it Northern European ancestry, and their daughter, also from China, also 7 years old.
We're trying to follow what we know of Chinese New Year's traditions, derived from Chinese friends and from the Internet, but we're probably doing it wrong. People who have been doing it all their lives are free to mention that we're doing it wrong. They are even free to take offense that we are doing it at all. I understand that it's not authentic, that it's a very broad interpretation of a holiday celebrated by another culture. It is, however, the authentic way that Alice's exceptionally diverse family celebrates Chinese New Year. We are the reigning world experts on that particular ritual.
Further, I understand that adopting babies from China is controversial. China is slowing down the process a lot right now, probably because of the Olympics. (It's also jailing dissidents and shutting down factories, cleaning the place up so it can become its own Disneyland.) I am happy to think about all those issues; just leave Alice out of it. The village is trying to raise a child here; go away.
It sometimes seems that in America we have only two choices: We can be oversensitive to issues of cultural and racial diversity, or we can be insensitive about those issues. There's no middle ground in political discourse, although of course there's all sorts of middle ground in real life. That's where most of us spend our time, on the middle ground, usually drinking coffee and flirting.
I am reminded of the time when I first met Rachel's partner, Mary, who spent most of her childhood in Trinidad but worked in Toronto. Being a fully credentialed white liberal, I said, "Well, I know that we use the polite term 'African Americans,' but is the equivalent true in Canada? Is 'African Canadians' the right phrase? What do you call yourselves?
She paused for a second. "Black folks," she said. "That'll do fine."
So the white folks and the black folks and the Asian folks (I'm not risking "yellow"; I am not a fool) had a party. We went out on the street with pots and pans, to bang loudly, and with watermelon seeds, to scatter around the perimeter of the house, and Pop Pop ("Snappers, a novel trick item. Bang drop it! Throw it! Step On it! Snap It! Not to be sold separately!") to hurl on the sidewalk.
Later on, the girls asked their elders, in probably impeccable Mandarin, for their red envelopes, inside of which was a small amount of money including a very cool John Adams dollar coin. Who knew John Adams had a coin? I knew he had an HBO series, but a coin! Very nice.
Then we sat down and had the chicken soup that Tracy had been making for the past two days. I don't care what culture you're from; chicken soup, made from scratch and slowly boiled down, constantly skimmed, put away and heated up and strained and skimmed some more, then served steaming hot in thick bowls, makes life worth living and a fresh start seem like a good idea.
As far as I'm concerned, you can't have too many New Year's celebrations. All the vernal earth-is-not-dead festivals have a similar message, that everything is renewed and we can start over with untilled soil and unspoiled memories and make new things grow. We have another chance to get it right, and there can be no better news.
We used to say, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life." We could just as well have said, "Tomorrow is New Year's Day. Clean house! Dress up! Eat special food!" Such a good plan for any day, for every day. Particularly if yesterday wasn't so good, tomorrow is a very good time to start a new year. Hell, they have new fiscal years all the time; why not new personal years?
And then all the folks of varying colors can stand together on the sidewalk, celebrating the fact that we are standing together on the sidewalk, and tomorrow is another day. It's the feast of hope. Let's do it again real soon.
Should old acquaintances be forgotten and never brought to mind? What a silly question. Of course not. Some of them are, sadly, impossible to forget.