Sounds of Snow and Phases of the New Year

All my memories of Chinese New Year are sounds: the slam of my grandmother's cleaver, followed by the intense sizzling as meat and vegetables thrash together in her wok. Booming voices of my parents, older family members, and their friends as they laugh and share stories around the dinner table.

There are other sounds, too--of kung fu performances. As part of the traditional responsibilities of owning a kung fu school, my parents and their students would be out in the streets for Chinese New Year, or doing demonstrations for large school groups, or providing entertainment to banquets at Chinese restaurants. Kung fu performances are loud: sticks smacking against each other in 2-person fight sets, or the three-section staff rattling, or the woosh of a chain-whip making rapid circles around the performer.

The loudest event is the lion dance: following the cues of the rumbling wooden drum, two performers make this puppet--a cat-like beast with a colorful tail and intricately painted head made of paper-mache and bamboo--come to life. When I was small, too little to perform, I'd shriek as the lion bounded towards me, covering my ears as the gong and cymbals crashed.


Some kids have pencil marks on the wall to show their height; mine was marked by how much I was allowed to participate in kung fu shows. People assume that my brother and I started training as soon as we could stand, but that's not true. We weren't allowed to take the Saturday morning children's class until we were six years old. Then, I was allowed to perform in the shows, demonstrating drills and basic punches and kicks. When I was big enough, my dad gave me a wooden stick to bang the gong in time with the drum.

Later, I was one of the performers inside the lion. I was shorter than some of my friends, so I would act as the tail, while they manipulated the lion's head. We'd sit on the floor, the lion sleeping. My father narrated the folklore of the sleeping lion to audiences, my mother at the drum. I'd listen through the tail's fabric for our cues. The drum would beat, and the gong responded with the hours. Three chimes and the lion woke up and yawned; at four chimes the lion woke up and stretched. Five chimes and I'd stick out my leg to show the lion scratching it's head before it rushed back to it's original position, the strings of the puppet's eyes pulled shut to show it going back to sleep. This part of the show always brought a laugh to the audience; around the world, mystical animals and humans alike, could relate to the snooze button. 

Then, a rolling beat and from under the lion, we would be on our feet, running towards the audience and making the lion bow. A couple of rapid clicks against the edge of the drum, and we would be respond with the choreographed footwork we practiced for weeks leading up to the shows. The echo of applause in school gymnasiums became as synonymous with Chinese New Year as the sizzling in my grandmother's kitchen.  

Lunar New Year eventually became more quiet for my family. My grandmother moved to a nursing home, and could no longer host a big party at her apartment. My parents began to have groups of their friends come over for hot pot dinners, their refrigerator stocked with scallions and fresh ginger and thin sliced meat and seafood from December until March. 

What struck me was how, even though what they did changed, the nature of their celebration of Chinese New Year stayed the same. Even though there wasn't as much kung fu, my parents still offered a cultural exchange, introducing friends to a traditional meal they may not have experienced yet. They weren't necessarily making the traditional offerings of good luck for the new year, but they tried to uplift the people around them through the dreary winter months with a fun event. In the past few years, I noticed how I adopted this role in my own group of friends, hosting dumpling parties for Lunar New Year. My fingers lacked the same nimble confidence as my aunt's as I fumbled through her spring roll recipe. 

This year will be the quietest celebration we've had yet. My parents are in their new home in a different state, and while I still practice kung fu, it's not something that I often share with others. There aren't any dumpling parties, and outside my window, the city is quiet as we are blanketed in more snow. After I post this blog, I will clean up my apartment, and my husband and I will get ready to have my brother over. We will chop garlic and ginger and vegetables and gather around our bubbling hot pot to celebrate, together, as we always have.