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A Banana’s Guide to Chinese New Year

Photo by Rumman Amin on Unsplash

It's that time of the year again when houses, malls, and temples are decorated in red. Every street has its own fireworks show, and money is given to us unmarried people in tiny red packets. If you are married then, well... sadly, the money is going the other way. For many people, Chinese New Year is just a jolly and exciting time, but this is not entirely true for us' bananas'. For bananas, Chinese New Year gatherings may mean trying to "Matrix Dodge" the things that will make us look like disappointments to our ancestors. We do enjoy our time, just not as much as others.

How it really feels like dodging. Gif from Giphy

Now, some of you might be wondering "What is a banana?". To put in simple words, Says defines "banana" as a Chinese person who is prone to western culture. Just like a "banana", we look Chinese (yellow on the outside), but we act, speak, and think in a Westernized fashion (white on the inside).

Accurate representation of us bananas, and yes we are curvy like that, too.

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Yet, we don't actually choose to be "bananas", many external factors shaped us into this fruit. Take my upbringing as an example, I was raised in a Buddhist-Christian household. Part of my mother's childhood years, she was brought up by nuns. Her being a housewife means that I spent a lot of my childhood learning the values and traditions that the nuns taught her. Couple English as my first language, my struggle to learn Mandarin in school, lack of friends who speak Mandarin and the mostly Westernised media I consumed, you can see why I am a "banana".

So, here I am! A boy who barely speaks Mandarin, can't utter a sentence in other Chinese dialects and whose parents' hometown is in Penang (they are more traditional there). To top it all off, I am very awkward when it comes to social events. Due to these circumstances, I have made a fool-proof guideline; so far at least, for my fellow bananas this Chinese New Year season.

Number 1: Be KIND.

Say your thank yous. GIF from Giphy

Seriously, it is so simple, you may think this is an overused point as everyone is constantly reminded to be kind to everyone. When you are given food, red packets and hospitality during an open house or gathering, your smiles and thank you's will make people feel good for welcoming you. Perhaps, they will even overlook the fact that you are a "banana".

Number 2: Stay close to the ones you know

Grab and never let go. Gif from Giphy

Staying close to people you know can help you in many ways. They can teach you how to react, traditions you don't know, explain what people are asking, and even help translate your answers. These people can be anyone. It could be your parents, siblings, friends, and even that one cool cousin.

Number 3: Learn and Remember These Greetings

During a Chinese New Year reunion, there will always be exchanges of wishes. Whether we are receiving gifts, giving gifts, or greeting someone during a reunion, we would always say a few words of blessings or wishes. These few simple lucky sayings can hopefully help you spice up your greetings.

You can use this website to learn how to pronounce the phrases above, just copy and paste the Chinese characters into the search bar and click play.

Number 4: Whenever in Doubt, Use Uncle and Aunty

Well, this tip only works on some of our relatives. If you don't already know, in the Chinese language, there are specific terms you have to use to call your relatives. The terms depend on which side of the family your relative is on, either maternal or paternal. For example, your father's father would be called 爷爷 (yé ye), while your mother's father is 公公 (gōng gong). This applies to everyone in your family tree. The term we use to refer to our father's older brother would be wrong when used to refer to our mother's older brother.

Hopefully, when push comes to shove, your aunt or uncle is cool enough to let it slide when you call them uncle or aunty. BUT, do try and learn the proper way of referring to them. Here's a list of all the correct terms according to the different dialects and family tree.

Number 5: When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do

Lou Hei Yee Sang, image by Evelyn Ang

Familiar with this saying? No? Basically, whenever you are at a gathering, celebration, or even prayers, just do what others are doing. For example, before everyone starts eating during a family reunion dinner, we would usually invite everyone at the table to eat by saying '大家吃饭' (dà jiā chī fàn), which means "Everybody, let's eat." This can also be done individually by calling upon your respective relatives. Another example would be during the "Lou Hei Yee Shang" or "Lou Sang", everyone would come together and toss the ingredients prepared. During this tossing, pick up your chopsticks and join in with everyone else, saying phrases mentioned in Number 3.

If you find yourself in the middle of a tradition that is foreign to you, take that chance to ask the people around you. Because practices are just like any knowledge in this world; it needs to be learned.

Want to learn more about the Lou Sang tradition? If you're curious to check it out, the South China Morning Post wrote an article about the Lou Sang tradition.


Don't actually throw your phone la, Gif from Giphy

I think many of us have used our phones as a means to escape from an awkward and tense situation. OH, take my word for it. I've done it many times before and it's not a good thing. Because staying on your phone is very rude, especially when you were invited to the social event. I can understand that social events may bring loads of fear to some people, but do not shy away from the people who invited you. If you need a break, excuse yourself and head to the restroom, or remember number 2, stay close to the ones you know.

I think that we all should be open to conversations even if we don't understand the language. If they strike up a conversation with you, politely, let them know that you don't understand. Who knows, maybe you will be like me, someone who had a wonderful time discussing politics and law with my cousin who approached me and struck up a conversation.

At first, I thought of writing this article as an actual guideline for my fellow "bananas". But, as I continue to write, I found myself wanting to challenge not only "bananas" but also my fellow Malaysians. The challenge to be open to the traditions we don't know about and try to do something new this Chinese New Year. Because, how else would we be able to appreciate the culturally rich home we call Malaysia?

For the culturally-rooted people out there, I hope that you accept people like me the way we are. We were never given a chance to grow up in a traditional environment. So please, no more insults, seriously, it hurts to feel like I failed my whole bloodline.

To those who relate to my upbringing, if someone tells you that you have forgotten the roots of your race and culture because of their expectations, I'm here to remind you that you have not. Your roots are just planted in different soil.

Lastly, here's me wishing everyone, "A happy Chinese New Year 新年快乐, and good prosperity 恭喜发财!"

By Choo Chon Jeat


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