Saturday, September 19, 2009

First Chinese New Year with the Lius

In heels and a dress playing on a rope bridge at the park. I have truly gone native!

Out rowing on the lake.

With Liu Yuni's cousins at the Liu family tomb.

Two weeks after we moved into the new house, it was the Chinese New Year. All my friends in Taipei were from the church, and they did not adhere strictly to many of the Chinese New Year traditions. In the Liu household, only Yuni, Hsiu-Chu, and I were practicing Christians, so especially that first year, they did all the ceremonies. The first thing was to clean the house from top to bottom on Chinese New Year’s Eve. That part wasn’t too hard since it was a new house, but they did work hard to get everything unpacked and put away neatly. They also laid in lots of food because the markets would be closed for several days. Then they made rice flour cakes. Later, they stopped making these by hand, but the first year in our new house, they did everything according to tradition.

All the unmarried girls and Yuni got to come home for New Year’s Eve dinner. We all ate together at the round dining table. There was a big bowl of fish soup, but we were only supposed to take a taste and leave the rest, so there would be plenty in the New Year. We had red couplets beside the doorway praying for blessings on the household. Yuni and I got one of our friends from church to write them, so they were Christian poems. They were actually quite nice, and Pa Liu was pleased that they were hand-written in nice calligraphy instead of just store-bought ones.

We all went to bed, but Ma and Pa and Hsiu-Mei, Hsiu-Chen, and Yuntian got up in the middle of the night to offer a whole boiled chicken to the ancestors and to set off firecrackers. I was just as happy not to have to get out from under my warm blankets because it was chilly. The next day we all had to wear red, new clothes. I just wore my red wedding dress from the church ceremony because I didn’t want to buy yet another red dress. Yuni wore his suit from the wedding, too. We ate sweet rice cake and fruit and watermelon seeds. Then we all went out to a park for a day at the lake. We were all dressed up for it, too. Then we came home and cleaned up for the next day when the married daughters would come home.

Traditionally, married daughters come home on the second day of the Chinese New Year. Yuni should have taken me to visit my parents, but he was back at his military unit, and it would not have been feasible for me to fly back to the US. So instead, I made waffles for everyone for breakfast. Elder Sister and Elder Brother-in-Law and their four daughters arrived bright and early the next morning. They all loved the waffles. (My relatives had given me a waffle iron for my wedding, and I had a cookbook with a recipe for homemade waffles.) We kept waiting and waiting for Youngest Sister and her husband. Finally, we got a phone call that her mother-in-law was not going to allow her to come unless the Lius guaranteed that she and I would not see each other face to face while she was here.

I knew that the Liu family was worried about her being pregnant with a broken leg, so I said that I would stay upstairs in my third floor rooms. They all thanked me profusely, and I went up to read. Yuntian later came up with a small tv and VCR and a pile of kung-fu movie videos. He also kept bringing food up for me in case I was hungry. I hung over the top of the house and watched her arrive (darting back before anyone saw me, of course.) Since Youngest Sister (Hsiu-ling) had a broken leg she could not go out anywhere. She just sat at home with her mother and one or two of her sisters while her husband and the rest of the entire group took Elder Sister’s children to a park. I unpacked more of my books from America, read Hawaii, watched videos, ate when I got hungry, and wrote some letters to my family.

Then the rest of the family came back. All of a sudden, Yuntian came running up to say that they wanted waffles. So Hsiu-ling was bustled into her mother’s room on the second floor and the door was shut and locked. Then I was hurried past the door down to the living room where I made waffles. Yuntian ran a plate up to his mom and Hsiu-ling so she could enjoy the new taste treat, too. I played with the nieces and stretched my legs a little until word from the second floor came that Hsiu-ling wanted to come down to watch tv. So I was bustled upstairs again. When I was safely ensconced in my room with the door closed, Hsiu-ling was allowed out of her mother’s room and had the run of most of the house.

For the next few days, the family pretty much stayed all together. No one had to work for the rest of the week, and there were plenty of bedrooms (by their standards) and room on the couches. One of the unmarried girls or Elder Sister would bring the laundry up to the third floor where the washing machine was out in the roof garden, and I would have company while we were doing the laundry. Once the laundry was hung out to dry, my companion would take my dirty dishes downstairs, and I was left in peace to read, watch videos, and snack in my bedroom. I could also go out onto the roof and watch the neighbors. When they wanted waffles, Hsiu-ling would be locked in her mother’s bedroom until the locusts were satisfied. Then I would retreat back up to my lair. The nieces, Pa, and most of the girls would go out every day to a park or for a hike. Finally, Pa and Ma decided that I had been shut away long enough and sent Hsiu-ling and her husband back to home. Elder Sister and her family left that day, too, because they had to visit relatives on Elder Brother-in-law’s side of the family.

When the married girls were gone, Pa and Ma took me to call on the relatives who had come to the wedding. Our first stop was the Liu family homestead up in the hills in Hsinchu County. We visited Pa’s brothers and cousins who were still living in the old family farm compound. I was taken up to visit the family tomb and meet the ancestors. I did not burn incense, but per my agreement with Pa, I did bow my head and pray for the Liu clan at the tomb. Then we went down into Toufen Town to visit Ma’s brothers and mother. We spent the night at Elder Sister’s house because it was quite late by the time we had finished our New Year’s courtesy calls.

The next few days after we had finished visiting the family elders, the family members who were younger than Pa and Ma came to our house to visit. I must have gone through ten pounds of flour because I made fresh batches of waffles every time new visitors came that New Year’s season. Finally, it was time for the Lantern Festival, and the Chinese New Year came to an end. Everyone went back to work. That year, because we had a new house and a new bride, Pa took off more days from work than was his custom. He had more visits to make and more courtesy calls to receive. In later years, he usually only took off a week. By the third year, they had stopped offering the chicken to the ancestors in the middle of the night. But the family dinners and visits to and from friends and relatives is something that continues every year.

At the New Year, working children give their parents gifts of money in red envelopes. Parents also give money to their children and grandchildren. If you are married, you are expected to give to unmarried, younger siblings, to nieces and nephews, and to children of your friends and cousins. Everyone keeps a running tally of how much they have been given by a particular person over the year, and then they try to repay it to the children at the Chinese New Year. (I got much better at mental math after my marriage.)

Even the illiterate women knew exactly how much money had been in every gift envelope given to them throughout the year. They would recite the tally to a child and have the child add up all the debts to figure out how much they owed people on Chinese New Year. It is inauspicious to start the year with debt.


murat11 said...

Teresa: Again, the sequestering of the brides seems, at first blush, very odd and arcane, but on the other hand, we know that it comes from centuries of "observation," watching the dances of brides and families.

Hilarious, though, how - even if just for a brief time - all tradition is thrown to the wind in the face of homemade waffles. Your third floor lair actually sounded quite wonderful, and I suppose that early exile further fed your appetite for the very topic of your current thesis.

Teresa said...

Hi Murat,

Yes, the sequestering of the brides does seem odd, but after some of my other sisters-in-law got married and had problems with their in-laws because the families didn't treat them as well as I had been treated, I understood it better.

I do have to say that all tradition was NOT thrown to the winds in the face of homemade waffles. Hsiu-ling was safely locked into her mother's room before I was allowed out to feed the hungry beasts!

When you do the movie version, that portion should be done in fast-motion with Marx Brothers or Three Stooges type music. It was really, really funny.

As far as feeding my appetite for my Master's thesis, I have to confess that you are right. When my daughter Phoebe learned that I was going to be writing my thesis on the novels of my favorite kung-fu author, her response was "Of course, what else? Only you would come up with a way to read kung-fu novels and get a degree for it!"

Cloudia said...

Such riches you share with us!

Sad that they stopped offering the chicken in the night - you are so lucky to have experienced all this.


You read "Hawaii" and so read about our Chinese neighbors!

We get new red caligraphy EVERY Chinese New Year - one right by this desk.....
Thank you, Dear Teresa

Aloha, Friend!

Comfort Spiral

Teresa said...

Hi Cloudia,

Glad you could stop by. I take that to mean that your slow computer issues have been resolved.

Do your Hakka neighbors live on a boat, too?

It is very cool to get red paper calligraphy for Chinese New Year. It's something I miss here in the US.

Somehow hot waffles with a dusting of powdered sugar hit it just right for the Chinese palate. They don't like their sweets to be too sweet. To them, that was "American cakes."