Chinese New Year Reunion Dinners

Whenever Chinese New Year rolls around, we often hear our friends say, “I’m going to my ah-ma’s house to bai nian”. It’s common practice for our grandparents’ place to be the main host for reunion dinners, angbao exchanges and even social gambling sessions. 

But nobody talks about the inevitable reality of time passing — what happens when the one person who organises these gatherings aren’t around anymore?

For as long as I could remember, Chinese New Year celebrations were always hosted by my maternal grandmother. So when she passed away in 2021, my family entered a state of disarray. Just like that, the familiarity of Chinese New Year celebrations disappeared along with her.

Chinese New Year celebrations while growing up

Chinese New Year Reunion DinnersHaving over 50 people gathered at my grandmother’s house every year

Growing up, Chinese New Year celebrations were always an extra big affair. My grandmother was the third eldest out of a whopping 13 siblings, meaning that my mother has over 30 cousins, who also have their own families, whose children have their own families… you get what I mean. There’s a lot of people in this family tree that would give the Kardashians a run for their money. 

Since my grandmother’s older siblings passed away before I was even born, the “duty” of holding yearly Chinese New Year gatherings fell on her. While some might think, “wah so sian, need to host so many people?”, my grandmother embraced this with her whole heart. 

Nobody loved Chinese New Year more than she did. She was in her element every year, basking in the rare chance to see her family that she loved so dearly, gather together just for a meal. A special singular day, out of 365 days in the year.

Celebrating my grandmother’s birthday on Chinese New Year

My grandmother didn’t just love Chinese New Year — she loved celebrations in general. It almost feels as if she was destined to be born early in the year, as it meant that we could celebrate her birthday during Chinese New Year too. Double the celebrations.

Her joy was undeniably infectious. Every year, I looked forward to going to my grandmother’s house for an entire day of festivities. As her grandchildren, my siblings and I would help out at her house from early in the afternoon till late in the evening, excitedly showing off our angbao stash and curiously peeking at our grand aunts’ seriously intense game of mahjong in the corner. 

To me, Chinese New Year was simply endless good food, the lively cheers of New Year’s greetings, and the warm feeling of my family together. Who knew that one day it would come to a screeching halt?

My grandmother’s passing

Chinese New Year Reunion DinnersA reunion dinner with my grandmother

Everything changed in 2021 when my grandmother passed away. 

According to Chinese traditions, families should refrain from hosting joyous occasions for a year after a death in the family. So in the year after she passed, we all stayed at home. Our doors were shut, we exchanged New Year’s greetings with our friends via text messages, and ate dinner like it was just another day. 

Life went on, all while we silently ached with the new reality of our Chinese New Year, harshly presented to us like a cold plate of yusheng without any ingredients.  

Getting a tattoo to remember my grandmother

None of us had ever experienced a Chinese New Year celebration without my grandmother. Naturally, we were left with so many unanswered questions, yet the fear of voicing them hung over our heads like a dark cloud — What now? Who would then host our annual Chinese New Year celebrations? Would we even see our extended family again?

While trying to cope with the loss of her, I got a tattoo of a mahjong tile. My grandmother had never been great at mahjong, but she enjoyed it so much that I always thought she won every game.

The tattoo reads fa”, aka “huat” in Hokkien, which translates to “prosperity for the new year.” Every year, my grandmother would yell, huat ah! with a huge smile on her face while greeting her guests. In return, we would all echo the same phrase back, hoping that the louder we chant our wishes, the faster they’ll be granted.

Now, my only wish is to hear her excitedly shout huat ah! one last time.

Struggling to celebrate Chinese New Year now

My grandmother’s house now, empty and ready for new tenants to move in

Recently, we sold my grandmother’s house. It felt like it was the final closure to all things Chinese New Year — there is no longer a familiar place for us to hold our gatherings.

I grew up in this house full of love. A house that was always filled with laughter and crowds of my relatives. A house I spent my entire childhood in, having sleepover parties with my cousins and feeling my grandmother’s warm hands shaking me awake to eat her home-cooked breakfast. 

A house that now, is no longer a home without her.

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Having smaller gatherings for Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year Reunion DinnersMy family’s first CNY celebration without my grandmother

Now, truthfully, the topic of Chinese New Year has become hard to approach. Asking “what are we doing for Chinese New Year this year?” to my mother often results in a burst of tears, sometimes even anger, at even suggesting a celebration. 

It made me feel guilty every time I approached the topic, as if Chinese New Year was a taboo. Perhaps nobody wanted to take on the duty of organising a gathering anymore.

While I could’ve easily accepted that this was now our reality, I remembered how much Chinese New Year meant to my grandmother. She would be absolutely heartbroken if she found out that we stopped celebrating after she left. 

Desperate to continue our yearly tradition, my siblings and I organised a smaller reunion meal together with just my aunts, uncles and cousins.

While it was nothing compared to our usual gigantic celebrations, we sought comfort in each other. Here we were, as people who grew up only knowing of the celebrations that my grandmother held, learning to move on without her together. 

We opened up the can of worms — we talked about my grandmother and how much we all missed her. Painful topics that we did not dare to speak about previously were now being threaded on softly, with fragile care. 

It was a conversation we all needed, yet was delayed by keeping our doors shut the first year my grandmother left us. 

Cherishing my family even more now

Chinese New Year Reunion DinnersChinese New Year at my grandmother’s house

Now, Chinese New Year is not the same, and frankly, it never will be. The gathering that my siblings and I organised didn’t seem significant at first, but it was through this small effort that my family remembered the feeling of being with our loved ones again. 

At the end of the day, this is what Chinese New Year means to my grandmother. And it has become what Chinese New Year means to me too: Family reunion dinners where everyone can take a rare day off from their busy lives to have a meal together, and cherish being together while we still can. 

We don’t ever realise the things we have until it’s gone. Even without my grandmother around anymore, her strong beliefs in the meaning of family is what makes me want to continue celebrating and enjoying as much as I can. 

CNY Reunion Dinners Remain Important To Me Even After My Grandmother’s Passing

My grandmother and I at my 21st birthday party

This 2024 marks the 3rd year since my grandmother left us, and it doesn’t get any easier. While my peers around me are firming up the last of their Chinese New Year plans, my family and I are still struggling to navigate between the space of love and loss. 

But this time round, I’m confident we will make it work. 

And to those who are struggling to find the joy of Chinese New Year again just like I did, remember why you celebrated in the first place. If we can preserve the tradition of our grandparents’ celebrations, maybe that’s how we can continue to keep them alive in our hearts. 

Ah-ma, I hope that you’re watching over us from wherever you are, singing along to Chinese New Year songs, eating your favourite melon seeds, and that our loud New Year’s greetings can reach you even from afar. Huat ah!

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