Celebrating Spring Festival alone
April Feng | Friday, February 5, 2016
Rebecca: Mom makes the best sweet osmanthus flowers sauce for our annual Spring Festival feast.
April: Rebecca and I would put on our nicest clothes and follow my mom all the way to the supermarket to select the best osmanthus flowers.
Rebecca: Mom thoroughly washed the bright yellow osmanthus flowers, picked a bright sunny day to dry them on the windowsill till the flowers turned lively orange. She then covered them with sugar until she could barely cover the light blue glass pot. The pickled flowers would sleep in the pot for a week, no more, no less.
April: Every time I was tempted to steal some sweet sauce from the pot, my mom’s warning would echo in my head: “Never open the pot before the sauce is ready.” The outside air will destroy the flavor. We must allow the flowers to finish their transformation. It was always the most magical time of the year, waiting for something sweet.
Rebecca: The dish reminds me of spring, of the grieving heart as the season changes and of course, of my distant childhood and the innocent happiness. That was how we spent every New Year’s Eve when I was small — tens of dishes like this, each prepared with dedication, patience, love and proud traditions. There is not just taste, but weight to the dinner, as if I was eating not only the food but time itself.
April: I was 12. My great-aunt Tu, the oldest member of our family, passed away.
Rebecca: I was 12, the age of rebellion, of apathy, of rejection, of jealousy.
April: It was the first Spring Festival that we spent without her. We left her seat empty, the one at the end of the table. Her master dish, brown-sauce stewed carp, was absent too.
Rebecca: For the first time, the ceremony of an entire family sitting together and having a meal seemed fake to me.
April: The feast began. Grandpa took the first bite. “It seems I am the oldest person in the family now,” he said with a forced smile. “Recently, I started to feel I am getting old rapidly, and I am so grateful we can still sit here as a family. Anyway, this is delicious!” He took another bite of the Chinese cabbage. Suddenly, I felt the strong urge to say something.
Rebecca: “I heard,” April rolled her eyes before she continued, an obnoxious habit she recently acquired. “People whose first bite is a vegetable dish will have good health in the following year; people who have meat first will earn a good fortune.”
April: For the first time, I felt I embodied this great tradition.
After Great-aunt passed away, the Spring Festival was never the same. My grandparents were rapidly getting old. All of a sudden, Grandpa could not eat anything too oily because his blood pressure was above normal. Grandma could not make the perfect dumpling stuffings anymore, because she was losing her sense of taste and could not tell if the stuffing was salty enough. Finally, there was just Mom, Dad, Rebecca and me sitting around the table on New Year’s Eve.
Rebecca: After eating for four hours, it was almost midnight and I was tired.
April: It was time to eat dumplings, or jiaozi, meaning when the new meets the old. People should eat eight dumplings, for eight is the lucky number in Chinese culture. I was full after the sixth one, but my mom whispered to me and Rebecca, “Two more and you will have a good year!” I knew that was my mom’s way of wishing me well. It carried all her good intentions.
Rebecca: Why do I have to keep eating when I am already full? I looked at April. She was stuffing dumplings into her mouth, one by one, each handmade by my grandpa.
April: I saw my mom smiling. That was my way of letting her know I understood and loved her. Then I heard Rebecca complaining.
Rebecca: “Mom let’s go see the fireworks outside. I am full.”
“Finish your dumplings first.”
“Help me!” I mouthed to April. She walked away.
April: The great Spring Festival had already lost most of its color, and here she was, giving up the tradition, the values, the love that nurtured her for 15 years.
Rebecca: And there came the look I would never forget — a combination of disbelief, anger, shame, aggression and, the worst of all, pity. For many years I have been wondering what she was pitying me for at that time.
April: I still could not articulate my feelings at that time. I just felt she lost something precious, something deep in the bones, something that had been running in our blood before we were even born. I … I felt sorry for her.
Rebecca: She was pitying not my courage, but my lack of courage, to stick with a value that I was brought up in. After all, giving up is always easier than holding on.
The last day before April and I left China, the entire family had a huge dinner.
Dad cooked braised prawns in red sauce, because red stood for happiness and luck. Grandma cooked green chili pepper fish, because the pronunciation of “fish” in Chinese is “yu” and it has the same sound with the word “more.” Mom revealed to us her discovery many years ago: When April and I first learned to use chopsticks, we held the chopsticks on the far end. According to Chinese traditions, the further down a child holds the chopsticks, the farther from home she will go.
April: “The entire family sitting around the dinner table” is the simplest wish of many Chinese, but on that night, I was not sure when I could realize that wish again. When will be the next time I sit down for dinner with my family? Will I change?
Rebecca: Grandpa was in the kitchen, making his favorite dish — sweet potato with caramelized sugar dressing. It is a dish he has perfected over the years and one he has gladly brought out for every family gathering.
April: I heard Rebecca asking Grandpa to teach her how to make the dish.
Rebecca: I went into the kitchen. Grandpa’s back was bent by time. His shaking hand held the spatula trying to see whether the sugar was ready.
“Grandpa, I want to learn to cook this so when I celebrate Spring Festival in America, it can bring home to me.”
He smiled. “Watch me then.”
“Can you write down the recipe for me?”
“You learn it by heart, dear Yuan. You do not remember, you feel.”
April: Maybe next Spring Festival, we two can still sit down for dinner on a smaller table. At least we two can be together, feeling home and living the traditions.
Rebecca: It is the smell, the taste, the stories behind the dish that keep reminding me of traditions, of root, of values. These things exist inside me and my body, my soul, my whole being are their guardians.
April: Next Monday is my 20th Spring Festival, and this time, even Rebecca and I are apart. On Sunday night, New Year’s Eve, I have work until 10 p.m. I tried to convince myself, yogurt and apple, how healthy, how delicious, but I failed. Sweet osmanthus flowers sauce, pork and leek dumplings. Am I giving up the traditions? I called Rebecca.
“Hey, ever thought about how you are celebrating Spring Festival this year?”
Rebecca: “Eh, I think I will cook for myself. Maybe that sweet potato thing Grandpa taught me, and then sweet osmanthus flowers sauce. You?”
April: “Yogurt and apple.”
Rebecca: Ridiculous. “But April, it is Spring Festival.”
April: “Yes, but the reality is …”
Rebecca: “Are you escaping from something?”
April: “Escaping? What is there to escape from? There is nothing there. No traditions without you guys around. No family dinner, no people …”
Rebecca: “Feng Dan! If we don’t carry on these traditions, who will?”
April: I was ashamed.
Rebecca: I was scared.
April: But I work until 10.
Rebecca: She works until 10, so what? Carrying on a tradition always takes time.
April: But I am alone, away from home.
Rebecca: Tradition gives us a home.
April: I ran out of excuses.
Rebecca: And so, we will celebrate Spring Festival alone, in two foreign countries where we have happily named ourselves April and Rebecca instead of Dan and Yuan. When tradition is celebrated, we are accompanied, deep inside.
Dan (April) Feng is a junior double-majoring in political science and economics. April was born and raised in Beijing and is currently studying “abroad” in Washington D.C., taking classes and interning with CBS News. April welcomes all comments and complaints at [email protected]
This column was co-written by April’s twin sister, Rebecca Yuan Feng. She can be reached at [email protected]