Before bed, I wanted a bath. The heavy fragrance of crescent-shaped dumplings, flash fried gai-lan, steamed chicken, fish swimming in spicy black bean sauce and oily long-life noodles from my family’s Chinese New Year feast steeped into every thread of my clothing and every hair on my head.
I casually remarked that I was going to shower and head straight to bed. Mom was on the phone.
“Oh, let me call you back, Claud.” She hung up and turned to me. “Aunt Claudia says she’s not going to wash her hair tonight.”
Gross, I thought. The Wong women always bathe at night, because Grandma taught us that it helps you sleep better and keeps your bed cleaner. Aunt was breaking a tradition to keep a tradition.
“Don’t ask me. She said that will wash away all the luck for Chinese New Year.”
“Should I skip washing my hair?” I asked, incredulous.
“You know, it probably doesn’t matter. You also got regular New Year anyway.”
I was stumped. That was the Lunar New Year of 2002. I was 12, and it was just beginning to dawn on me that I had a lot to learn about being ABC—American-born Chinese.
Sometimes, the rules for how to behave as a hapa, someone of mixed Asian descent, are especially unclear. If I washed my hair, would it only wash away half of my luck because I’m half white?
To be honest, I don’t remember what I ended up doing about the hair-washing dilemma, but it’s something I still think about. It made me hyper-conscious about how culture is something that I’ve actively learned, instead of innately known.
The population of Wyoming, where I grew up, is more than 90 percent white. To learn about being Chinese, I closely observed my ethnically Cantonese grandfather, who was born in Butte, Mont., and my grandmother, whom he helped bring from China’s Guandong province after World War II.
They worked at a Laramie, Wyo., diner called the Diamond Horseshoe that mostly served truck drivers. At home we ate barbecue char-siu and stir-fry, but at the diner the house specials were cinnamon rolls and steak and eggs. So, while we’re Chinese, we’re very American.
I suppose that has put us in a special position to pick and choose the New Year’s customs and traditions that work for us, and ignore the ones that don’t. It helps us better appreciate what it means to be both American and Chinese.
Crashing cymbals accompanying clamoring dragons — or at least children disguised as clamoring dragons — are a necessity at the banquet hall. They dance in search of wisdom and grant good fortune to the people they touch.
I can’t complain when the adults in my family give the kids small red envelopes that contain money. It’s a symbol of prosperity, a harbinger of wealth.
We axed the tradition of elaborate firecracker displays after the police shut down our extravaganza. Apparently you’re not supposed to launch them at an empty public school playground, my cousins and I discovered. We traded them for the more innocuous paper-wrapped poppers that snap against the asphalt.
This year, I’m skeptical about a number of traditions that I’ve recently learned.
It’s the year of the snake —my year! — but I’m not sure if wearing a red belt every day of 2013 to commemorate the occasion will clash with my usual fashion choices. One friend’s grandmother has armed her with 30 pairs of red underwear as a more discreet alternative, but I’m still not entirely convinced that’s necessary.
One thing is certain, however. This weekend, you will find me gorging on a bountiful meal around a circular table crowded with people I love, just as I have on every Chinese New Year. A Lazy Susan at its center will be spinning like a top. Chopsticks will fly. I might tussle with a cousin over who gets to eat the fish eye for luck. Maybe I’ll even summon the courage to stomach just one more saucy chicken foot.
Will I wash my hair after dinner is over? I still haven’t decided, and I’m OK with that.
I am coming to terms with who I was born to be and who I’m becoming, and maybe that’s a tradition in itself.
Sara Hayden is a staff writer for the Review.