The pain is especially acute if you are in your twenties. You might consider yourself an ‘adult’, but your relatives definitely won’t. In Chinese culture, one does not become an adult until your firstborn child disappoints you with his or her PSLE result.
Until then, prepare to have your cheeks pinched and to answer for why you are unemployed/poor/unmarried/single/fat/skinny/short/tall/dark/light/you.
These annoying questions, along with the tedious social marathon of house-visiting, are the core of what makes CNY so unpleasant for many. As a result, many Chinese millennials fantasize about telling their relatives to fuck off in subtle, and not so subtle ways.
But what about those who ‘succeed’ in this endeavor? One imagines that those who do not celebrate CNY are having the time of their lives while the rest of us suffer lengthy homilies about how to settle down from a twice-divorced uncle.
To find out, we checked in on a few Chinese people who do not celebrate CNY.
That’s all Shawn, 28, remembers from his last Chinese New Year reunion dinner, held twenty years ago.
One day, the festivities just stopped. There were no more reunion dinners or house-visiting or ang pows. There wasn’t even an explanation of why. To this day, he has no idea how this dispute started, only that it involved his parents and his uncles.
“I was in the middle of primary school when it happened.” He said, “At first I felt a little puzzled or confused but within a year or two, I accepted it.”
Every year, in lieu of oranges or red packets, the family would either fly off for an overseas holiday or simply enjoy a quiet dinner at a hotel restaurant. Why hotels? Because very few places were open during CNY. After the dinner, the long holiday just became another regular weekend, devoid of any special importance.
When asked if he was disappointed or ‘left out’ by the absence of CNY, Shawn admits that he felt something akin to FOMO when he was younger.
“When I was young, I felt a little left out because all the other kids would be talking about their CNY goodies and ang pows. Sometimes, I would pretend to celebrate just to connect.”
“But as you grow older, it matters less. CNY plays very little part in a teenager’s life. There is no excitement and it’s not something you talk about.”
So, would he be interested in restarting the tradition in future?
Shawn isn’t sure. Reconnecting with relatives is always nice in the abstract, but after so long, he can no longer grapple with the idea of having relatives around the house.
“I think it will be awkward if CNY started again.”
Michael Tan, 26, has not celebrated CNY in the past 6-7 years. Although his family does celebrate the occasion, he does not join them for dinner or house-visiting, which he finds to be a ‘hassle’.
Like many, he dislikes the cleaning, the meeting of relatives and “generally everything”
“It’s easy for me because I’m financially independent and I have my own place. I think it would be quite different if I still lived with my parents’ house.” he explained.
This year, he is using his free time for self-enrichment – meaning preparation for his PHD thesis. Although he avoids family celebrations, Michael admits that he does accept some of his friends’ invitations to play Mahjong or have a steamboat.
“There is no hard and fast rule. It really depends on what I want to do.” He said.
Most of the people he meets are nonchalant about his CNY-indifference. They express neither surprise nor jealousy.
“I don’t think it’s anything unusual. A lot of my friends don’t celebrate Chinese New Year.”
And as for his last memory of CNY, Michael remember mostly the CNY gambling with his relatives and watching TV at home.
A civil servant who begs anonymity tells me that he hides away at Starbucks to avoid the judgmental pettiness of his relatives.
“Why don’t you comb your hair properly? Why don’t you become an officer? Why can’t you grow taller? It’s just all unsolicited life advice and people trying to one-up each other.” he said.
Another ex-colleague who is in her forties stopped celebrating Chinese New Year because she dislikes the CNY socialising, preferring to spend time at home instead of out and about with ang pows in hand.
Admittedly, she does enjoy the reunion dinners thanks to the barbecued pork.
So, if the people who do celebrate CNY loathe the tedium of a 3-day smalltalk session and those who don’t celebrate find themselves missing little, does it mean that CNY is a dying holiday? Is it the latest victim of our country’s fast-paced development?
I think not. I suspect that this apathy towards CNY is very much a product of being in your late twenties – a time when you are old enough to hunger for independence but not old enough to appreciate the traditions or the familial ties that bind.
It is easy to forget that almost all of us loved Chinese New Year when we were younger. In childhood, the Annoying Relative was a doting aunt whose questions felt more caring than kaypoh. In childhood, the 3-day marathon of ‘social obligations’ was a chance to feast on pineapple tarts and fight running battles with cousins. Money, family politics and the passive-aggressive gamesmanship that makes CNY so unpleasant had yet to appear on the horizon.
Perhaps this more innocent time will return when those of us in our twenties grow up and have families of our own. Perhaps the joy will return when we try to recreate this experience for the next generation.
Until then, Happy Chinese New Year