Memoir: Lunar New Year away from home

I stopped going to Saturday school when I was 12, but many Chinese cultural traditions — the story behind firecrackers during 农历 新年 (Lunar New Year) and the reason we eat noodles or fish on certain holidays — were ingrained in me there.

When I was a kid, my family would gather with our family friends to make 饺子 (dumplings) or celebrate 中秋节 (Mid-Autumn Festival) together, but as I got older and my family moved out of a suburban ethnic enclave to be closer to downtown Toronto, the gatherings where we honoured our cultural traditions became smaller and less frequent.

Then 爷爷 (grandpa) got sick and my dad started going to China every new year to spend it with his side of my family, while my mom, my brother and I stayed behind. Us kids couldn’t miss school, but every year, I wished that I could fly back with my dad to experience a ‘real’ 春节 (spring festival) celebration in China.

Instead, the three of us usually prepared a 火锅 (hotpot) meal at home to mark the new year. The hotpot is one of my favourite kinds of food. There are hotpot restaurants in Vancouver, like 小肥 羊 (Little Sheep Mongolian) and Boiling Point, but most Chinese people will tell you that hotpot is best enjoyed at home.

When I think about hotpot, I smell it first. There’s a particular smell that envelops you as you’re eating and stays with you even after your stomach is stuffed to the brim.

My parents always tell me to throw the sweater I wore while we ate into the laundry because otherwise, I’ll carry the hotpot smell around with me for days. My mom is from 四川 (Sichuan), so she and my brother share the spicy half of the pot, while I get to throw whatever I want — my favourites are pork blood and glass noodles — into the clear broth on my side. Hotpot is a social meal, one that’s best enjoyed with friends and family to fight over the last shrimp with or to brag to when you pull out the meat at the perfect time.

I still hope to go to China one day and celebrate the new year with my extended family. But right now, I’m missing those hotpot nights with my mom and my brother. I desperately miss homemade Chinese food, but I’ve learned to cook 炒饭 (fried rice) and 炒年糕 (fried rice cakes) since moving out of first-year residence and I think that I’ve always made a pretty good 汤面 (noodle soup). So what I miss even more than good food is eating that food with my family.

This year is the second one that I won’t be at home to celebrate the new year. I’m lucky that some of our family friends live in Coquitlam and I’m excited to eat all the special hotpot dishes soon, both at their house and at the events the UBC Chinese language program is hosting. But for me, the Lunar New Year is about more than the food. It’s the warmth and comfort of home, of that hotpot smell filling the kitchen. It’s my mom calling my dad and our relatives on 微信 (WeChat) while the hotpot steam rises around us, and my brother taking my dad’s place to place ingredients into the pot and make sure our bowls are filled.

We might not be in China, surrounded by so many of our relatives, but our celebration is just as real.