by Eugene Lim
I was lathering shampoo into my hair when I froze, struck by an unwelcome thought. I rummaged through my sleep-deprived brain. It was the first day of Chinese New Year. Shit. I shut off the water and almost hopped out of the shower. For a few seconds I hovered over the threshold, clutching my towel. My father had always warned me never to wash my hair on the first day. An old superstition: it would wash away all my luck for the rest of the year. I watched my last dregs of good fortune swirl leisurely down the drain with a creeping sense of doom. But suddenly, I had a flash of inspiration: it wasn’t the first day of Chinese New Year. Singapore, my home, was twelve hours ahead of New Haven. Saved by time zones. Just to be safe, I dried off my hair. It took a while before I grasped the absurdity of my logic. And yet, for a few seconds, it made perfect sense. In a way, it still does.
There’s a common phrase Chinese people learn early on in life: yin shui si yuan. When drinking water, remember the source. Remember your roots, and give thanks. It is an apt phrase for a people who are always on the move, always seeking new shores. My grandfather’s tablet rests at the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in Malacca, named after the ocean-spanning Admiral Zheng He. Several generations ago, my ancestors left China and joined the Nanyang Chinese diaspora, a wave of hungry fishermen, landless sailors, and lost refugees seeking new homes in the South Seas. In the tropical peninsula of Southeast Asia, some built temples dedicated to the goddess Mazu, patron deity of fishermen and sailors. In life, she took the family name Lin – the same name I inherited from my parents. A simple character consisting of two smaller, identical characters. Mu: wood. Lin: forest.
Remember your roots, and give thanks.
I wore a lucky red sweater for the first day. As the story goes, the mythical beast Nian terrorized the countryside, until one day a god took pity on the people and revealed the Nian’s weakness: the color red. The villagers, decked out in red and brandishing firecrackers, chased away the Nian. And so they lived happily ever after… until the next year, when a harsh winter drove the hungry Nian back to the villages. A new ritual began, an annual battle against terror with crashing cymbals and firecrackers and clothes in lucky colors.
This year, I picked an old H&M Christmas sweater snatched from a Black Friday rack. It was a suitably garish shade of crimson, the kind that is carefully selected to suggest intentionality. An act of rebellion, perhaps, in a sleet-and-grey world buried under speckled mounds of snow. Back home, I would have blended right in.
Old rituals feel quaint here, as if they are quirky cultural curiosities with no real power. George Eliot suggested that the olds gods were chained to the lands of their worship: So that a man could cross the bordering heights and be out of the reach of his native gods. Just like the legend of the Nian always sounded like a fairy tale or a child’s bedtime story, my familiar habits are becoming eccentric, displaced. The grip of home loosens with each new hour and mile away. Back home, this would’ve been unlucky. Back home, that means good luck. But not here. My red Christmas sweater becomes an anti-talisman, calling rather than warding, calling for myth and superstition to return and be un-banished. In the old days, new arrivals in a strange and unfamiliar land would build temples to retrieve their gods. All I have are my scraps of tradition.
We are all trying to remember. The Malaysian and Singaporean Association’s Chinese New Year dinner is festooned with paper lanterns, calligraphy, and food smuggled through customs. (I remember Heathrow: the officer holds up the little packets of Milo and squints. It’s just a motley crew of Mom and the kids, on the way to Canada to meet Dad. What is this? Mom tries to explain, but is stuck. We call it Milo. It felt like trying to describe an elephant to an alien. Where do you start? An elephant is an elephant is an elephant. Milo is Milo. It’s uh… like hot chocolate… a powder… drink. He breaks a packet open, sniffs, and throws everything away. Enjoy your stay.)
There is Milo and pineapple tarts and kueh and curry and cereal prawn and love letters. Love letters: thin wafers embossed with lucky symbols and folded into cylinders. It is said that lovers would write messages in them, whispering sweet nothings via pastry. A gastronomic courtship. I pick one up, briefly consider its ten-thousand-mile elopement to New Haven slipping past the TSA, and take a bite. Bliss. The pile of clandestine snacks disappears in minutes. Chinese pop songs I never listened to back home blare over the speakers while I struggle to remember the traditional greetings.
How do rituals gain their power? They must be taken for granted. You must be steeped in the daily fabric of petty superstitions and habit, until what you do seeps into simply what is. They assume the nonchalance of the real, existing alongside showers and food and clothes as if that is how it has always been. Until one day someone asks what’s this? and you try to find the words to explain but you can’t. The magic vanishes where it has no history, where it needs explanation. The gods of ritual are aloof and capricious; they will not be summoned by the simple act of ritual. They must be cajoled and seduced into a new land. They require sincere supplication. Above all, they demand sacrifice.
At this year’s Chinese New Year family reunion, a relative brought out a faded red book: my paternal grandmother’s family tree, dating back to the fourteenth century. Supplemented by even older records, the book documents a hundred and fifty generations. I try to wrap my head around that number; it feels as distant as an old wives’ tale. I imagine one of my distant kin toiling away in China, tracking down the clan that left for Singapore. Is this what it feels like to know that someone is watching over you? With each new generation a new record begins. Is this ritual? Or sacrifice? A life’s work, reaching across the Nanyang. The genealogy is necessarily incomplete: there are children given up for adoption, lost cousins, estranged sons. My name will never appear in the records; the family line only follows the sons.
And yet, I feel the same pull. Perhaps it is the old Confucian value of xiao: filial piety. Piety. See how duty to one’s family is venerated, consecrated in the language of worship. It is, after all, only another kind of ritual, another kind of tradition – fighting against the flow of history and the wanderings of its adherents simply to survive. I feel it in the currents, far away from the source. I am being called to remember my roots.