In search of Chinese New Year

The red and yellow dragon heads lay lifeless on the sodded grass, feathers spilling over onto the newly poured concrete curb. Toddlers grabbed and tugged at the feathers and pounded aggressively and without rhythm on the giant drum. Mostly young, white parents sipped craft beers and chatted, for many of them it appeared to be a rare night out of the house.

A tidy bunch of romaine lettuce, wrapped with a twist tie, dangled from the open awning of the food truck. It remained for no more than 30 seconds before falling to the ground. No one nearby picked it up or attempted to re-hang it. No one nearby understood why a bunch of lettuce would need to hang from above.

When we went inside to buy a beer while we waited, my sons were elated to see the woman behind the counter was hanging out red packets of hung bao. They made a comment. “What’s hung bao?” she asked. Nonetheless, they thanked her for it, accepting the envelope of red and gold with two hands and waiting until they were back outside before they opened it out of respect.

The performers, spanning the ages of 12 to 60, walked around in red t-shirts and just the bottom half of the dragon costume. They squeezed their route through the patio of the brew pub, hoping that customers would move strollers and leashed dogs out of the way when the procession came through.

During the performance, people snapped a few photos and then turned back to sip a Sorry This Doesn’t Change Your Life pilsner or Third Nipple stout beer. There was no laughter when the dragon gobbled up the hanging lettuce and spit it back out on to the food truck, only looks of confusion. There was no applause at the end, no offering of money or oranges to the performers.

I had spent the last few month searching event calendars for Chinese New Year activities that we could attend as a family to celebrate. The pickings were slim. So slim that they were practically invisible. So I picked one, crossed my fingers, and off we went. The intention was good. An effort was made. There were few other options to celebrate locally, so we were thankful. But for me, it was the difference between picking a fresh green bean from a garden, snapping it between your teeth and tasting that earthy deliciousness, and the slop of canned green beans onto a cafeteria tray by a someone who wished they worked somewhere else: processed, preserved, lacking of color and shape, representative of a thing but coming nowhere close to the thing it was meant to be.

Afterwards, as we walked back to our car, my son put his arm around me and said, “That was really fun. I’m glad we went there, mom. Thanks for finding that.” You know it’s bad when your typically snarky twelve-year-old puts on his best smile and tries to make everyone feel better.

I was elated to see a small section at the drug store with three choices of cards for Chinese New Year. They were camouflaged, tucked within 120 square feet of Valentine’s Day cards. Maybe I should have been excited to see all those Valentine’s Day cards instead of cards for the Year of the Pig. But I wasn’t. Maybe it’s just me.

It’s not always easy to come back to the place you started. I was sent back down the slide in life’s Chutes and Ladders. Back to the beginning, back to the place I’ve already been. Familiarity is easy but boring. It’s the road well traveled to our more permanent home: I pull slightly to the left because I know there is a potholes ahead. I know the exact speed at which I can take the curve. I know I can lay off the gas an coast in to the next stoplight. The drive is uneventful, only because I know it too well. Maybe it’s just me.

There are bright spots in all of this. (Isn’t that a requirement of all blog posts, to have a balance of negatives and positives?) Our family is closer, because we can share insides jokes about funny things that us Americans do. We can make brief eye contact when someone asks—because they always ask—“What was your favorite country to visit?”

It’s easy to find that thing that you need because you know which store to visit. It’s nice to see friends and familiar faces. It’s nice to be able to find your favorite hangover food when you need it. (Ever been in the middle of the country of Georgia with a hangover and all you really want is a giant fountain Coke and hamburger from McDonald’s? No? Maybe it’s just me.)

Culture isn’t owned, it’s experienced. But I think culture is also curated. I can make decisions about which cultural experiences I want to take part in, which ones I want to learn about, which ones I want to immerse my family in. So if, for now, that means sipping a local craft beer and pretending I don’t know what a real lion dance looks like, then that’s OK. For now.

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