SINGAPORE: Sometimes, Chinese New Year can feel oddly like an Annual General Meeting.
You gather together to give a full accounting of your performance during the year to a small group of people, many of whom you rarely meet.
Then, everyone publicly discusses and implicitly takes a vote on some very personal issues – your career, body type, love life, fertility and family-planning.
SMALL TALK ON BIG ISSUES
Somehow, a roundtable of well-meaning relatives and open-faced pineapple tarts has never struck me as quite the place to discuss these difficult and sometimes painful topics.
For instance, why you have emerged from a toxic relationship, how you survived a crushing breakup, and why your baby-making schedule is “off”.
When I say topics are “discussed”, I don’t actually mean an open discussion where people exchange opinions on issues and debate the merits of each side.
Indeed, many of our elders seem to have already made up their minds that no single person can ever be happy, no happily dating couple should wait longer to get married and no married couple should delay procreation.
And why on earth aren’t you climbing the corporate ladder while managing your two toddlers?
If, like me, you are inclined to disagree, just keep calm and remember that Chinese New Year is a special ceasefire period when disagreements are frowned upon.
What you are looking at could also be a long, few days of tactical manoeuvres and passive-aggressiveness requiring patience and fortitude.
These days, many of my friends tell me relatives are more progressive, and pressure tactics are easing. Nonetheless, some suggest all this means is that old ways are simply cloaked in more subtlety.
A single friend of mine still gets the most random matchmaking offers. An attached friend is asked yearly when she intends to stop receiving hongbaos, an indirect way of suggesting that she should get married.
And a high-flying girlfriend in her 40s has a relative who insists on giving her the same S$10 hongbao the four-year-olds of the family get - because she is single.
SHOULD EXCESS BE A SYMBOL OF SUCCESS?
Part of the reason this occasion is so stressful is the narrow, traditional definition of what a “good life” should look like, which many of our families still cling onto. Beyond marriage and reproduction, this also applies to the definition of success.
For all single readers, in case you are wondering, a marriage certificate and toddler are no special amulets against well-meaning nagging when it comes to what you do for a living. As a freelance writer, I have had my share of unsolicited career advice, often administered with concern and sympathy.
I have not only made unconventional career choices, but am also notoriously known to have repeated “auspicious” outfits for Chinese New Year – a sure sign of lack to some.
The problem is much of Chinese culture equates material excess with success, and this is never more evident than during Chinese New Year.
It explains why in the weeks leading up, Orchard Road is clogged with vehicles and human bodies, makeshift bazaars sprout on every empty grass patch, and Singaporeans shop with a vengeance.
One news report even suggests Singaporeans spent an estimated S$2.3 billion over Chinese New Year last year. Besides new outfits, we splurge on hairdos, manicures and festive feasts. This has caused restaurants prices to spike to the auspicious tune of S$388, S$588 or S$888 per table.
I remember a time when I really looked forward to such festive indulgence.
When I was a child, it was the only time in the year we could throw away faded, old clothes and pick a couple of new pieces. We took this decision very seriously because these items were meant to last the entire year.
READ: Commentary: Don’t stash your child’s hongbao money in the bank. Give them a chance to spend it
I also loved that the streets were decked in red, and recall fondly the riotous clang of cymbals, drums and lion dancers breaking the silence in the mornings.
Legend has it that this tradition stemmed from the belief that loud noises and bright colours scared away the mythical beast Nian that terrorised remote villages at the dawn of Chinese civilisation.
Surely no one then could have imagined the sheer excess and tireless bustle that the 21st century brought with it.
Today, our skies are roaring with planes, our highways packed with petrol-guzzling vehicles, and brightly lit shopping malls beckon to our wallets from every corner. I dare say if this mythical beast were still hovering around our sleepless city, it would flee for the mountains.
In fact, we are so inundated by excess that “Marie-Kondo” has become a verb, and managing excess is an entire self-help category, spinning a Netflix series, books, as well as the philosophy and design aesthetics of minimalism.
RETHINKING THE SEASON OF RENEWAL
Chinese New Year is the high season of Marie-Kondo-ing because the Spring Festival is associated with renewal. Year after year, we spring-clean our houses and diets, only to relapse into our old ways come March.
Has this become a pointless cycle of detox and re-tox? And more pertinently, in an era of over-consumption and widespread climate disasters, should we really feel compelled to shop for its own sake?
Perhaps we can broaden our definition of renewal by extending the life-cycle of old products, and give the Earth a chance to renew itself.
Sticking to my own personal tradition, I won’t be jostling with the crowd to buy a new dress or book a multi-course hotel dinner with that “lucky 8” price tag this year.
Having said all that, I must admit that I do love Chinese New Year. The festive season always conjures up memories of how my single father would take time off work and transform his taxi into our private family car for two days.
I remember the overcooked steaks he would lovingly put on the table for us on this special occasion each year, after my mother passed away. They were pricey for him but he wanted to make the season memorable for us.
Today, the table has gotten bigger and the dishes fancier, but nothing essential has changed.
And perhaps that’s what Chinese New Year represents. In fact, everywhere around Singapore, whether you’re Chinese or not, throughout the year, we are still putting out the best we can afford for our family.
Perhaps, most of the excess and even the unsolicited and awkwardly dished-out advice during this annual Chinese New Year affair are driven by love and hope for a brighter future.
That said, instead of trying to outdo ourselves, perhaps this year we might look past the spiffy new clothes, banquet-style menus and performance appraisals to really make time for loved ones and renew bonds with relatives.
Find out what their greatest passion or favourite pastime is. Keep in mind that this doesn’t always involve a person, position or pay cheque.
Be present in the moment and open to new perspectives. And believe in the magic of pineapple tarts in bringing diverse groups of people together.
While Chinese New Year may always come with some festive stress, as you visit your families during this season, let’s all promise not to lose ourselves in the stress, excess and frenzy, and forget the true spirit of the season – love and family togetherness.
Annie Tan is a freelance writer.