Random musings of Chinese New Year past and present, how some things have changed radically…
Getting Home for the Chinese New Year – Thoughts about the journey home for the celebration and what it means to those travelling and those waiting.
“It’s time to go home!”, my housemates exclaimed to each other. Their excitement was palpable even though I could not see them, only hearing their voices coming through the wooden walls in my student house. It was the week before Chinese New Year in 1983.
I was not able to leave for another day yet as I had one more lab report to submit the next day. It was hard to concentrate on the task at hand. All I could think about was taking that minibus to the main Pudu Raya bus terminus in Kuala Lumpur, and getting on the express bus to take me home. That would be 400 kilometers due north, via the old trunk road before the days of the super highway. It was a journey of almost 8 hours, maybe more with the festive season.
Annual Human Migration
I recently saw a documentary on the annual Chinese New Year exodus (called Chunyun 春运) in China. It is the single largest annual human migration in the calendar of the world. Up to 350 million people rush the trains, roads, and airports in China alone.
Elsewhere in Asia several million people move across countries to get home for the season even if it is only for a few days with family. I know of friends working as factory directors in Vietnam waiting to get back into Penang. There is also one guy working in Penang itching to get home to Singapore. So many separate streams of people, just like homing salmon trying to swim up river.
But the time and distance did not matter. Getting home was all one could think of. That seems to be part of the human journey. The pull of distant places that take us away from home, and then the pining for the familiar. The yearning to get back through those very portals.
In the beginning, getting home was a simple direct journey. Pack my bag, buy the bus ticket, leave all my school work behind and get home to Mom and Dad. At some point in time, that home disappeared. Getting “home” was less of a place, and more like a memory of “how things should be”.
For most families, the kitchen is the center of what home is made out to be. Chinese New Year dishes and reunion dinners fill the rosters of the mind. Memories of dinners past seem to make every dish more special. Mom’s Chicken Curry and potatoes as I remember it has to be one of the best dishes in the whole wide world. Getting that early sip of sarsaparilla (Sarsi as the brand name is known) just before reunion dinner was such a secret pleasure.
Traditional cookies like Kuih Bangkit, were so abundant and seemed to melt in mouth just so. Even the receiving of red packets, though the amounts would be small by today’s standards, felt like they bought more childhood delights. It gave hours of planning pleasure with my brother on how we were going to spend them at the hobby store in Georgetown.
Home Once More
Once we got married and started having children of our own, home became a place again. Nowadays, I find myself being the one asking my grown sons if or when they will make it home. Not just for the big occasions like Chinese New Year or Christmas, but even the weekends when they could squeeze some time out of their busy schedule to make it home for dinner. I think it must be the powerful lure of Linda’s home-cooking that makes it irresistible for those guys. It prompts them to get into their cars and make the drive across the Twin Cities metro area, snowstorm and icy roads notwithstanding.
We keep their rooms just the way they left them, like they just woke up and left the house that morning and will get home every evening. When they are not around, the house is especially quiet. Some nights I would look down the empty corridor and remember the little feet that use to scamper down them in play.
So, it is not only those who have left who feel the tug of home. Those left behind also feel the pull of that common memory of what “making home” and what being a family is all about. Just as the thought of getting on that bus or train plays on the mind of those looking homeward, those waiting continue to scan the horizon and wait for the sound of that cab grinding the gravel as it pulls into the driveway. We all hold our collective breath for that moment when someone gets home! So, while home is often a physical place, it is even more important as a meeting place in our minds when we can all be together again.
to get to this place called HOME.