Thursday, January 30, 2014

Am I Supposed to Celebrate Chinese New Year?

Happy Chinese New Year, to those who celebrate.

The most I have done to celebrate Chinese New Year: Make a creative project out of it
Rabbit Year 
Each year, beginning from grade school up till high school, I'd spent the day after Chinese New Year staving off questions about yesterday's profits. As my friends wave around their red packets, I stand on the side and listen. Crazy numbers pop up, perpetuating me to open up my slanted (apparently, Chinese) eyes into big, round balls of awe. Suddenly, they'd turn and ask me how my Chinese New Year went and how much I obtained. At the beginning of this cringe-worthy tradition, I'd admit to getting a minute amount or none at all. But as the years pass on, I reserved to announcing that I did not celebrate Chinese New Year, nor does my family or my extended family. My friends would gasp, each and every year. They'd immediately focus on my complexion, eyes, and hair. Once, a friend concluded that my fair skin is perhaps, an indication of the lack of connection I experience with the Chinese culture.

I celebrate Chinese New Year, like I do Thanksgiving.

Whether or not I have the Chinese genes in me is, I think, besides the point. Instead, allow me to propose the impact of culture and years of dilution into the equation. Out of all four of my grandparents, all four communicate in Dutch, whereas only one understood a tad, bit of Mandarin (of course, I only found out about this two years ago, years after I listened to them yapper in Dutch). All four had black hair and milky, white skin, except for one who apparently stood too long under the sun. All four have black eyes, except for one, who had grey. All four do not have clear documentation of where their ancestors are from, except for one, who managed to create a family tree and trace his lineage to a province in China. Even though, I am confirmed to be a quarter Chinese, or at least, Peranakan, I identify with the Dutch culture more so than the Chinese. As a child, I even saw myself as Japanese, which is of course a huge no, no for the Chinese.

Culturally, I was brought up in a family, who spoke Dutch, English and Indonesian. We said lekker, instead of delicious. I visited cousins in the Netherlands, instead of China, where I have no known relatives. My grandmother cooks Dutch food, instead of Chinese food, such as erwtensoep or green pea soup. Based on where and how we lived, worked and ate, we could be considered to be an Indonesian family with thick Dutch influences. However, I think that people perceive us as Chinese-Indonesian due to our appearance, which is quite different to those of Javanese and Sumatrans, which are where my grandparents came from.

Even as a child, sitting among her friends, who stuffed their pockets with red envelopes, I was quite content, until someone asked whether I had received any. In my mind's eye, I did not expect to get any red envelopes or ang pao, as I was aware of my family's culture. What really bugged me was the fact that someone questioned my identity based on my experience and even perpetuated this stereotype based on what they saw. Human beings are not skin deep. Instead, we are always a mix of genotype, phenotype, and culture. Our experiences shape us and meld with our genetics to create this fluid, ever growing individual. Just because I possess black and slanted eyes, black and straight hair, and other possible "Chinese" features, did not mean that I was Chinese. Moreover, just because one clearly has Chinese genetics or Indonesian genetics or Dutch genetics, doesn't mean they are compelled to identify with the respective cultures.

The world would be an awfully boring place if we were all to do so and not question our own identity and our own interpretation and/or expression of said identity. After years of observing, I examined my place in the group. Why was I sitting with everyone who had red envelopes? Well, actually, it was extremely challenging not to do so, as the majority of students had several. Even so, I did not feel the need to shy away or leave the conversation. But, I never really knew why until I realized my contribution to the group. The lack of red envelopes in my pocket signified diversity. Our identity, as well as our perception of our identity, diversifies society. Moreover, it allows us to appreciate what we have and strive for a particular goal.

After thinking about it through and through, I appreciated my stance on Chinese New Year. I stopped avoiding questions about my day, and instead opted to take part in my friends' celebration by inquiring and observing. Even though, I may look like a tourist or a foreigner in these events, I have definitely learned more and more about the Chinese culture. Thanks to my appearance and identity, I have gained more knowledge about this culture that I'm supposedly assigned to.

And again, have a wonderful Chinese New Year, to those who celebrate.

Warning: Of course, this passage brings about questions of post-colonialization, which is apparent in how my family, especially my grandparents are cultured. Conversations about the Dutch colonization of Indonesia brings both tragic and happy memories. To me, this is a larger discussion that should be had at appropriate time. Moreover, as the granddaughter of four Dutch speaking Indonesians, as well as the cousin of five Dutch assimilated teenagers, I realize that I may not have the appropriate voice to flesh out the impact of colonization on Indonesians.

*Author owns rights to all photos above

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