As a child, I lived for the Spring Festival, the most important festival in the whole year. We were so poor then. The Chinese New Year offered the rare occasions for us children to eat, without limits.
China has grown so much richer. My family has just enjoyed a seafood feast at a seaside restaurant in Xiamen, a pleasant city down on the coast. Yet, I missed the old days when my beloved grandma would spend days preparing for the food. below is a passage from my memoir, describing the occasion.
Happiness glistened on our front door. Printed in gold on red shiny paper, the large character ‘fu’, meaning happiness or good fortune, shows a person knelt before an altar, prying for happiness. The character was stuck upside down, fu dao, in word-playing tradition to ensure that fu would arrive – dao – at our home. Behind the door, our whole family, dressed in our best outfits, gathered for the annual reunion dinner. Mine was a new cover, made of floral patterned cotton, for my padded Chinese jacket, and a pair of leather shoes instead of padded cotton slippers.
In keeping with tradition, Nai first brought in a fish cooked in soy sauce and announced: “We have fish every year,” then put it aside for later consumption. In Chinese, yu, or fish, sounds like the character for surplus or abundance. In such wordplay lie hopes for a prosperous year ahead.
At Ma’s insistence, Nai sat opposite the door, in the seat reserved for the most honourable person. Ordinarily she didn’t even sit at the table but ate her tiny portion in the kitchen, like a servant. Ma then stood up, raising a little porcelain cup with teardrops engraved around the edge. “A lot has happened this year. I retired, Little Li took over my job and I am trying to get another one.”
“Yes, go for the Confucius Temple job,” cut in my father who had rushed back for the festival. “Deng Xiaoping said, ‘whether white or black, a cat is a good cat so long as it catches the rat.’ I say a job is a good job so long as it pays.” Pleased with his remarks, he voiced them loud enough for the whole building to hear.
Ignoring her husband, Ma continued her speech. “‘Sesame stalks put forth flowers notch by notch’. I wish our lives will get better and better. Cheers!”
Our cups and glasses clinked in the air. I drank tea since I was allergic to alcohol while everyone else downed a type of white liquor, the firewater that soon turned their faces red. Even my brother Xiaoshi was helping himself. He was tall for his age, but painfully skinny, as if forgetting to grow horizontally. Some of his naughty friends were already whistling for him outside our window. It was Nai who made him sit down and eat.
“Eat, eat, I have loads more,” Nai urged, with an ear-to-ear smile that revealed her deep dimples.
With plenty of materials to work with, Nai and Ma had cooked the best New Year banquet for years: chicken soup; sweet and sour fish shaped like a squirrel; a ‘lucky reunion’ stew in a clay pot; stir-fired green vegetables; and Nai’s specialty, the ‘lion’s head’ – a dish of minced meatballs. Food is always the thread that binds Chinese families close together. As our appetites rose with the steam, our chopsticks seized their targets with speed and precision. Spring Festival was the only time we could enjoy food without limit.