Chinese New Year was my favorite holiday, when twenty or so families would come over to my house each year, presenting my parents and I with gifts and plates of food. The house would be decorated in scarlet, with squares of upside-down fu characters, lanterns that looked like weightless, glowing red pumpkins hanging on the ceiling, and fake firecrackers that I always thought were real until I discovered that they weren’t. Each time the doorbell rang, my mom would scurry to the front room, and open the door to another Xin Nian Kuai Le!, and then she’d respond by bellowing “LULU-COME-HERE-AUNTIE-AND-UNCLE-SO-AND-SO-ARE HER-COME-SAY-HAPPY-NEW-YEAR!” and I would skip downstairs to greet them, and then smile as Auntie and Uncle So-And-So would pinch my cheek and tell me I was growing up into a beautiful young woman.
The house would be filled with these Aunties and Uncles, and Yeye’s and Nainai’s, who would stop me when I passed by and surreptitiously push a red envelope of money into my hand that I was instructed by my mother not to accept. I’d smile, say xiexie, and continue roaming around my house until I was sure I had accepted a red envelope from almost everyone. Meanwhile, my mom and dad slaved away at the stove and oven and chopping boards with large cubes of tofu and live crabs ready to be boiled alive and a whole fish that was not yet scaled by my dad. Raw noodles being snapped in half and tossed into a pot and the crackles of boiling peanut oil and the sizzle of shrimp being sauteed with green snappy peas.
Then when food was served, when the dining table was covered in mismatched plates and bowls of food since each one was brought by a different family, as the whole house was saturated with the overwhelming scent of chicken smothered with haixian sauce and the salty sea smell of fish and crab and the doughyness of the baozi and dumplings and their juicy, meaty, centers, I would run from room to room loudly exclaiming kaifan! -- that dinner was served.
And we feasted. Some standing up, some sitting in groups playing card games and singing karaoke, chewing with their mouths open and spitting food everywhere during conversation. Their chopsticks clawed violently but adeptly at the spicy and angry looking zhajian noodles in their bowls, and then would impatiently lift the rim of the bowls to their face and shovel the broth and noodles into their mouths. The harsh Rs of the Beijing tongue, the chopped up ch and juh and hsiuh sounds filled the rooms from floor to ceiling in a cacophony of the Chinese language, complimented by the slurps and burps brought about by the mad ingestion of food. There is no Chinese New Year without a feast.