Happy Chinese New Year to all my friends who are celebrating! I am not Chinese, but like most Asians I am familiar with the lunar calendar. Personally, I did not grow up celebrating Chinese/Lunar New Year. I do know Korean American friends who have new year’s traditions they carry out often on January 1st. They wear hanboks (traditional Korean outfits), eat dduk gook (rice cake soup), and bow to their elders for envelopes of money. I keep searching my memory for any signs of these occurrences, but all I come up with is that I would be a year older in Korea based on the lunar calendar. There could be many reasons for my lack of memories including my extended family all being far away (mostly in Korea), not having the money or access for new hanboks every year, and living in Appalachia where the need for assimilation was high and the number of other Asians who celebrated was low.
For some of us in the second generation, there is a desire to hold onto traditions regardless of whether or not they were strong in our own families. As we become more like the mainstream culture, we may feel a need to retain what little remains of our heritage. While I will not make dduk gook, I will try to honor this holiday in my own way. These are personal memories I do have as a child of Korean immigrants, and I will take extra effort and pride in keeping them alive.
- When we eat our spaghetti tonight, I will use chopsticks and have a side of kimchi just like my dad.
- Instead of using our regular plates, I will use the few Corelle bowls I own. I have to say that the few Corelle pieces I have are unbreakably rock solid. No wonder many immigrants used this very affordable, practical dinnerware. Ours had the iconic blue butterfly pattern. Ironically, many of my overpriced Pottery Barn plates and bowls have chips and cracks on the rims.
- Instead of opening a new bottle of lotion this week, I am scraping every last bit from the stubborn bottom of the current bottle. This means applying lotion takes twice as long because I am using the thin pump straw to scrape a tiny speck out at a time intermittently between upside down heavy shakes where I am banging the pump-less bottle hard enough to create red welt circles all over my empty palm. Growing up, we used every last drop of everything. Bottles were turned over for days until they were truly empty.
- I will keep having my kids do extra workbooks. Those extra few minutes are still nothing compared to the hours and hours and hours that kids in Korea spend studying every single day.
- I will hand wash my dishes tonight. The dishwasher will be an oversized drying rack instead of a washing machine. My mom used hers to store bakeware.
- I will keep making friends who come over take off their shoes when they come inside our house. It is not just Asian tradition; it is also way more sanitary.
- I will call my husband “yuh-boh” today. My parents still call each other this term of spousal endearment to the point that my boys will call out, “YUH-BOH!!” like they hear their grandparents do. I have NEVER heard either of my parents call each other by their first names. Koreans do not usually use actual first names. They refer to one another in these general terms of endearment and respect. Even when using names to younger family, there is often an attachment to the name that embodies affection. I love that and wish I had my boys use it. Connor would then call Ethan his “hyung” or older brother to a boy. Ethan would add a “shee” or “yah” sound to the end of Connor’s name when calling him. It is similar to loving nicknames in other cultures. I guess we kind of do that now in our own way but calling the boys our bumlee’s (as in “Hey, bumlees, get ready for bed!”) does not have the same ring to it.
- I will call my parents. Growing up, my parents rarely got to speak to their parents because long-distance international calls were so expensive. There was no email. There was no texting on apps like Kakao. There was no Skype. There was snail mail where they would write letters in Korean on those white envelopes marked “Air Mail” with the blue, red, and white border stripes and then wait weeks for a reply. There were occasional calls where they would yell through the receiver through the sound delay and time change to feel a connection across the Pacific. The call I remember the clearest is of us in our green linoleum kitchen while my dad was on the phone attached to the wall because his sibling called to tell him my grandmother had died. It was the only time in my childhood I saw my father cry. Those were the times the telephone expense was definitely worth the cost.
- I will look up flights for my parents to come visit during our kids’ spring break. As infrequent as communication was for them, the visits were even more so. My mom moved to the United States in 1969. She was not able to return to Korea until I was a toddler in 1976. That means she did not see her family for about 7 years. After that trip, she did not go again until 1988, twelve years later. This was reality for immigrants needing to live frugally. I lament that my parents are 2 domestic flights away that keep our visits to a handful of times a year. But I also rejoice that I get to see them a handful of times a year. They worked hard for me to have that luxury.
These are just a few of the things I remember from my childhood that I do not want to forget. Fellow 2nd culture kids, you may recall some of the same or similar things. You may have many other very different recollections. I would love for you to share them. However you celebrate your heritage whether on a holiday or not, I am sending out a nod of solidarity. I trust you will take the time to remember and let your children remember through you as well. Happy year of the Monkey!