It’s Chinese New Year. Here in America, my family takes time to remember those who have passed away. It’s a time when American Chinese families like ours face the challenge of holding onto traditions as time passes from one generation to the next.
My father was born in China.
My grandparents and their four children came to California as refugees following the Japanese invasion and then takeover of China by the communist party. My father arrived in the United States at the age of six, which is close to the age my own daughter is now.
He became a doctor and married my mother, a white woman whose family had been in the United States long before America was established as a country. They had my sister and me.
Growing up I remember large family gatherings on holidays like Chinese New Year. I recall the smell of ginger and garlic filling the air while the sounds of live crabs screamed from boiling pots on the stove in the kitchen.
Family members gathered around a kitchen island or dining room table to make hundreds of jiaozi (Chinese dumplings), a recipe passed down for generations from China.
My family making jiaozi (chinese dumplings) in the early 1980’s.
Murmurs of Mandarin foreign to my second-generation English ear surrounded me as my cousins, siblings, and I helped fold the jiaozi into ornate fan-like shapes. I always left rolling out the door like a dumpling, bag of oranges in hand for good luck.
I’m 38 now. My grandparents and their siblings have passed away.
My aunt has passed away. Few family members remain who speak fluent mandarin. A few years ago when my aunt died, my father said to me, “It’s your generation’s turn now to make sure the family comes together.”
And so I get a little nostalgic and sad this time of year as I watch the third generation growing up. They will never know what it’s like to attend a family celebration where Mandarin dominates the background. Our fan-shaped jiaozi will never taste or look as perfect as those of the generation before us.
The only permanence in life and family is impermanence.
We get our quarter-Chinese children together regularly despite four states between us. We teach our children the few Chinese words and phrases we know and share the stories of our family’s journey to America. We cook Chinese food with our children.
Buddha said, “This existence of ours is as transient as autumn clouds. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky, rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.”
That is what life and family is about. It’s about remembering the past, living in the present, and passing on wisdom and love to the future.
Nothing lasts forever, so you capture what you can and let go of what you can’t. Like Chinese New Year, you say goodbye to the past and hello to the future. You live in the here and now.