Grace Loh Prasad | Longreads | March 2019 | 16 minutes (4,021 words)
In early October, I noticed my Taiwanese and Chinese American friends posting photos of large family gatherings and moon cakes. Others posted photos of visiting the graves of family members. I felt a wave of panic and guilt. Had I missed Tomb Sweeping Day, when I should have been honoring my deceased parents? On the other hand, I remembered and looked forward to Dia de los Muertos, a holiday I hadn’t grown up with but learned about over more than 20 years of living in California. How could I feel such a strong affinity for a Mexican cultural tradition, while being so ignorant of the holidays observed by the Taiwanese and Chinese diaspora?
A quick Wikipedia search revealed that I had gotten my holidays mixed up. Mid-Autumn Festival celebrates the full moon at harvest time, with families reuniting for a traditional feast and moon cakes. Tomb Sweeping Day (Qing Ming) is one of several holidays to remember your ancestors, but it’s observed in spring. I could not remember which was which because my family did not really celebrate these holidays. Although I was born in Taiwan, I spent my early childhood in New Jersey, and then from fourth grade through high school graduation, we lived in Hong Kong.
We were a curious cultural hybrid: a family of Taiwanese origin living as American expatriates in a British territory where we resembled the local Chinese population, but did not speak the same language and had little in common with them. I attended an American school full of American and international students. One of the advantages of attending Hong Kong International School was that we got American, British and Chinese holidays off: Thanksgiving, the Queen’s Birthday and Lunar New Year.
I’m sure we learned about Mid-Autumn Festival and Qing Ming, but they weren’t as memorable as Lunar New Year, the biggest holiday of the year when everyone got a week off from school or work. Children and younger relatives received lai see (hong bao), red envelopes filled with spending money, and employees received their annual bonuses. I remember going with my parents to join the enormous crowds down in Causeway Bay, pushing for a spot close to the harbor to get the best view of the spectacular fireworks. Stores and restaurants tried to outdo each other with elaborate “Kung Hei Fat Choy” decorations and special menus and promotions. Everywhere you went, people were in a festive good mood.
Since we did not have any relatives in Hong Kong, there were no family obligations during Lunar New Year. It was only the four of us — my mom, dad, brother Ted and me — so at most we would go out for a fancy restaurant meal. We did not go from house to house with bottles of Johnny Walker or baskets of tangerines. We did not make hundreds of homemade dumplings or go to the bank to request a wad of crisp new bills to stuff into red envelopes for my younger cousins, nieces and nephews. My parents might have hung up modest decorations outside our apartment door, but I think it was just for show, so we would not appear strange to our neighbors.
Once I asked my parents why we didn’t do more to celebrate the Taiwanese and Chinese holidays. “Well,” my dad said, “it’s because we are Christian. From when we were little, we only celebrated Christmas and Easter. Your grandpa was very strict. We were forbidden from observing any of the non-Christian, Taiwanese traditions because that was considered superstitious.”
I was relieved that my ignorance was not my fault. But I still felt a void.