Not sweating the small stuff: Blessings for a happy Chinese New Year

Recalling a Chinese New Year feast where he was ruffled by feelings of injustice, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai returns to equanimity with the wise words a friend gifted him: stay true to the values of the Chinese heart and mind, and days of peace and simple joys can unfold all through the year.
People buy Lunar New Year decorations in Hong Kong, China, on 9 January 2023 for the upcoming Year of the Rabbit. (Peter Parks/AFP)
People buy Lunar New Year decorations in Hong Kong, China, on 9 January 2023 for the upcoming Year of the Rabbit. (Peter Parks/AFP)

One year, I celebrated Chinese New Year in Hong Kong with my American professor friends. I hosted a feast at a nearby hotel, ordering a table full of scrumptious dishes. A large suckling pig was the first dish — everyone served themselves a slice of the succulent meat. Then, the banter began.

One professor said, “Hong Kong is still the best. You guys get to eat such a fragrant and tasty suckling pig that’s been roasted to a perfect golden brown. The skin is incredibly crispy, but the meat is juicy and tender. No one in the US can make such a dish, and you certainly can’t eat it there.” 

His wife chimed in, “Ah, Hong Kong is truly amazing. Look, it’s Chinese New Year’s Eve tonight, and we can head out in just a jacket. The temperature is around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, just like in summer. We live on the north side of Chicago and it’s about 45 degrees Fahrenheit below zero there now — who’d dare step out of the house? I even phoned our neighbours this morning to ask them if they could head outside to check on our water pipes and turn on the faucet for a little while. Otherwise, the pipes may freeze and flood our house, which would be disastrous. You guys are so lucky to call Hong Kong home, living like honey bees in spring.” 

Egalitarian feasts       

Then came the crab claws, deluxe seafood soup, stir-fried coral mussels with scallops, braised abalone with mushrooms, and steamed tiger grouper. The professor spoke again: “Hong Kong’s seafood is indeed the best in the world. Where else can you have such tasty seafood? And it is so accessible to the masses as well. Everyone can enjoy the taste of the sea and have an enjoyable Chinese New Year. Hong Kong is truly a democracy that satisfies the cravings. Back in Chicago, you can certainly savour fine food if you’re a billionaire; just import all of the best ingredients and have a three-Michelin-starred chef cook a delightful meal for you. 

People walk through the flower market in Hong Kong, China, on 12 January 2023 ahead of the Lunar New Year of the Rabbit. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP)
People walk through the flower market in Hong Kong, China, on 12 January 2023 ahead of the Lunar New Year of the Rabbit. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP)

“Anything you can imagine — be it the finest goods or the most decadent pleasures — they’re all available in the US. Alas, this lifestyle is out of reach for us professors. Celebrating Chinese New Year in the US is just nothing like celebrating it here. Chinese New Year is not even a public holiday over there — we still have lessons to teach. You can’t possibly keep a whole classroom of students waiting for you while you celebrate Chinese New Year at home, can you?”    

Unequal festivals     

He hit my sore point right there. It was my turn to speak. Thinking back to the time when I was teaching in New York, I told the table that I had to work almost every Chinese New Year, sometimes even on Chinese New Year’s Eve and the first day of Chinese New Year. Somehow, those two days never fell on the weekend in the American calendar, and everyone ended up being at work each year. It was no big deal initially — when in America, do as the Americans do. I thought it was okay that the Americans didn’t celebrate Chinese New Year. Besides, I was the head of the department and needed to set a good example of not abusing power for self-interest. Didn’t Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year too? I told myself, since I was in the US, I should follow their customs and not expect too much.

People light a Hanukkah candle before participating in a Shabbat service in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US, 23 December 2022. (Hannah Beier/Reuters)
People light a Hanukkah candle before participating in a Shabbat service in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US, 23 December 2022. (Hannah Beier/Reuters)

But the academic world in New York is dominated by the Jews. Two-thirds of my colleagues were Jews. Each time a Jewish festival came round, be it Hanukkah or Yom Kippur, it would be a public holiday in New York and the Jews got to enjoy “religious freedom” in the comfort of their own home. I felt that this was really unfair. The Chinese worship their ancestors during Chinese New Year too — why couldn’t they enjoy the same religious freedom? 

My friend replied, “Oh, we don’t celebrate Jewish festivals in Chicago. A large proportion of Jewish people reside in New York and they control Congress. There’s nothing you can do about lawful regulations established through democratic processes. Celebrating the Jewish new year as the Jews do is also adapting oneself to the customs of the people who are in a certain place, no?”

As we talked, a plate of lobster e-fu noodles with cheese was served, topped with three large lobsters. I said, “The lobster was imported from Boston and had to adapt themselves to Hong Kong’s customs, sacrificing themselves as food for our bodies.”      

It doesn’t matter how old you are, as long as you are healthy. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, as long as there’s harmony in the family.

Blessings for a year of good fortune

We returned home with full bellies. I saw that Xiao, a long-time friend of mine, had sent me an email with Chinese New Year greetings: “Dear friend, for your own sake, please sit down and listen well. It doesn’t matter how much you earn, as long as you are able to put food on the table. It doesn’t matter how good you look, as long as you are pleasant. It doesn’t matter how old you are, as long as you are healthy. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, as long as there’s harmony in the family. 

A child (right) jumps for a kite at the West Kowloon Cultural district overlooking Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, China, on 27 October 2022. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP)
A child (right) jumps for a kite at the West Kowloon Cultural district overlooking Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, China, on 27 October 2022. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP)

“The husband comes home late, but at least he comes home. The wife nags, but at least she takes care of the family. Parents are the greatest blessings and parents-in-law are a treasure to have. Teach and nurture your kids while they’re still young; whether they grow up to earn a doctoral degree or sell vegetables, it’s good enough that they are sensible. It doesn’t matter if your house is big or small, as long as you have a roof over your head. It doesn’t matter if your clothes are branded, as long as you have something to wear. It doesn’t matter if you drive on two wheels or four, as long as you can travel around. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a good boss, as long as you can bear it. 

As long as you have a good heart and proper conduct, your destiny can change for the better. Filial piety and benevolence are the two best qualities.

“The world is a dangerous place; ignorance is bliss. Life’s troubles come our way, but it’s good enough that we can handle them. It’s best to let go of the things that hold you back. At the end of the day, your peace of mind matters most. Even the rich have troubles. As long as you have a good heart and proper conduct, your destiny can change for the better. Filial piety and benevolence are the two best qualities. Whoever’s right and whoever’s wrong, let God be the judge. Cultivate merit and virtuous actions, and your next life will be better. The key is not in what was said but in how much was understood. Let nature take its course and don’t take things to heart. When everyone is happy and well, the days become better. May you and I be well, and may the world be a better place.”         

Xiao and I had gone to the same university. He lived in New York for over four decades and is already a grandfather. Everything seems to have come full circle for him.

Related: When the cultural historian forgot about Chinese New Year | [Chinese New Year Special] Family rituals of a Shandong Spring Festival | [Chinese New Year Special] Food changes, and so does the world | [Chinese New Year Special] A bygone era: Chinese New Year celebrations during the time of the Republic of China