Family Fun Adventures
by Dulce Zamora
Whenever I describe Lunar New Year festivities in Asia to my American friends, I say, “Think of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and the Fourth of July – all rolled into one.” Each holiday has its own significance, but in alluding to these big celebrations, I hope to best relay the momentous spirit of the occasion. Many of us already have preconceived notions about traditional feasts, family gatherings, gift giving, fireworks, parades and end-of-year rites such as reflection and decluttering. These observances can be sources of joy and camaraderie, but they can also trigger feelings of loneliness and stress, all of which are certainly universal human experiences.
My family and I have encountered the highs and lows of immersion in different cultures. As Asian-American expats in Singapore, we’ve often missed sharing special occasions with loved ones. However, this has given us space to create our own traditions. For Chinese New Year, our favorite activity is making dumplings. In the beginning, we did it out of necessity as our young daughters were intolerant to gluten. So, we made our own dough with rice flour. Now, even though they’re able to eat regular dumplings, we have continued the practice of making our own tasty morsels.
Our techniques are anything but conventional, however, as our teens have continued to mold their wraps in various shapes as they did when they were little. Purists may consider this sacrilege as dumplings are supposed to be round like ancient Chinese money and therefore symbolize prosperity, or crescent-shaped like the moon to represent the brightness of the night orb and the promise of a brilliant new year. Yet, when we gather around the table wrapping dumplings and when we laugh about the unusual shapes, we experience the wealth of togetherness —the other meaning commonly associated with the savory treats.
Singapore has also developed its own Lunar New Year traditions, independent of mainland China, where many citizens have their roots. One unique Little Red Dot ritual is Lo Hei, which literally means “tossing up of good fortune” in Cantonese. In this practice, revelers surround a massive plate and toss yusheng (raw fish slices, shredded vegetables, and seasoning) while exclaiming auspicious sayings ascribed to each ingredient. We’ve participated in this custom, but also modified it in the past to suit our then-small children and their friends. We prepared candies and nuts to resemble yusheng ingredients and gave the kids aspiring (albeit cheeky) wishes to declare, such as “May you eat more vegetables!” “May you clean up your room!” and “May you sleep through the night!”
In personalizing our celebrations, we’ve blended who we are with elements of our adopted country. Chinese migrants have done this for years. They’ve set up enclaves of residences, shops, and restaurants – commonly known as Chinatowns -- in cities around the world. Each place has its own vibe and offerings, influenced by its residents and the local environment.
This fusion of cultures has become second nature to my family. We’ve celebrated special occasions by visiting afternoon tea spots around the Lion City. The traditional British spreads here often include Asian-inspired fare. The Capitol Kempinski Hotel has smoked duck rice paper rolls, chilled chawanmushi with century egg emulsion, and pandan emerald tart as part of its botanic-themed array of treats. The Fairmont Hotel’s iconic white chest of drawers holds smoked hamachi ceviche, blue swimmer crab on brioche with sweet chili and calamansi, and duck confit with Asian spice and hazelnut cracker.
These outings inspired us to create a Filipinx-themed afternoon tea during one of our pandemic Thanksgivings. Since we couldn’t get together with family and friends, we saw food as a way to connect with them. Ever since the 1980s, when my parents, siblings, and I migrated from the Philippines to the U.S., Thanksgiving has always been a potluck affair with relatives contributing both multicultural homemade and takeaway fare, which included anything from turkey, to spaghetti, to lumpia (Filipinx spring rolls).
For our Filipinx-themed Thanksgiving, my husband Noel, daughters, a helper, and I spent more than 7 hours kneading, wrapping, baking, and cooking our favorite foods from the Philippine Islands. It was a tiring endeavor, but we were grateful for our family time and for the masterpiece we created together. Our tea consisted of dishes such as okoy (vegetable tempura with potatoes, sweet potatoes and bean sprouts), suman (glutinous rice cake with coconut milk, wrapped in banana leaves), enseymada (brioche pastry topped with butter, cheese, and sugar), and turon (deep-fried spring rolls of plantain bananas and chocolate).
Much of our holidays have centered around food preparation and consumption. We have spent hours in the kitchen and around the table, nourishing our relationships and our tummies. We’ve also made connections to the world around us, particularly during the holidays. In doing so, we have experienced a little less discord and a little more harmony. While this has not been a perfect recipe for peace, it is seasoned enough to provide hope for a better tomorrow.