Here I am again, on the bus home for Chinese New Year. I dread this, I really do, and more so in the past few years than ever. Being at university for 3 years and inevitably having to skip CNY was a sweet escape.
The excuse I usually give people is the supposed awkwardness arising from the prying comical questions from relatives – “When are you getting married? Have you got a special somebody yet?” All that jazz. But as it happens…that’s not really the truth, but it’s sometimes just more convenient to give a run-of-the-mill, stereotypical excuse that people can easily relate to than go into the even more awkward business of explaining yourself.
Truth is, my relatives never really ask any of those things. Often the things that DO come up are very kindly enquiries after my health and my job (my grandmother, who until today insists on secretly pressing 50 bucks into my hand whenever my mother isn’t looking), excited stories about baking experiments or announcements that if I open the refrigerator I will find jelly has been made specially for me (my uncle, who
has muscular dystrophy (oops) walks with a limp from having polio as a child but still manages to pull off the most amazing feats, like baking and arranging for JB coach drivers to send goodies back to Malacca to my family), or really inappropriate jokes and roaring laughter from my impish aunts who have a wicked sense of humor. Yes, of course there is the odd instruction or two about my plans for marriage, particularly in relation to my choice of ethnicity (as is typical, albeit offensive, in a traditional Chinese family). But on balance my relatives are some of the kindest, warmest, most boisterous, albeit occasionally hapless, people I know.
So what is it?
When I was a little girl, I used to adore hanging with all my cousins. Our family is huge by today’s standards- my mom has 9 other siblings, and all together that makes a family tree that does not easily fit into a sheet of drawing block paper or exercise book page (trust me on this one). This also means you have enough cousins with the optimal age range and distribution to form a three-octave scale’s worth of cousins. So my similarly-aged four or five cousins and I used to have our own little cacophonous little clique, and we’d have a whale of a time watching (in hindsight, horrible) MVs of F4, comparing our new things, gossiping about boys, etc. Then we got older. We saw less of one another. We became our own persons, I guess. I made more friends, attended secondary school, got boyfriends, went to college, read new things, went to university for three years…
…and then POOF suddenly I’m 23, graduated and back home, sitting awkwardly on my grandmother’s sofa on the first day of Chinese New Year, full of new experiences and stubborn views, but with absolutely nothing to say.
You see, we’d grown apart. I’d been conscious of this all this time – when we were kids, every time it was my house’s turn during the Chinese New Year visiting rounds, we’d all run upstairs to my room and lock the nosy older boys and bratty younger girls out. But the procession upstairs gradually became less enthusiastic, less giggly, less immediate, and eventually stopped altogether. We also traditionally chatted in Mandarin. They spoke Mandarin fluently, but I went to a national school, spoke English at home, and scored measly 26%s in my Mandarin tuition class tests. My only incentive to speak (bad) Mandarin was basically to fit in with my cousins (and flirt with the cute guy in Mandarin class). And it was telling that my Mandarin deteriorated as I grew up. With this, added to years of disuse, there was nothing I could adequately say in Mandarin anymore.
So everyone suddenly seemed so far away, so involved in one another, so able to converse and gossip and laugh and giggle. Everyone except me, tongue-tied, save for the polite conversations, feeling like a stranger.
It is quite a gnawing, empty feeling. Especially since I know I don’t actively try and do jack about it – I miss calls and whatsapp messages (not intentionally or specifically), I don’t take the effort to try and reconnect, I consciously stay away from proper conversations and weddings because, just because. Because I’m a dysfunctional escapist who would rather run away than feel like I have failed and then try and start from somewhere.
I wish I could say “And then one day I found the truth of life and turned over a new leaf!” Or at the very least “And therefore we should abolish vernacular schools!” …but no. There is really no moral or insightful conclusion to this. It’s merely an explanation. Maybe one day when I’m done sorting out my perpetually hectic, disorganised life (haven’t you heard? being constantly too busy for the people who matter is the new Gen Y in-thing) I will actually start trying. Meanwhile, I’ll be grateful that I am on my way home to a home-cooked dinner at 10 pm with parents who were willing to wait to eat with me.