Chinese New Year had already wound down for many Singaporean Chinese families, and most homes lay quietly curled into themselves on what could be largely considered a humdrum Thursday evening. Yet there was one house which had opened itself up, and was instead bubbling with festive cheer once more. More than forty pairs of chopsticks bristled under one roof that night, brandished by people from a melting pot of nationalities invited to partake in these special lunar festivities.
Before each group sat a plate of yusheng–a Southeast Asian New Year’s dish I was already well-acquainted with. It’s a salad consisting of strips of raw vegetables such as carrots, cucumber, radish and turnip meant to be tossed with various condiments of auspicious portent. However, it took on a new significance with the prospect of having to introduce it as a foreign dish to the guests of OCTOPUS Exchange Students Singapore. Three buses would pull up in a different driveway every other Thursday, bearing throngs of international university students eager for good company and great home-cooked fare. The arrangements had been lovingly prepared by none other than a team of volunteers from Mt Carmel Bible Presbyterian Church who would host the students – mostly from the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University – at a different home each week.
An eager silence filled the air as the eleven condiments were emptied, one by one, onto the waiting plate. I named off the respective blessings, all derived from Chinese homonyms between the name of the food and auspicious concepts, in my head – raw fish for annual abundance, fried crackers for troves of wealth, green radish for lasting youth, a sprinkle of lime for felicity.
Then, at the signal, forty pairs of chopsticks dug in to toss the salad into the air in a bid for auspicious wishes. Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, Koreans, Hongkongers, Indians, Americans, Canadians, Dutch, Finns, Germans, Swedes, Norwegians and Poles joined their voices in a tentative chorus as they explored this new tradition, led by the raucous shouts of their Singaporean hosts.
“Lo (‘toss’), ah! High GPA! Good health! Prosperity!”
This classic local New Year tradition was an apt start to OCTOPUS’ annual Chinese New Year celebrations, which like other sessions was meant to share a little more of Singapore (and local hospitality) each week to its inquisitive audience of exchange students. The rest of the night was occupied by huge plates of fried egg noodles (“Does this have a name?” I was asked by an Indian Masters student, “It seems like there are so many different kinds of fried noodle in this country.”), savoury glutinous rice cakes and a pot of boiling water at the counter which was constantly being filled with newly-wrapped potstickers. While some chose to have a go at making Chinese food for the first time, others swapped tidbits of conversation. A Frenchman talked about his plans to backpack through the region, a Dutch undergraduate introduced me to Sinterklaas (“like Santa Claus, but more important”) and oliebollen, and one of the volunteers regaled us with his stories of weddings and power suits from his recent visit to New Delhi.
At the tinkle of a bell, the chatter began to die down as the students gathered round the TV for the night’s discussion. The speaker, Leong Ho, gave a brief introduction to the festival before whipping out his acoustic guitar and leading the gathering in traditional New Year’s songs. Though many tongues fumbled with the intricacies of the Mandarin verses, no one missed out on the hearty chorus: “Gong xi, gong xi, gong xi ni ya!” (“Bless you, bless you, bless you!”)
Once we had been broken up into discussion groups, we began to reflect on the significance of the different occassions of food and fun and frivolity that add colour to the calendars of cultures all over the world. The exchange students talked about the festivals they celebrate – Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Holi, Diwali, Mid-Autumn, Oshogatsu – and what the values and meaning they held. And as I listened to them speak, I felt as if I could pick out the threads that appeared to run through the festivities of a great majority of humanity – the common celebration of family, goodness and giving that connects all of us no matter which occasions we honour. Only with these were we all able to come together and celebrate a foreign festival in good cheer.
The night ended on a sweet note with plates of muah chee – sticky rice balls dusted with peanuts and sugar – and OCTOPUS’ very own version of nian gao (a sticky glutinous rice cake traditionally eaten for the Chinese New Year, since the word for ‘sticky’ in Mandarin is a homonym with the word for ‘year’) served with grated coconut. ‘Love letters’, also known as crispy biscuit rolls, were distributed to the guests as, one by one, they returned to the bus and left the house as tranquil as the surrounding night.
Nights like this remind me that xenophobia is not as persistent a feature of local society – or, as it lately seems, many societies in different areas of the globe – as many of us might sometimes believe. I’m always still surprised by how there are people out there willing to open both heart and home to complete strangers, with the simple goal of letting them find the warmth and companionship they might pine for back at home. And I hope that at least even this simple show of generosity would make a difference to the stay of the exchange students who had graced us with their company. With this, I believe the Year of the Monkey shall swing off to a good year ahead.