When one thinks of Lunar New Year, images of red lanterns plastered all throughout Chinatown, envelopes stuffed like content bellies with green leaves of money or the wafting smells of mirin, star anise, and oyster sauce may come to mind. For me, however, Lunar New Year means so much more than just that. For as long as I can remember, the best part of winter has always been welcoming the new year surrounded by my loved ones. There is always something exhilarating about this time of year and the superstitions that come with it: whether that is the busy sweeping to scare away the evil spirits of the year before, getting my haircut to trim off the bad memories, or hanging the crimson “fú” signs on every door in the house. I loved the idea that a new year meant creating a new version of myself, that I could sweep the unwanted parts of the past under the table and leave them there where they would no longer haunt me. As if by enveloping the world in coats of red, we are fearless.
I have never spent Lunar New Year without my grandmother, the woman I have always known as my Nai Nai. She has always been there amongst the burning incense and the crisp bittersweetness of clementines, Nai Nai with her crinkled lantern eyes and half-moon smile. When I was six years old, I was told that my grandmother would be losing her memory. I familiarized myself with the term Alzheimer’s and got used to the ironically bright nursing home walls, the well-meaning residents there, and the carpeted floor, always smelling faintly of urine. Every weekend, for the past 10 years, we would bring Nai Nai with us. We would walk hand in hand through the comforting aisles of H Mart and knead dumpling dough on the marble surface of our kitchen counter. It was not obvious at first, but little by little, I started to lose her. It was the way her lit-up eyes no longer scintillated, but grew cloudy and glazed over. It was the way she first forgot her English, then her basic skills: how to use a straw, relieve herself, shower, walk. I never thought I would be one of the things she would no longer remember. I soon learned to familiarize myself with the term Hospice and got used to the idea of losing the woman who had raised me.
Last year was the first year Nai Nai was not with us on Lunar New Year. We saved a seat for her at the dinner table and I could not touch the food on the neatly set table, not willing to accept the coldness of her absence.
I have always admired the carefree nature of bunnies, their ability to come back in the spring, shedding off the pelts of the past after a season of restoration in the coldness. This year, I have a newfound respect for the rabbit. With the year of the rabbit approaching us on January 22nd, a new year abundant with hope, compassion, but most importantly, new beginnings is upon us. As we begin to start our annual traditions for the Lunar New Year, let us embrace the unknown and continue to heal. I keep her eyes in my mind as I pass those red lanterns in Chinatown, watch the envelopes grow plumper by day, and as those smells of mirin, star anise, and oyster sauce loiter like spirits clinging to the air. The year of the rabbit reminds us that every moment is temporary and individual, that we are allowed to slow down and let it consume us at times, and that life is rich with possibilities and paths that will lead us to new beginnings.