A metal pot used to burn paper in a Chinese funerary rite.

After my grandma died, there was no Chinese New Year for my family

Feb 13, 2019

This Chinese New Year, I could hear my heels click as I paced across my grandma’s unusually quiet apartment toward her embroidered sofa.

This was where she would usually perch herself on the big day, surrounded by dozens of chattering relatives in Hong Kong.

Whenever new visitors arrived, the packed room would burst into a boisterous chorus of New Year’s greetings. She would smile as they wished her many more years of beauty and health. With her thick black wig and impeccably manicured hands, she radiated energy that defied her advanced age.

But a month ago, just shy of her 100th birthday, my grandmother passed away.

The ceremony was described as a “funeral of smiles” (笑喪) in Chinese because it is considered a blessing to live past 80 years. In such cases, traditional rules on the 100-day mourning period, such as abstaining from weddings and birthday parties, are relaxed.

The funeral home staff even told us that we could go ahead and celebrate Chinese New Year as usual, so long as we complete the rituals that mark the end of a burial: eating a ceremonial meal and stepping over a small fire as we enter our home.

In Hong Kong, stepping over a small pot of fire is said to cleanse you of bad luck.
In Hong Kong, stepping over a small pot of fire is said to cleanse you of bad luck. / Photo: Shutterstock

But a few older relatives asked us not to visit their homes, and since my grandma’s death was so recent, my family still chose not to celebrate.

The day, usually jam-packed with back-to-back family visits, stretched out long and empty.

As I lied on grandma’s couch staring into space, I thought about how a Chinese New Year gathering could be similar to a funeral, in the way that a whole family comes together to pay respects to the matriarch.

Our gatherings were precious because they gave the entire family—including great uncles, great aunts, and second cousins—an occasion to connect once a year, outside of weddings and funerals. It’s not easy to get everyone sit together in the same room, with everyone busy working, dating, traveling, or taking care of kids.

Our gatherings were precious because they gave the entire family an occasion to connect once a year.

It’s why going home on this day matters so much to my family, and to many other Chinese people. Lunar New Year is said to fuel the largest annual human migration on the planet. This year, Chinese authorities projected three billion trips would take place in mainland China within the 40 days around the festival.

But while the ritual of going home repeats itself year after year, families change, and people come and go.

When I was a kid, Chinese New Year was a hectic marathon. We would squeeze 10 family visits into just two days, hurrying from home to home in red outfits (a lucky color) and our arms struggling to carry a few too many bags of presents and snacks.

Over the years, the list of homes to visit has grown shorter and shorter. This year, it was half of what it was during my childhood.

On a day like this, when family is prized above everything else, I miss my grandma more.

Though I mourn her passing, I am comforted by the fact that she lived such a long life, and with so much vitality.

I marvel at how she was in her 20s during World War II and just turned 30 when Mao Zedong declared the establishment of today’s China.

Although she had seen so much, and later suffered a stroke that paralyzed half her body, she never let that stop her from savoring the joys of life.

Like on Chinese New Year’s Eve, when she played mahjong with her friends for nine hours, only taking a break for dinner and finally stopping at midnight, when fireworks exploded across the sky.

Her life was filled with so much grace and joy that thinking about her makes me smile. But her death, for my family, was more than just about her. It marked the end of a generation, and I grieved that.

Her life was filled with so much grace and joy that thinking about her makes me smile.

When I think about how almost everyone of her era has slipped into history, I can’t help but feel the weight of time, how it will keep swallowing up the next generation, and then the next, and the one after that.

But I also tell myself not to wallow in this too much. After all, even if you live until 99, life is too short to dwell on the past or agonize about the future.

My grandmother got it right. She lived life to its fullest, laughing, socializing, and having fun until the fireworks went off.

Chinese New YearFamilies in ChinaChinese traditionsPersonal essay