CNY: It's all about the family

This year, I spent my first Chinese New Year in a foreign land, which has been quite a thought-provoking experience.

It has left me thinking deeper about the significance of kinship and also appreciating better the little things in life.

I had thought that staying put alone in Beijing during the Chinese New Year would be difficult - having heard stories from friends of how bored and homesick one can get.

Millions of migrant workers and Beijing locals vacated the city for their hometowns or out-of-town holiday tours during the week-long public holidays starting from last Saturday.

Their absence translates into a severe lack of labour for many businesses here, which means inconvenience for those left behind in the city as eateries and supermarkets are closed for days.

Also, courier boys working for online shopping websites are not around so deliveries of purchases are not available or utterly slow this week.

But to be honest, the experience hasn't been as bad as feared.

First, with over half of the capital's 20-plus million residents gone and many of the factories closed for the week, it meant largely fresh air, empty roads and uncrowded walkways for the lucky ones like me.

My fears of having to tuck into instant noodles on Chinese New Year's Eve - instead of the sumptuous reunion dinners that I am used to - did not come true. A friend had me over for a feast of Singapore dishes.

Also, staying put in Beijing over the Chinese New Year weekend allowed me to witness and marvel at the rare spectacle of fireworks and firecrackers, which are banned in Singapore.

And, despite being thousands of miles away from home, I managed to keep tabs on my family and loved ones and their celebrations via video-conferencing calls, web-based instant-messaging and updates on the social media like Facebook. Photos of their reunion dinners and visits to relatives helped keep feelings of homesickness away.

Thanks to the Internet, I even got to catch snippets of the Channel 8 Chinese New Year countdown programme, though its quality pales in comparison to that of the elaborate and expensive countdown programme on state broadcaster China Central Television.

But still, something is incomplete from my first overseas Chinese New Year experience, which made me realise that the festival is, in essence, about family.

Though modern technology can help us connect across time and space, it simply cannot substitute the experience of being there physically and celebrating the festival together with family and loved ones.

In Singapore's fast-paced society and work pressures, we hardly have time to visit our family members frequently these days. For me and many of my friends, the Chinese New Year is probably the only time we get to see our elders and relatives. Not being around this year means not seeing my relatives until the festival comes around next year.

It explains in part why late last week as Chinese New Year neared, I found myself longing to do some of the things that I had ironically grown weary of during the festival in recent years.

These include commuting across the island along with many others on the jam-packed roads to visit our relatives; sitting through a Chinese New Year visit in someone else's home; exchanging the usual pleasantries and asking one another the same old questions and forgetting answers once we part ways.

Now with the benefit of my first overseas Chinese New Year experience, I guess, a little inconvenience once every year should be small trouble for the family.

In a way, I now understand better why millions of Chinese migrant workers brave the long arduous distance to have that reunion dinner with their families.

This weekend, it will be my turn when I head home for my Chinese New Year break to spend time with my family and also indulge in the usual delicacies like bak kwa and pineapple tarts.

It may be one week late, but I'm sure this time, the festive mood will be no less strongly felt on my part.

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