To all those celebrating Chinese New Year: Enjoy yourselves. And if you’re not celebrating, you still deserve a break.
For most of my life, Chinese New Year didn’t mean very much to me, but I did notice that a lot of Malaysians were very excited the week before and very tired the week after. Living in Kuala Lumpur it was the time of year when the city was suddenly depopulated and driving around was blissfully easy, even though all the shops were shut. If my old car broke down the day before Chinese New Year, which it did almost every year, then it sat by the side of the road until everyone came back. But if my car was working then during the Chinese New Year exodus I was smugly satisfied that all the traffic jams were faraway at Malaysia’s highway tollbooths and in its small towns. And then I got married and suddenly I was in those traffic jams. You may never have heard of Raub or Temerloh but I can tell you that during Chinese New Year, they are like rush hour Manhattan.
I’m not Malaysian Chinese but my wife is and now every year I am welcomed into the celebrations where I see families reunited and hardworking people who normally deny themselves any luxuries suddenly enjoy a guilt-free holiday. I always feel like I’m in a Lat cartoon being a part of an experience unique to an old Malaysia, deep inside Pahang on the banks of the Sungai Lipis. There are traffic jams and I didn’t grow up in that part of the world or with these customs but it’s all instinctively familiar to me, as it should be to all Malaysians. We all have annual celebrations where we remind ourselves that we’re still alive. These are times for reunions, rejuvenation and perhaps reinvention.
Whenever a new year comes along I feel a pressure to make a bunch of promises to change myself into somebody who is healthier, wealthier and wiser. In Chinese astrology, I’m a fire horse. This sounds very dynamic but is sadly opposite to my self-image as a coffee-drinking lazy person, which is something I always want to change. And I’m not alone in this. According to one American survey 45 percent of the respondents said they usually make New Year’s resolutions, which must be why 12 percent of gym memberships start in January. Unfortunately, 25 percent of the people polled give up their resolutions within a week and only 46 percent said they managed to last for even six months.
Trying to change creates a lot of stress, often more stress than the thing you were trying to change in the first place. If you’re trying to lose weight then dieting clashes with your life-long belief that you are a person who can eat anything and at any time. Dieting is such a wrench away from old habits that it can be a deeply unhappy experience, leading to a series of failures that just make you want to eat more. The bookshelves are groaning under the weight of so many self-help books and Oprah Winfrey has made a fortune because it’s so hard to change.
The individual authors of these books and Oprah might want you to succeed but the self-help industry needs you to repeatedly try and then fail, which might be why they pump out so many competing titles. You can’t help thinking that some of the titles might be right but many of them must be wrong. But, which ones? Did I get the wrong one? And how many calories are there in that chicken soup for the soul?
The only New Year’s resolution I have successfully maintained for over ten years is to not make New Year’s resolutions anymore. It has been a trade-off between failing to make the necessary changes and not beating myself up for failing. In other words, I’ve stopped even the pretence of trying. But perhaps it’s possible to go for a subtle and very un-Chinese re-working of the lesson I think I’ve learnt from Chinese New Year.
The whole year might be about hard work, saving and self-denial and probably feeling bad about yourself because you haven’t succeeded as much as you had hoped. But once a year absolutely everybody agrees to abandon all guilt and sacrifice and instead just to enjoy life. It’s a wonderful thing but the thing is I’m not Chinese and I don’t personally feel the need to save it all up for once a year.
Perhaps there can be a part of every day and maybe even every minute that can be a private New Year celebration with imagined firecrackers and lion dances as we enjoy the important things and silently celebrate even the smallest triumphs. As I say, I’m not Chinese and self-denial does not come easily to me, but that’s the beauty of Malaysia; we can all experience and learn from each other’s cultures. Either way, if you’re reading this during Chinese New Year then spare a thought for me because I’ll be way down below you, sitting in a traffic jam somewhere outside Mentakab.