On the eve of the Chinese New Year, we arrive promptly at my grandparents’ shophouse, a Southeast Asian-style townhouse that combines a ground-level shop and an upper-level residence, for our annual feast. In Chinese diaspora communities all around the world, the New Year is marked by rowdy firecracker parties, a dinner of seasonal delicacies and a grand family homecoming. In the Ng household here in Singapore, it’s the time of the year when the entire clan congregates around a too-small table for a hotpot dinner and attempts small talk. It’s an occasion I love and dread at the same time.
As soon as we get to Grandma’s, the staring game begins: Everyone’s giving the next person the awkward eye and silently conjuring up their fail-safe lists of casual topics.
Except for Grandma. The matriarch of the family since my grandfather passed on, she’s ready with her arsenal of accusatory remarks and inciting queries. Every reunion dinner is like no other, because she picks a different family member for game each year.
The seventy-four-year-old dame fusses over every dish that leaves the kitchen, sometimes even snapping away at the ill-fated aunt or cousin who is helping to ferry the food to the dining room.
My oldest aunt, Rebecca, sighs, “Nothing’s ever good enough for you!”
Grandma purses her lips and says nothing, saving her fuel for the battles ahead.
Finally, after she has inspected each course on the table, Grandma decides it’s time for dinner.
“Gather round! We can start adding ingredients to the hotpot.”
Like soldiers in step, we jump to our feet and head for the dining table. At the heart of the table is the obligatory hotpot, a hearty simmering stew glutted with meat, seafood, vegetables, tofu and homemade wontons.
While waiting for the hotpot to come to a boil, Grandma breaks the silence. Directing her glance towards Jonathan, one of my older male cousins, she inquires, “So, Jonathan, you’ve been dating your girlfriend for a long time right? Isn’t it about time to tie the knot?”
I breathe a sigh of relief. I imagine that my brother and parents do too, having been spared from the lion’s den this year.
Jonathan steals glances at the hotpot, probably willing it to boil quicker so he’ll be freed from his inescapable crucible.
“Well, it’s too soon. And I’m still working on my PhD thesis…”
“You’re almost thirty! How long do you want to date that girl for? The next few decades?”
Jonathan’s sister, Christina, giggles while the rest of us cast him sympathetic gazes. The elderly matriarch catches wind of the surreptitious chortle and retorts, “You next, Christina. Don’t think I haven’t got my eye on you. Girls who laugh when they shouldn’t have poor marriage prospects.”
Christina gulps and Jonathan tries to hide a smile.
Aunt Rebecca remarks, “Oh, just give them a break! Young people these days want to pursue their dreams and have things their way. You’ll still be well and alive when he gets married. Maybe even when he has children!”
“Of course I’ll be alive!” Grandma shoots back. “Are you trying to curse me? It’s not even the Chinese New Year yet and you’re already spouting such inauspicious phrases! What’s more, don’t even get me started on your unmarried children.”
Grandma sucks in her breath. “Young people these days and their ridiculous plans! In my time, we wedded early and took care of our families.”
Uncle Matt jumps in and tries to lighten the ambience. “Times have changed! Young people these days do amazing things because they didn’t marry young and have a whole litter of kids. Don’t you want to see your grandchildren make something of themselves?”
For once, the feisty dowager seems at a loss for an answer. Then, she collects her thoughts swiftly and responds glumly.
“What’s the use of accomplishing so much if one dies alone? Oh these youngsters, I no longer understand them anymore!”
Thankfully, after what feels like forever, the hotpot bubbles vigorously and the drama ceases. We dip our chopsticks into the communal melting pot and the room is transformed into a buzz of pleased murmurs and muttered praise about the spread before us. My aunts, uncles and even Grandma start chatting about happier memories, and for those two hours of delicious armistice, the funny-but-provocative banter is forgotten and we are a jolly family once again.
The squabbles resume after dinner, milder renditions which transit to friendlier dialogue instead. Grandma grouses about the stale selection of television reruns while my aunts lament the climbing prices of groceries as they both crunch on pistachios. Perhaps, if we are honest with ourselves, everyone in the family enjoys this energetic banter; it’s our way of breaking the ice after not seeing one another in a year and an awkward attempt to keep up with the “amazing things” we have been up to. Even if these trivial brawls make for great gossip fodder, that is our art of staying connected in the 365 days in between reunion meals. If scandal is the glue that keeps the family intact, then feuds are our way of banding together.
The night comes to an end right before midnight and everyone starts saying their goodbyes, sluggish but contented. As we leave the shophouse, Grandma utters quietly, “Come back to visit soon.”
We may be a bickering bunch, but we are still family — on the condition that there is posh nosh to pacify our wagging tongues. Until the next Chinese New Year and its accompanying feast of harmless feuds, we will have to make do with other petty disputes and fragmentary gossip. In any case, I think I am looking forward to the next reunion dinner already.
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Kylie Ng is a journalist by day and storyteller by night. Read about her hairy encounters in the kitchen and around the globe at ahoyadventure.wordpress.com