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Chinese New Year in Malaysia

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Chinese or not, you can't help but be swept up in the fun and noise of Chinese New Year. Sarah Rees tells you why the unfamiliarity of the season conceals a big hug that will make any expat feel at home.

When living in the UK, January and February means gloom. There is always a post-Christmas comedown after the feasting and frivolities are done, and the weather usually matches the mood by delivering endless rain, cold, sleet, wind,darkness; you name it… yuk.

Malaysia, however, has stepped in to save me. Here in the sunny area of the world,February usually means Chinese New Year,scorching heat, and lots of days off work,and its fast becoming my favourite time of year.

While the prospect of two days off and a week (or so) of contacts being unavailable makes work more stressful than usual during the preceding weeks, when the time arrives for the new year to explode in firecrackers, I always get swept into the happiness and celebration of the season(especially as I don’t have to sit in any of the epic jams on the highway to enjoy it).

There is something addictively jolly about the colour red, the cheery zodiac animals,the prospect of food, food, and more food that you can toss high (we never get to play with our Christmas pudding) before eating merrily, preferably with lots of drink amid chants of yuuuuuum seng!

But aside from all the frolicsome trappings,the aspect of CNY that I love the most is the way in which it is shared. Despite being a largely family-orientated event, expats orphans are often welcomed and encouraged to be a part of this key celebration in a way that, in my first few years of experiencing it, seemed just as foreign to me as the food.

When my pal first said, “You must come for Chinese New Year,” I assumed they were just being polite; special festive days are important, and I have been brought up to respect the sanctity of family occasions such as these.

But my friend insisted, and it was with no small amount of guilt that I found myself the only non-family member at this big, private celebration. I likened it to my own Christmas, imaging a foreign acquaintance that my family has never met seated elbow-to-elbow with my elderly Grandma as we tucked into the turkey, and felt like I was intruding on something sacred. I was, in true British style, terrified that I was a burden on those trying to enjoy themselves, and apologized at every opportunity.

I needn’t have worried. Not only was Inot a burden, the family seemed utterly delighted that I was there, going out of their way to include me, to explain the intricacies of the traditions, and drag me into a prominent position in every group photo.

When I finally got home, very full and rather tired, I mused on how wonderful events like these are in the life of an expat.You can read about CNY ( or Deepavali, or Raya ) on the internet from the chilly UK, but nothing can compare to tossing yee sang with a family of Chinese people all dressed in their new year’s best, with the Granny of the family pulling you aside to tell you about the traditions shere members from her own childhood.

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More valuable than the educational nuggets gleaned at these moments,however, is the pleasing sensation of being included, being welcomed rather than entertained or tolerated. In an expat existence that consists mainly of being a fish out of water, this open-armed welcome is like a toasted sandwich after a year of overly oily nasi lemaks and, for those of us who are here without family of our own, serves as a much-needed metaphorical hug.

So don’t shy away from those invites this month, don’t opt to stay at home rather than be stuck with a group of people you don’t know too well, feeling you will be out of place. They invite you because they want to share in a way that will humble and delight you, and you will always enjoy it more than you expect! Allow the food,the fun, and the novelty of the occasion warm you to the cockles and do your bit to cast away those still-raw memories of wet,cold, dreary months of post-Christmas disappointment (if you come from the northern hemisphere), if only to remind yourself that Malaysians may drive like narcissists, but they celebrate with generosity.

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Source: The Expat February 2013

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