By Ooi Kee Beng
Editorial, Penang Monthly, January 2016
So it’s that time of year again. The Lunar New Year arrives, and we witness the happy congregation of dispersed Chinese at the home of their family elders. They perform tuan yuan (reunion). In essence, they return from all corners of the land, the region and the world to wei lu – to gather literally around the family hearth for a massive meal. (It’s always about a meal, isn’t it?)
It can be quite a huge undertaking for those of limited means, but the very act of returning to the place of one’s childhood, to touch base with aged relatives, siblings and other relatives, is meant to strengthen the sense of belonging that we all need in order to reorientate ourselves in the world annually.
The Chinese like to think of this as something very Chinese. But of course it is not, even if the celebration of the Lunar New Year in China nowadays is a mammoth imperial enterprise that presses the logistical infrastructure of the giant country to its very limits.
This annual gathering of families is something that is definitely quite common in many cultures. Most obviously, we have the Malay tradition of balik kampung to celebrate Hari Raya Aidilfitri with family and friends in their home village, in accordance with the Muslim Hijri lunar calendar. Likewise in the West, Christmas provides for a similar kind of gathering for Christian families, per the solar calendar, to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
In fact, one could consider the Haj, the fifth of the Pillars of Islam, to be a religiously ritualised extension of this very human need to touch base with one’s brothers and sisters, to affirm cultural and aspirational affinity with the group to which one has declared oneself to belong. Perhaps for practical purposes, Muslims are obliged to visit Mecca only once in their lifetime to perform this ritual.
Come to think of it, perhaps we should all think of these annual journeys home to see mum and dad as a pilgrimage, a psychological journey to disperse the sense of alienation that life away from the bosom of the family and one’s original culture inevitably brings.
Having mobile sons and daughters is a fact of life throughout the ages and is not as unique to the “brain-drain age” that we so specifically live in as we want to think. Sons, especially, have always tended to be mobile.
For young hearts, the further away a pasture is, the greener it seems. The more the means of transport have developed, the farther away the young have travelled to settle. So globalisation has in fact extended the reach of the single family far out into the world, perhaps bringing new resources into reach, but simultaneously stretching the family members’ sentimental and cultural link to breaking point. At the same time, the means of communication have also developed most radically, making it seem less necessary to congregate physically every year.
Should We Shrink along with the World?
The world has been shrinking in practical terms, definitely. The fear is that we are all shrinking along with it. What the “shrinking of the world” entails is the emergence of a global culture, and what this emergence of a global culture – this convergence of cultures, as optimists would call it – entails is the “superficialisation” of human relations in general. And what this superficialisation of human relations in general – this commercialisation of human existence, as pessimists would call it – engenders is the longing for lost profundity. This sense that deep culture is under threat – that the sense of belonging is severely undermined – is what makes the balik kampung phenomenon seem more important than ever before. After all, the dispersed individual is adrift in a shifty, shifting world.
It is comforting for those stationed in cultural outposts to feel that they have not gone beyond the point of no return, and to know that they can still participate in annual family reunions and partake of annual family meals.
In the back of their minds, they do realise that the trivialising of culture is persistent and unavoidable, and that it even dilutes the balik kampung experience itself into a disappointment and transforms much of it into a stiff ritual; into a sentimental remembrance more than a recharging experience.
But it may be the last psychological resort, this huddling by the warm family hearth on the last evening of the lunar year, keeping the fear at bay that persistent storms over the next 12 moons will dilute further the weakening sense of belonging and erase totally the memories that are already being lost.