Voyage across the hallway
If you were a Western foreigner living in Singapore, would you visit — unannounced — your Chinese neighbours over the Chinese New Year holiday?
My family did that this year, but not before deliberating for days first. Is it against tradition for non-family members to pop in unannounced? What if we get all the customs wrong? What is the "market rate" of a red packet? Will friendliness and cheerfulness trump our bad local knowledge?
In the end we threw caution to the wind and decided that we should undertake the voyage.
Neighbour number one met us at the door with a look of surprise that soon turned into a warm handshake. I thrust a two-pack of beer into his hands. "Beer is universal guy language," I had told my wife. We handed over some chocolates to the parents, and a few red packets to those who were obviously unmarried.
We were introduced to every member of the five assembled families that were crammed into the flat. I said: "Gong xi fa cai" — just as I had practised with my 9-year old Mandarin-speaking daughter. ("You do it perfectly, dad," she had said. "Except for the tones.")
In response, they said: "Happy new year," especially the bare-chested grandfather who seemed to rule the roost. In fact, he said it a considerable number of times as he joyfully shook my hand with much vigour. "It's all the English he can speak," neighbour number one explained. "He's always looking to practise."
In no time at all they had plied us with beer, drinks, nuts, puddings, meat, crackers, sweets, chocolates, warmth, and a strange feeling called inclusion.
Neighbour number two, was equally generous. "Have they mistaken us," I whispered to my wife in between mouthfuls of bakwa (barbequed meat) and homemade biscuits, "for the royal visitors they were expecting that never turned up?"
We gave our red packets to those unmarried and more chocolate to the parents. "Chocolate is universal female language," my wife said to me, in between mouthfuls of layered butter cake that was to die for.
We were served the most exquisite tea I have ever drunk in my life. It was served from a beautiful white porcelain teapot. "I got the tea from Hong Kong especially for today," the hostess glowed.
Neighbour number three was just settling down to an ample meal with multiple other families. "You must eat with us! No choice!" he commanded, as we were ushered to partake in an endless conveyor-belt of goodies and delicacies and treats. An endless serving of love and warmth and generosity too.
Is heaven like this?
"Is heaven going to be Chinese New Year all the time?" my 7-year-old wanted to know, tugging at my sleeve, whispering in between mouthfuls of pork belly and pineapple tarts and crispy baked things.
We exchanged gifts once more. Everyone smiled. "Gifts are a universal language," I told myself. I also noticed that the tones of my "gong xi fa cai" were coming along nicely.
When we left, the old man in the rocking chair shouted at me: "Why you go? You must come back this afternoon!"
"You'll regret you said that," I replied sternly. "I'm a brilliant gambler and I'll take all your money!" (The son had told me of their post-lunch tradition of playing mahjong.) A moment's stunned silence was followed by raucous laughter. I could still hear their guffaws from the end of the corridor, repeating my joke to each other in amusement. Ang moh (white foreigner) tells jokes.
Sometimes, one of life's longest journeys is the distance across the hallway to the neighbour's front door. But once made, it can be the most rewarding.
I am sure that we broke countless traditional rules in all our visitations. We did not mean to, and we would like to learn for next time. But that night, as I scrolled through the photographs of our visit that the neighbours had emailed to me after we had left, I was glad we had made the journey.
We had not meant to be invited in. We had just wanted to drop off a few gifts and a few red packets at the door. Instead, we got welcomed into three incredible families and tucked into three grand lunches.
Perhaps my neighbours will now feel emboldened to pop in the next time my family is having our own cultural festival in our tradition. We certainly hope so. And we've already put some beers and chocolate in the fridge, just in case they do.