Ten days before Chinese New Year–seven months ago–I was traveling alone in Melaka, Malaysia. I decided to visit Melaka en route to Indonesia because I’d heard of its fascinating colonial history pertaining to the spice trade. Melaka was first dominated by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, then the Dutch in the seventeenth, and finally the English in the nineteenth. In addition, over thirty percent of its population is ethnic Chinese today.
I was halfway through eating a bag of durian cream puffs along Jonker Street, Chinatown, when I encountered a scene from a Chinese New Year card customized for my life. A group of teenage boys were rehearsing lion dance in a studio next to a Chinese restaurant.
I used to play percussion for the lion dance troupe at Oberlin College. We played numerous shows, but our one consistent annual performance was the Oberlin Chinese Student Association’s New Year extravaganza. Because of Oberlin’s academic calendar, we never could hold the event near the actual holiday. Two weeks after the motherland celebrated the New Year, a small group of liberal arts students in bumfuck northern Ohio would decorate the giant room above Oberlin College’s admissions office with Chinese couplets, cardboard cutouts of Guanyu, crepe paper, and giant paper lanterns. A lineup of students and community members would perform various dances, songs, and other tidbits that could be linked ultimately to the behemoth of a country, China. The audience enjoyed the show, but most of them were college students who attended because the event was catered by a Cantonese restaurant from Cleveland.
Life in the lion dance troupe went something like this: a month and a half before the performance, we would all acknowledge that we needed to rehearse. But we would disagree on how often these rehearsals should happen. Because we lacked group organization, we would not rehearse until a week and a half prior to the event, which gave us just enough time to deliver an acceptable performance and to really hate each other. The morning after the performance, we would get brunch at one of the three edible restaurants in Oberlin and half-forgive each other over pancakes, bacon, and freshly squeezed orange juice. Then the cycle would repeat.
I had never celebrated Chinese New Year in China, and the weeks leading up to it made me nervous. I had never even celebrated Chinese New Year with a community larger than several hundred people. Prior to Oberlin, when I lived with my parents, we would bring in the new year with a quiet night of dumpling making with my dad’s graduate students, and we would go to bed by 11 p.m. Oberlin and my family life did not prepare me for the shwasty state-sponsored billion-person frat party that is Chinese New Year.
It was comforting to watch ethnic Chinese outside of China preparing for Chinese New Year. While everything about Melaka, from its tropical location to its colonial history, has nothing to do with Ohio, I felt at home among the crowd gathered around the studio. Melaka’s Old Town feels like a village, and its New Year decorations—red paper lanterns and pictures of snakes strung down the street—were manageable for me.
I watched the short chubby boy play the cymbals. These Melakan Chinese boys probably had a proper coach and had rehearsed for months. They didn’t look like they hated each other.