The biggest and most important holiday in the Chinese calendar is coming up — and I’m choosing not to celebrate it this year.
If the past year has taught me anything, it’s that the coronavirus doesn’t care if it’s Christmas or Thanksgiving — germs will continue to spread, making it incredibly unsafe, unwise, and not to mention, irresponsible to be celebrating holidays by traveling door to door or even interstate to see family, especially if you’re currently in a high-risk country.
So I’ve decided that this Lunar New Year isn’t the time to relax or let my guard down, as much as I want to trust in my circle and see family members and friends I’ve missed. The fact remains that it still isn’t completely safe to get together yet. After all, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.
Feb. 12 marks the year of the metal ox and according to Chinese zodiac experts and astrologists, it’s going to be a positive one for many of us.
But frankly speaking, I’m not buying it. As we all know too well, 2020 was a disaster, and 2021, so far, doesn’t look very promising either. The COVID-19 pandemic is still raging and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down or stopping. If anything, recent records have only shown that the global health crisis is by no means over, even with vaccine developments and governments that think they have the virus under control.
For many Chinese families, January serves as the lead-up to the Lunar New Year, which marks the end of winter and the official beginning of spring. It’s a time for family reunions, grand celebrations, and catching up with friends.
If it were any other year, preparations would now be in full swing. I’m now in Malaysia, which is currently under lockdown as daily COVID-19 cases have been on the rise by the thousands. If I were back home in Singapore, I’d be joining my parents and grandmother to brave the crowds at open-air markets and bazaars to shop for festive food and decorations, all while soaking in the atmosphere. I’d also be hitting up the malls for flashy new clothes with my friends.
However, we live in a completely different world now, one that’s shaped by the pandemic. And all that seems excessive and foreign, even in a place like Singapore that managed to control the virus early on. Even though the country has some of the lowest number of COVID-19 cases, a solid vaccination plan, and in many ways, has returned to “normal” public life, the virus is still around. And we can never be truly safe from it.
“The virus is still around. And we can never be truly safe from it.”
Sadly, the superficial return to pre-pandemic life has only made crowds gather in anxiety-inducing numbers. “Too many people. Exactly what the virus would want,” one local infectious disease expert was quoted as saying after witnessing the scenes unfold in Singapore’s Chinatown.
It’s been more than a year now since the virus was first spotted and changed our lives forever. That’s over a year of enduring being confined indoors and losing touch with reality as well as the people we care about.
In China, authorities are confronting a troubling COVID-19 resurgence and have heavily dissuaded millions upon millions of heartbroken Chinese migrant workers against traveling home to see their families, to avoid a surge in infections during what is typically the busiest and biggest domestic travel period.
In Singapore, where masks remain mandatory, many will be ringing in a muted New Year thanks to new government guidelines that prohibit shouting during traditional lo hei tossing feasts. Regular community celebrations have been canceled and a limit imposed on the number of visitors per household — all to prevent people from congregating.
But my family and friends back home are gearing up for massive hotpot feasts, back-to-back house visits, and mahjong gambling sessions. While most people realize that being around strangers or big groups indoors is generally a bad idea, others are still behaving like their friends and family couldn’t possibly be sick or at risk of getting each other sick. Sadly, from what I see on Facebook, some people will ignore potential virus threats and gather in numbers anyway. I’ve also been seeing many whining on Facebook about Lunar New Year restrictions making it hard to meet people they haven’t seen in a long time.
“While most people realize that being around strangers or big groups indoors is generally a bad idea, others are still behaving like their friends and family couldn’t possibly be sick or at risk of getting each other sick.”
I can’t think of a worse time to celebrate the new year. So I will skip all that, staying far away from the people who I most care about and want to see, because I know that I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I made them sick.
Even immunization isn’t the perfect defense. Public health experts still say that social distancing measures have probably been our most powerful tool in curbing the spread of the disease. The fewer people we interact with, the lower the chances that the virus will spread, and this has been a successfully consistent strategy.
It won’t be the first time that I’ve skipped out on celebrations. But after spending months in self-isolation and lockdown, I have now become so conditioned to the idea of staying indoors, away from germs and other people, that the thought of welcoming friends and relatives I haven’t seen for months into my personal space, or being among large groups of people, would overwhelm me and cause undue stress.
My friend Nicholas will be staying put in Malaysia because he has decided that traveling long distance just to see extended family is way too risky, given the extreme rise in daily cases. “I might have cared last year but I’m used to this new normal already,” he told me. So he’ll just be having a cozy dinner with his parents at home and won’t be entertaining any visitors.
Here’s a thought: let go of the idea that a holiday must include other people. Socially-distanced celebrations can still feel special. And I urge you to consider virtual calls over meeting up in person, even if you are feeling the Zoom fatigue. Why run the risk of going from door to door and catching germs, which will ultimately spread in numbers?
Call up your loved ones instead and have a reunion meal so that you’ll be able to eat as a family or a group of friends, even if you can’t all be together in person.
And if you do choose to go ahead with celebrations, consider your Lunar New Year house guests wisely. Make every visitor and each visit count.
Being home all these months might have provoked strong feelings of nostalgia and even guilt of neglecting people you might have once cared about, but ask yourself if you really need to be hosting groups of people or visiting friends you’ve not been in contact with recently. It’s always best to be safe, rather than sorry. After all, you can never tell a person’s full contact list history.
“Mahjong and supper at our new place on the second day,” read an invite on WhatsApp from an old school friend who I visit every year. Another asked me over on the third and fourth days of Lunar New Year celebrations to meet her newborn son. I’ve steadily declined all invitations but the hardest one comes from my grandmother, who is pushing 90 and definitely falls within the high risk category. I haven’t yet told her that we won’t be meeting this year. I haven’t seen her in over six months and expect that she will be hurt and disappointed, maybe even angry with me, but I know that it’s for the best.
It will definitely be a different Lunar New Year this year, a quieter and lonelier one. But I welcome that. Now isn’t the time to let our guards down and undo all of the progress that has already been made.
“It will definitely be a different Lunar New Year this year, a quieter and lonelier one. But I welcome that. Now isn’t the time to let our guards down and undo all of the progress that has already been made.”
I know that I will miss seeing my family and friends. But it’s for the best — for their personal safety and mine. And there will come a time when the holiday can be celebrated properly again, where you’re allowed to visit whoever you want freely without face masks or restrictions.
For now, I’ll just be staying home.
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