By Vivian Cheung, Fresh Roots Operations Coordinator
As a Canadian-born Chinese, I grew up learning to communicate through culturally diverse lenses. Not only did I get immersed in weekly Saturday morning Mandarin classes, but I also was exposed to the important language of food.
On both a technical and cultural level, Chinese is a language and a people of rich symbols and hidden meanings. A single character is more than just a phonetic letter, but has multiple layers of history and stories that get amplified as you bring more characters into the discourse. The same could be said about people’s interactions. The phrase “吃飯了嗎?” which loosely translates to “Did you eat yet?” is more than just a literal inquiry about dinner. If a parent asks this to their child, it implicitly displays a deep concern and readiness to care for their well-being – mostly commonly referred to as the Asian code for “I love you”.
As we ring in the new year, I reflect on how food plays a huge role in communicating how we in the Chinese community symbolically celebrate and how eating together speaks louder than our seemingly average table conversations. For instance, what we eat during new year takes on a persona of its own, often through our clever mastery of homophonic puns and visual storytelling:
- Rice Cakes (年糕) sounds like ‘year high’ (年高), hoping for the recipient will have a greater, more prosperous year than the last, or for children to grow taller
- Oranges/Tangerines (橙/桔) sounds like ‘to succeed/be lucky’ (成/吉) and the bright colour symbolizes gold to represent good fortune
- Dumplings (饺子) sound like ‘exchange midnight’ (交子), so eating them is like saying ‘out with old and in with the new’; they also look like ancient Chinese currency, symbolizing wealth in the new year
- Fish (魚) sounds like ‘extra/surplus’ (余), which can be combined to make phrases, such as wishing the new year will have more than they need (年年有余)
- Noodles symbolize long life due to their long length and should not be cut
Most importantly, the act of coming together over food is the pinnacle of Chinese celebrations, with new years as the most important family dinner. Especially during times like these when gatherings are restricted, it is a reminder that we are in this together as a family, this past year and many to come. It is more than just a dinner; it is a declaration of love and care as we share and delight in each other’s company – the ultimate “Did you eat yet?”.
Regardless of who you are and where you come from, I invite you to feast on the Lunar New Year festivities this week, including the current exhibit at the Chinese Canadian Museum:
More LNY online events to check out:
From our families at Fresh Roots to yours, 新年快樂 (Happy New Year)!
恭喜發財 (Wishing you prosperity)!