personal essay

How Cleaning for the Lunar New Year Helps Me Let Go of the Past

published Feb 1, 2022
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The Lunar New Year is a time to celebrate, with red envelopes stuffed with crisp bills and a round banquet table packed with plates of dumplings, steamed fish, and noodles. It’s a time to soak in all of the good fortune and possibilities of the upcoming year. But sometimes, as I’ve come to learn, in order to receive all of this newness and potential, we need to let go of the past.

True to the nature of the Ox, 2021 slipped in without much fanfare, like the reliable beast it was named after. Last year, my husband, son, and I were secluded in our house, cancelling our annual new year dinner with extended relatives. The winter COVID-19 surge was peaking, and the future of our nation felt precarious. There was nowhere to wear the new clothes I had ordered in anticipation of festivities. So, in the weeks leading up to the holiday, I busied myself in my kitchen. We’ve always been a family that celebrated Lunar New Year with a big restaurant banquet. My parents immigrated to America as graduate students; they didn’t have the skills or support system to replicate the days of feasting and visiting with family and friends. The days of celebration became compacted into a few hours gathered around a circular table.

Red envelopes filled with money bring wishes for good luck and fortune.

Because restaurant dining rooms in our area were closed last winter, I decided to replicate some of our favorite new year dishes at home. Following the directions in my mom’s old Wei-Chuan cookbook from Taiwan, I peeled long white daikon radishes and stirred together rice flour and water to make chhài-thâu kóe (radish cake) from scratch. The pans full of sticky batter were steamed until they became chewy white rice cakes, to be sliced and pan-fried until crisp on the edges. They were delectable. My kitchen was a mess. Finely milled rice dusted the countertops and floors, the delicate snowfall marred by drops of water sloshing out of a pot as I rushed it from sink to stove.

But if I looked closer, there were many more marks of the toll the year had taken. Globs of oil occasionally dripped down the inside of the vent hood, and even its stainless steel exterior was inexplicably sticky and coated with a layer of grit. Fingerprints were smudged all over the cabinet doors, and the bronze finish was wearing off the most-used handles. I had cooked more than ever during the pandemic — not just the quotidian boiling and sautéing, but more ambitious projects, such as rolling homemade noodles and frying scallion pancakes.

Just like a haircut snips off the old split-ends, cleaning the house rids the raggedy stuff we’ve accumulated over time.

As an American-born child of the diaspora, the best I can do is a hybrid version of the holidays I’d heard about through my parents’ stories. Like my parents, I usually replicate the easiest and most fun aspects of the Lunar New Year: setting out bowls of foil-wrapped candies and getting a fresh haircut, stuffing crisp dollar bills into red envelopes to be handed out to nieces and nephews after sliced oranges make their way around the lazy Susan. But, unlike my parents, I try to be more intentional about celebrating these cultural traditions. I wish I could experience what it was like during their childhoods in Taiwan, when everyone bustled in preparation and stayed up until midnight. Instead, last year, the world felt quiet on the first day of the new year, with families staying at home with their closest loved ones.

A bowl full of foil-wrapped candies sweeten the new year.

Piecing together Lunar New Year traditions, I remember that before we can receive the blessings of the new year, we need to clear out the detritus of the one that just passed. Just like a haircut snips off the old split-ends, cleaning the house rids the raggedy stuff we’ve accumulated over time. As I wipe off the dust that somehow manages to creep into closed cabinets, it’s a reminder that I have also picked up a layer of weariness over the past twelve months. The fire in my belly is dampened, the sharpness of my mind dulled. This upcoming year will be a Tiger. I’m hoping to absorb some of its fierceness, but not its hubris.

The ritual of cleaning also helps me remember the milestones of the past year. That crusted black stuff at the bottom of my oven? Remnants of the apple pie that bubbled over on Thanksgiving. My house was full for the first time in over a year, with a kid home from college, my parents boosted, and my niece and nephew’s appetites betraying the coming growth spurts. That apple pie was gobbled up, barely leaving me a breakfast slice for the morning after. My father taught me that most kitchen stains can be cleaned with a paste of baking soda and water, and my oven is no different. As I prepare for the new year, it will take some soaking and scrubbing to de-gunk, but I’m reminded that I have finally mastered how to make a flaky homemade pie crust. The oil splatters and shards of hash browns cemented to the grill are evidence that my two teenage sons have learned to cook their own breakfasts.

At least once a year, we need to take inventory of our lives. Where are our accretions of grime and dust?

I remember hearing that it’s important to sweep all of the dust out of your house before midnight, to rid yourself of bad luck accumulated throughout the past year. I had dismissed that as old-fashioned superstition, but now I wonder if like traditions around childbirth or sickness, if these rituals serve a more practical purpose? At least once a year, we need to take inventory of our lives. Where are our accretions of grime and dust? What can we let go of as we hope for better days ahead? Maybe this was the reason for cleaning before the arrival of the new year. Still, the tradition I’m looking forward to the most: On the first day of this Lunar New Year, we start anew and refresh ourselves with hope. On this day, we are not supposed to clean at all, lest we wash away the luck that has just arrived.

Check out more of Kitchn’s Lunar New Year coverage, including recipes, crafts, and groceries to buy!