I grew up in the east San Fernando Valley, where one of our big elementary school celebrations was actually Cinco de Mayo. I recall our teacher talking about May 1 being May Day, how celebrations included dancing with ribbons around a pole.
But at our elementary school we learned that the dances were with long, full skirts which we would swish back and forth as we danced with a boy who would kick up his feet while he held his hands behind his back. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that Cinco de Mayo was not Mexican Independence Day (Sept. 16) from Spain, but rather the celebration of the battle of Puebla, the defeat of Napoleon’s French troops in 1862 by Mexican soldiers led by Texas-born General Zaragoza.
The only Asian celebrations we joined in did not happen at school. Those were New Year’s celebrations. We actually got to celebrate two. The first was January 1, the legal holiday that brought family members home to feast and frolic in the Japanese tradition. The other was Lunar New Year, which the Chinese celebrated with dragons dancing in the streets, firecrackers, tasty treats and red envelopes for the children and single adults.
When I moved away from Southern California, I took these traditions with me as part of who I was and part of my Asian American culture, even when I left California and moved to Seattle, Washington and later to Charlotte, North Carolina.
Seattle is a cosmopolitan city. It was not, however part of the Spanish land grant territory, but rather part of disputed territory until the border was agreed under the Oregon Treaty of 1846 to be the 49th parallel, giving the north to Great Britain and the south to the United States. More recently, however, as a party, margaritas, chips and salsa were an easy sell to the locals. Cinco de Mayo was a commercial party festivity. And the Chinese, if they are around in number, always celebrate Lunar New Year.
But when I moved to Charlotte, the culture was markedly different from any place on the West Coast. The local culture still showed remnants of the old South, despite the invasion of the numerous banks, making Charlotte a financial center and a hub for NASCAR memorabilia.
The international transportation company where I worked employed transplants from all over the country and several management trainees from all over the world. However, the local culture felt decidedly foreign. Those few of us who were from either the West Coast or northeast coast had a cosmopolitan culture in common, but the other folks, especially the locals, were not especially hospitable. I can only guess that Southern hospitality only applied to other people like themselves.
Nevertheless, on Cinco de Mayo, I brought chips and salsa to the office to share and celebrate. The drinking would have to wait until after work. And for Lunar New Year I found an Asian grocery store that carried fortune cookies, so we’d have a chance to share our good fortune.
But when it came to New Year’s, Jan. 1, that is — I didn’t have vacation time to go celebrate with family. So, I got two new friends, one a retired Nisei from the Silver Lake area I met through an L.A. acquaintance and the other a trainee from Tokyo, to throw a party and invite our friends, most of whom were from work.
I wanted it to be special as New Year’s was part of our tradition. So, my Nisei friend purchased a platter of sushi. My Tokyo colleague made ozoni and I prepared the nishime and assorted other things.
Depending on which region your family is from in Japan, your foods vary as do your customs. Some places eat a sweet red bean soup instead of ozoni. Some make their nishime like a stew and serve it with all the vegetables combined without displaying them with each vegetable grouped separately. Others eat whale meat and red bean rice and manju, etc. Others cater to their Yonsei and Gosei grandchildren and don’t eat any of the traditional foods.
My early childhood was spent with my father’s side of the family, who were from the area around Wakayama and Nara. The foods were saltier and slightly bitter, whereas my mother’s side was from the southwest of Japan, from Kumamoto on the island of Kyushu.
When my mother’s brother, my uncle, moved to Los Angeles from Japan, he brought with him an interesting New Year’s custom. I thought perhaps it was a custom lost from one generation to the next, but I learned when I was living in Charlotte that even those people from Japan who attended our party had never encountered such a ritual.
The New Year’s ritual was an offering of sweet sake, in a tiny flat saucer, poured from a lacquer orange and gold teapot in three steps and sipped three times, which I believe was to symbolize sweetness in life. Next, the person being welcomed was provided a small piece of kazunoko (fish eggs) as a wish for fertility, and finally the last offering was a bowl of ozoni for long life.
Although I was not with my family, I found that those people who shared the New Year with me and my friends were multiethnic and were very personable and brought a festive merriment that made it feel like home. Sometimes, it is just the sharing of rituals and traditions that bring people together that is enough to make any place and people from anywhere a part of our family and promotes our evolving Asian American heritage.
A native of the San Fernando Valley, Patricia Takayama is a writer of fiction. Her short story collection, “The Winter of Melancholy,” is available as an e-book. The paperback is due out in June. She is currently working on historical fiction short story collections in an effort to capture as many Nisei and Issei stories while she has people to interview.