A Note Home, From 10,000 Miles Away

by Cindy Leow | Mar 9, 2017

Back in Malaysia, my family calls the first day of the Lunar New Year Chor Yat.

On Chor Yat this year, I woke up in sunny San Francisco.

But it didn’t feel like Chor Yat.

It was actually the first day of Ascent weekend, so many of us in the Class of 2020 were going to spend the day showing prospective members of the Class of 2021 around our “campus.”

I was excited, but at the same time, there was something amiss.

Where were the unnecessarily obnoxious fireworks that would jolt me awake every year?

Where were the giggly shrieks, snaps, and pops emanating from the mini firecrackers my little cousins threw around?

Where were the angpaos — the money-filled red packets that married couples give children for prosperity and luck?

Where was the scent of pan-fried scallions mixed with burning joss sticks from the reunion lunch my grandmother cooks?

Why wasn’t I there with them? Why wasn’t my family celebrating this with me?

As I started to get ready that morning, my phone buzzed. With a sigh, I turned to see what it was.

One text message. From my mom. “Open your I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings book and turn to page 49.” I was surprised she knew I’d brought one of my favorite books to San Francisco: she must have seen me immersed in it during quiet moments at home during winter break.

I was puzzled. My mother never does things like this… Cryptic conundrums aren’t her thing. What was on page 49? I opened the book.

Sandwiched between pages 49 and 50 was an angpao. I grasped it, as if it might vanish.

Rather than just shiny, hard cash inside the red packet, I found a note.

I could hear my mother’s voice, as I read her words:

“This is the first year you won’t be with your family on our New Years’, but I hope you’re just as happy, as you always are.”

That night, I didn’t hear any Lunar New Year fireworks in San Francisco to remind me of home. But just before midnight, as we trudged up the steep streets with new Minervans to Corona Heights, I found myself in awe of the unbelievable magnificence of the city lights, and enthralled in the splendid background music of our excited chatter.

No, my siblings and cousins weren’t chaotically running around me, like at home. But just two nights before, my friends and I had climbed trees at playgrounds in Hayes Valley, chasing each other, mingling, and dancing around (as we so often do at Minerva).

Aside from the one from my mother, I didn’t get many angpaos. What I did receive were cards from my best friends here, pinned to my wall, written for me in gratitude.

No one was cooking up a storm of Chinese food in our communal kitchen at 1412. But Chinatown is just a stone’s throw away — and remember, San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the largest and oldest in the world.

Perhaps — just perhaps — if we can’t be home with our families for these traditions, being here at Minerva, in San Francisco and with this community — busy, bustling, and bubbly — is the next best thing, for Chor Yat, for Christmas, for New Years, for Ramadan, and for any traditions each of us might be missing back at home.

Innovating traditions? Sounds like Minerva.

So, thank you, San Francisco. Thank you, Minerva.

Thank you, Minerva families, for giving us this opportunity to share our traditions with each other, as we share ourselves with the world.

Yam-seng (that’s “Cheers”) from San Francisco,

Cindy Leow