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EVEN SQUISHED ORANGES ARE LUCKY
My story starts last weekend on one of my favorite holidays of all time—Chinese New Year.
Chinese New Year is all about Traditions, like eating delicious food, spending time with your family, and getting red-and-gold envelopes from grown-ups with money inside. But most important of all, it’s about Traditions that bring you luck for the new year.
Which is why, on the morning of Chinese New Year, I had A LOT to do.
Especially because that day, Auntie Eva was coming to visit.
“Sun nien fai lok! Sun nien fai lok!” I yelled as I danced around the house, helping my mom get ready for Auntie Eva’s visit. “That means ‘happy new year!’ I shouted as I skipped by Gwendolyn’s high chair. It was her first Chinese New Year, so I knew it was my job to show her that it’s the best holiday ever. I’d been practicing my pronunciation with my Nai Nai because I wanted everything to be PERFECT.
And even though my mom said there wasn’t anything for me to do, I was a BIG help anyway. I ran around (and only sometimes bumped into her) to make sure that we were following as many Traditions as possible, to get as much luck as possible.
First, I got dressed in red clothes, which is very lucky. I’d wanted to wear my cheongsam, which is a beautiful Chinese dress. Mine is red and gold with pretty buttons at the neck. But my mom said no because it was too cold.
I was disappointed, but then I realized I could get even more luck by wearing every piece of red clothing I own. And I looked GREAT in my red pants, red dress, red polka-dot skirt over that, red sweater, red T-shirt, red headband, and red galoshes with ladybugs on them. Plus I was DEFINITELY warm enough, so even though my mom sighed when she saw me, she didn’t make me change.
Then I made sure to find all of Gwendolyn’s red clothes, because I’m a Good Big Sister that way. “You’re going to love today,” I told her as I helped her into red-striped pajamas, red socks, a red T-shirt, a red sweater, and a sparkly red tutu. “We’re going to Chinatown, and there’s going to be a parade, and dragons, and the BEST food!”
“Bah!” Gwen said, clapping her hands, which meant she was definitely excited about it all (especially the excellent good-luck outfit I’d found for her). And she loved it when, as a finishing touch, I found a red scrunchie for her favorite toy, which is an old plush Batman doll that my dad used to keep in his study. (Because even superheroes need luck.)
For my next job, I grabbed all the oranges from the kitchen and set out to put them all over the house. Oranges also bring luck on Chinese New Year, which makes sense because they’re delicious.
Nai Nai usually keeps her oranges in a bowl on the dining room table, but I wanted to spread our luck everywhere. So, I put one orange in the silverware drawer, one on top of the TV, two in the bathroom sink, one on Auntie Eva’s pillow, two underneath my parents’ pillows (as a surprise, for later), one in Gwendolyn’s toy box, one in her sock drawer, and one on my mom’s desk. I was just about to ask if we could go to the store to get more oranges when I heard the doorbell.
“Who are you?!” my dad yelled out, in his I’m-joking voice.
So I ran to the door, yelling, “Auntie Eva!”
“Cilla!” Auntie Eva picked me up and spun me around.
“Eva!” my mom said, coming to join in our hug.
“Ba ba ga!” Gwendolyn also threw her hands out for a hug, beaming.
And then my dad joined in too.
Because everyone loves when Auntie Eva comes to stay.
Auntie Eva is my dad’s younger sister. She’s great at drawing, she’s AMAZING at playing finger puppets, and she’s a big fan of Selena Moon (which is my FAVORITE book series and possibly the best series of all time).
Sometimes we don’t see her for a while, because Auntie Eva travels a lot for her job. She’s been all over the world. But she always thinks of us, no matter where she goes, and she sends me pictures of the zoos or aquariums or museums she gets to visit on her trips. And whenever Auntie Eva’s here, she always sits with me before bed and braids my hair while we talk. It’s our special Tradition.
When Auntie Eva visits, she stays in my room, and my dad makes me a mini-tent in the living room. So after the hugging, there was lots of bringing suitcases upstairs and rushing to pick up the clothes I’d accidentally (maybe) thrown all over when I was looking for red things.
By the time everything was away and cleaned, my mom looked at her watch and said, “Wait, what time is the parade?!” So then there was even more rushing and running. But finally we piled into the car and sped off to celebrate Chinese New Year.
Chinatown was beautiful, and more crowded than I’ve ever seen it. Red and gold streamers dangled from windows and in between buildings. And all around, carts sold hot food and pastries, and the air was filled with happy voices and good smells.
Above us, flags with pictures of dogs hung from streetlights, because this is the Year of the Dog. Everyone is born into an animal year, and some of them are REALLY exciting, like the Year of the Dragon. I’m the Year of the Rat, which I used to be unhappy about (because rats are gross). But then Nai Nai told me that the Year of the Rat means I’m creative and smart, which is good news for my writing, so I felt better. (Plus I like mice, which are almost like rats, and I love cheese, so it all works out.)
We walked through the crowded streets until we finally found Nai Nai and Ye Ye in front of their favorite grocery store.
“Ye Ye!” I ran to meet him. “Sun nien fai lok!”
“Wah!” Ye Ye said. This is a Chinese way of saying “wow!” or “amazing!” or “oh my goodness gracious me!” (which is something my Grandma Jenkins says when she’s really surprised). The way Ye Ye said it meant he was VERY impressed. “Sun nien fai lok, Cilla!” he said, spinning me around in a hug (which as you’ve maybe guessed, is another family Tradition). Then Nai Nai and Ye Ye hugged Auntie Eva (though she’s too tall for spinning).
* * *
We lined up on the sidewalk for the parade, and Auntie Eva started telling us about her last business trip, and how she visited a fancy aquarium where she got to pet stingrays on her day off.
“Wah, so many trips.” Nai Nai shook her head (she didn’t seem to hear the important part about the stingrays—I made a note to tell her later). “Don’t forget to be home, spend time with Paul,” Nai Nai said.
“Mom.” Auntie Eva half-sighed, half-laughed.
“Does he mind that you travel so much?” Nai Nai asked.
“He knows my job is important to me,” Auntie Eva said with a smaller sigh. “Besides, he’s used to it. His family is really impressive and high-powered. They travel for work all the time.”
“Hmm.” Nai Nai sniffed. “Not good, all this travel,” she said.
“But, Nai Nai, you were excited when Dad got to go on a business trip,” I pointed out, confused. “You said it was good because he was moving up in the company.”
My dad snorted, and Auntie Eva grinned.
“Well…” Nai Nai looked off to the side, like I do when I’m thinking (or trying not to get in trouble).
“So.” My mom clapped her hands. “Where are we eating after the parade?”
This is something called Changing the Subject, but I didn’t mind. Because just then, Auntie Eva took me to buy a moon cake. (See what I mean about Traditions? They always come back to cake in the end.)
Moon cakes are small and round with beautiful designs on top. Their outsides are thick and golden, and they’re filled with sweet paste and a salty egg. Auntie Eva and I split a lotus paste cake, which is our favorite, and she let me have the half with more yolk (which is one of the nicest things you can do for someone else).
We rushed back when we heard the popping of tiny firecrackers and the sound of drums, and Ye Ye swung me up on his shoulders so I could see above the crowd as the parade came toward us.
From where I sat on my Ye Ye’s shoulders, I could see my mom and dad holding hands. And I watched as Nai Nai put her arm around Auntie Eva and Auntie Eva rested her head on Nai Nai’s shoulder, all the sighing conversations forgotten. The red and gold banners fluttered in the wind, and my dad bounced Gwendolyn, and I was very, very happy because I love Chinatown. All around me were people I know and places I like to visit, and I could smell my favorite foods and see the store windows full of bright cloth and shimmering fans. The egg inside my moon cake was salty and delicious, and when I accidentally dropped some of the yolk onto Ye Ye’s head, it smeared into the hair gel he wears and you could barely tell it was there.
And I could see all the Traditional things that my Nai Nai had taught me, and I said, “Mom, do you see that? They’re putting oranges in front of the store for good luck!”
Nai Nai smiled up at me, and I smiled down at her.
And I knew she was proud of me.
The music got louder and dancers came down the street, then big lion puppets that wobbled their heads and did silly things that made Gwendolyn giggle. Finally, and best of all, came the GIANT, glittering dancing dragon, swooping and diving. I clapped, my family cheered, and Gwendolyn let out a happy yell, and the head came right up to us and bowed.
After the parade, we made our way toward the restaurant for our Chinese New Year dinner. There were people EVERYWHERE, and lots of them knew Nai Nai and Ye Ye, which meant we had to stop every few steps to say hello (which is another big Tradition in Chinatown). I call any friends of my Nai Nai and Ye Ye “Auntie” and “Uncle,” even though they’re not, because it’s just another Chinese Tradition. So there was a lot of stopping and hugging and saying “Auntie Stella!” and “Uncle Gerard!” and getting hugs and wishing sun nien fai lok.
But this takes a while, and Gwendolyn was Fussing, so my mom took us ahead to the restaurant.
My mom was bouncing Gwendolyn and saying “Shhh” and I was making faces in the big glittery mirror on one wall when I noticed that a waiter was setting the table around us. And by our plates, he’d given us all forks.
I looked at my mom, but she wasn’t paying attention (mostly because Gwendolyn had grabbed her hair and wouldn’t let go).
“Excuse me,” I said, in a quiet voice, which happens when I have to talk to strangers. “We don’t need forks. Can we have chopsticks, please?” I asked, looking at the pile of chopsticks in his hand.
But the waiter just gave me a funny look. Like he maybe didn’t believe me.
Which was strange.
But then the door of the restaurant opened, and the rest of my family walked in.
The waiter said something to Nai Nai in Chinese. She said something back, and then he gave us chopsticks very quickly.
Nai Nai sat down and patted my hand and kept talking.
And I patted her hand back because I was happy to see her.
We ordered LOTS of food—dumplings, and soup made with seaweed, and rice cakes, and noodles, and fish.
“Why do we get the noodles?” my mom asked after we’d ordered.
“It’s a Tradition,” I explained. “The noodles are long for long life.”
“Ah.” My mom smiled. “Thank you, Cilla.”
“Cilla’s an expert on Chinese Traditions,” my dad said to Auntie Eva.
“I can tell.” She smiled. “An expert with a creative flair. I loved the orange on my pillow, but the ones in the sink were the best.”
“Wait, oranges in the sink?” my mom asked, raising her eyebrow.
“It’s a Tradition?” I said, trying to give her my biggest smile. She wasn’t impressed.
But the luck from the oranges was already starting to work. Because before I could get in trouble, Auntie Eva interrupted us.
“Well, now that we’re all together, I have some news for all of you.”
She paused to create Suspense, which is a GREAT storytelling strategy.
“Paul and I are engaged!” she said finally.
“What news!” Ye Ye said, giving her a giant hug.
“Congratulations, Evie!” my dad said.
“How wonderful!” my mom said.
“AMAZING!!!” I said. Then, “What’s ‘engaged’?”
“Wah!” Nai Nai said. Which seemed to be all she could say for the moment, and she wiped her eyes with a napkin and gave Auntie Eva a BIG hug.
And Gwendolyn was excited because everyone else was excited, and said, “Ba ba ga ba!”
My mom explained that being engaged meant that Auntie Eva was getting married. Then Auntie Eva showed us a picture of her and Paul on the hike where he’d proposed, and he looked very nice and friendly, with the same straight black Chinese hair my dad and his family have and a big, happy smile. Nai Nai and Ye Ye have met him (and LOVE him), but I haven’t, and neither has my dad or mom. I was going to ask if we’d get to meet him before the wedding, but then I got distracted when Auntie Eva asked if I’d be her flower girl, and I bounced up and down and said, “Yes!”
There was lots of laughing and hugging after that, and we did cheers, which is when you clink your glasses together. Gwendolyn banged her bottle on her high chair until I clinked it with my cup. And everyone was very happy.
A little later, Nai Nai and Ye Ye and Auntie Eva went to tell Uncle Gerard and Auntie Stella, who were sitting a few tables away. “We don’t have a date yet,” Auntie Eva said as they came back. “But I told them it’ll be July.”
“Will Nai Nai and Ye Ye’s friends be there?” I asked, turning to my dad.
“Well, they knew Eva when she was little,” my dad said. “But yes, usually, at Chinese weddings, you invite lots of people, so parents’ friends come too. Not to mention the extended family, like your E-Pah and E-Gung.”
“Great!” I said. “E-Pah” and “E-Gung” are the Chinese words for “Great-Aunt” and “Great-Uncle.” E-Pah paints beautiful pictures, and E-Gung plays the saxophone. So even though they don’t speak much English, we have fun together. (Though they sometimes forget that I don’t speak Chinese, and then they sit and hold my hand and talk to me in Chinese. So I smile and nod and hold their hands back, and everyone seems to have a good time, so it all works out.)
“What else happens at a Chinese wedding?” I asked.
“Oh, just some Traditional things,” Auntie Eva said. “Like a banquet.”
“Ah,” I said. “I LOVE those.”
“Exactly!” my dad said. “It’ll all be really fun.”
“Great!” I clapped my hands. Banquets are big, fancy Chinese dinners with SO MUCH food, which I know from Gwendolyn’s one-month party (it’s another Chinese Tradition, and it’s even better than a birthday party, if you can believe it).
“Have you met Paul’s family?” my mom asked.
“Yes, they’re lovely,” Auntie Eva said. “Here, I have a photo of us.”
She brought it up on her phone. “This is his extended family—we’re at one of my favorite restaurants.”
I looked down at the picture, and I understood what she’d meant about Paul’s family being Impressive and High-Powered.
In the photo, Auntie Eva sat with a big family in a Chinese restaurant, at a round table just like ours. Paul’s mom, dad, and brothers had straight black hair that was perfectly brushed, and Paul’s mom had her arm around Auntie Eva and was wearing a glittery black jacket and silver shadow on her eyes. Next to her, a boy my age wore a jacket like the kind Grandpa Jenkins wears with his suits (which is VERY fancy). His hair was slicked back and all in place, and by his plate (and by each of the plates) was a pair of silver chopsticks, laid out in a perfect straight line.
“Wow, what a beautiful family!” my mom said.
“Yeah…” I tried to give a small smile and handed her the phone.
And as the adults started talking, I tried to lay my chopsticks out in a perfect straight line on the napkin next to me. Just like theirs.
But that wasn’t working, plus Gwendolyn thought this was a game and tried to grab them. So I stuck them in my rice bowl, away from her.
“Ay yah,” Nai Nai said. “Bad luck, Cilla.” She reached across the table and took my chopsticks out of the bowl.
“Huh?” I asked.
She patted my hand. “An old Chinese custom,” she said nicely. “Just keep them on the table.”
“It’s an old superstition, Mom.” Auntie Eva shook her head. “You can do whatever you want with your chopsticks, Cilla.”
Nai Nai didn’t take her hand away from mine, but she put her lips together like she didn’t agree.
“So,” my mom cut in, “do you have any idea what you’ll do for the wedding?”
“Yeah.” My dad nodded. “You’ll probably have a tea ceremony, right?”
“Yes.” Auntie Eva smiled. “We’ll definitely do that. Though I’m not so sure about—”
Then they started talking about ceremonies, using Chinese words that I didn’t know.
I wanted to ask what these Traditions were, because being Chinese means that I should know all these things. But there are SO MANY to keep track of. And I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to know them already, and if Nai Nai would be disappointed if I asked, and how many more there’d be. And I didn’t want to do something wrong again. But just then—
“Tzuck sang,” Nai Nai said as the waiter arrived with a dish of steaming-hot green and brown vegetables. “Tzuck sang” is Chinese for “bamboo hearts,” and it’s my favorite food and my Nai Nai’s favorite food, which is a great thing to have in common.
Then we were too busy eating for questions. (Which isn’t the worst problem to have. Especially when the food is your favorite.)
After dinner, we drank our sweet bean soup, which is a Chinese dessert, and all the adults gave me and Gwendolyn red envelopes (though she just tried to eat hers).
And even though everyone said, “She’s too young, Cilla, she won’t get it,” when I was done eating, I gave Gwendolyn my chopsticks and tried to teach her how to use them.
Because these things are important.
And I wanted everyone in the restaurant to see that I could use chopsticks too, as well as my dad or Auntie Eva or Nai Nai or Ye Ye.
And that my sister would be just as good as I was, someday.
Plus, even though she didn’t get them, Gwendolyn had a GREAT time banging the chopsticks on the table. And then I took them away and put them in my mouth and pretended they were walrus teeth, and Gwendolyn clapped. So I think it’s a sign that she loves chopsticks and just needs to keep practicing.
We drove home full and tired and sticky. (That last part may have been my fault. I spilled some red bean soup on myself. And Gwendolyn. Also my mom.)
And even though I could see she was tired, Auntie Eva sat up with me while I got ready for bed, and she braided my hair while my dad read me a story.
That night I lay in bed and looked up at my mini-tent, and I started thinking about the year ahead. And I started worrying a little. Because even though I’d tried to leave enough oranges around for luck, I hadn’t realized how MUCH luck I’ll need, if I’m going to teach Gwendolyn how to use chopsticks, learn every Chinese wedding Tradition, AND meet Paul’s Very Impressive, High-Powered family at Auntie Eva’s wedding.
Though I guess I’m already doing all right, because it was very lucky to be chosen by Auntie Eva to be her flower girl. And when my mom didn’t notice the orange under her pillow and woke up with sticky orange-juice hair, she thought it was so funny that she barely got mad.
Which is proof that this year is off to a very lucky start.
Text copyright © 2018 by Susan Tan
Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Dana Wulfekotte