From particular food to clothing and other traditions, culture can help instil a sense of identity and belonging. Growing up as a multiracial woman, Charlene Behal says embracing her heritage has been all the more important in helping her connect with herself and her loved ones. Born and raised in Melbourne, the 22-year-old’s father is Indian, while her mother is “half Filipino and Vietnamese”.
“I connect to my cultures through my family, and traditions are a huge part of that – making Lunar New Year an important part of me connecting to my heritage,” Behal tells Draw Your Box.
Behal and “at least 2 billion people” around the world will welcome the Year of the Dragon this Lunar New Year. But of course, customs and traditions linked to Lunar New Year differ amongst Asian communities – and being of East Asian and South Asian heritage makes celebrating it unique in its own way.
“The occasion signifies prosperity and new beginnings to me, and it's always an exciting time. I look forward to it more than regular New Year, it feels really special,” reflects Behal.
Having celebrated Lunar New Year since she was a child, usual family tradition involves a delicious Vietnamese meal with extended family at her maternal grandmother’s house, where everyone wears the ‘lucky colour’ red and receives “li xi from our grandma (red pockets in Vietnamese)”.
“Being multiracial has made for a unique experience. Mostly, I have felt a struggle in finding belonging but as I have grown older, I have realised that it's a special thing to be able to relate to and experience so many different cultures – Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese and Australian.”
Being able to explore the various aspects of her cultural identity is something Emma Ruben can also relate to. The 25-year-old from Western Australia identifies as “Chindian” – a term referring to people of Chinese and Indian descent. Ruben was born in Malaysia and moved to Australia when she was seven. Malaysia is known for its multicultural population, with the main ethnic groups being Malays, as well as Chinese, Indian and other minority ethnic groups.
“I am Chindian Malaysian which means my dad is Indian and my mum is Chinese and we were all born in Malaysia,” says Ruben. “I know some people can get a bit confused but essentially what it means is my heritage is Chinese and Indian, but my connection to culture is to Malaysian/Indian and Malaysian/Chinese culture.”
Referring to it amongst her family as “Chinese New Year”, Ruben continues to celebrate in Australia, but has particularly fond memories of what it was like in Malaysia.
“My earliest memories celebrating Chinese New Year were having dinner with my mama and kong kong [grandma and grandpa], my uncles and aunties and cousins in Malaysia. We would all go out to eat and enjoy Reunion Dinner together (reunion dinner is the dinner the day before Chinese New Year),” she recalls. But in contrast to the larger family gatherings abroad, Ruben says that “in Australia it's a little lonelier because it's usually just my mum, dad, brother and I”.
Another highlight is devouring the special treats and biscuits that are often only available in Malaysia during Chinese New Year. This year, she gets to enjoy a taste of it while at home in WA.
“Because I was visiting [Malaysia] in early January, I made sure we brought home a lot of Chinese New Year chips and biscuits so it really feels like Chinese New Year in our house,” she explains.
Her family also buys Yee Sang packets from Asian grocers in Australia. “We buy like three different packets of Yee Sang so by the time Chinese New Year is over, we're sick of eating Yee Sang!”
There’s no one way to celebrate the occasion, and Ruben has taken delight in introducing it to many of her Australian friends from other cultural backgrounds.
“This year, my friends and I actually celebrated Chinese New Year together early! I've been friends with them for over 10 years and none of them are south-east Asian, in fact they are all Australian/Italian,” she says. “But I got thinking about how we always eat pasta and other Italian dishes and I thought, ‘Why don't we celebrate Chinese New Year together?’ So we did a Yee Sang together for dinner and it was great – they loved it!”
It’s just one example of how the festival has increasingly been embraced by various cultures. But despite our world being so familiar with multiculturalism, the experience of being multiracial is still unique with its own personal challenges.
“In my experience, because I look quite dark-skinned, people mistake me for being Indian quite a lot. Which is fine. But it means I have to rectify their opinions a lot and tell them I'm not actually only Indian,” says Ruben. “When they find out I'm Chinese, they are usually very surprised. Mostly because 'I don't look Chinese'.”
As she proudly calls herself “Chindian”, Ruben reflects on yearning for a particular sense of community she’s never really experienced.
“I actually don't know any other Chindians living in Australia and I think growing up in Malaysia, I went to school with only ever one other Chindian person,” she reflects. “It's still quite 'taboo', and if you asked most people, they'd have no idea what a Chindian even is.”
Kevin Bathman started The Chindian Diaries project in mid 2012 as a way “to collect and document stories from Chindians and Chinese-Indian couples” to gather a better understanding and “form a greater, overarching cultural narrative” about the community. Bathman’s paternal grandfather was an Indian-Tamil, and his grandmother was a Chinese-Nyonya.
“‘Chindian’ is an informal term to refer to person of both Indian and Chinese ancestry. I’m not quite sure of the origins of the word, but from as far back as I can remember, I distinctly remember Mum explaining to me why Chindian fits my term more than the official race on my birth certificate: Indian,” Bathman writes. “Chindian marriages, predominantly between Han Chinese women and Tamil Indian men, are characteristic in Malaysia and Singapore, where large populations immigrated during the 19th century.”
The Chindian Diaries Facebook page has amassed over 79,000 followers since it launched, and is a communal space where Chindians can connect and reflect. A scroll through the social media page in the week leading up to Lunar New Year reveals a myriad of posts about Chindian relationships and family histories, with even some mentions of the festival peppered throughout. Perhaps a sense of community takes a different form these days, with technology helping to bridge the gap between seas. If Ruben and Behal’s words are anything to go by, the warmth of Lunar New Year extends beyond borders and cultures – harbouring a special place in the hearts of many with both East and South Asian backgrounds.