Dr. Gottman described couple’s therapy process as helping the couples “building a sound relationship house.” The roof of the house is “create shared meaning.” Essentially, everyone is from different family culture. We all bring different values from our family of origin to our family of creation. Every behaviors, ritual, and values often have a family story behinds it. Once the couple is able to hear the stories behind, they have to decide how to create a shared meaning of these rituals/values/behaviors in their family of creation.
My high school Chinese teacher always told us: “you are not going to create the unique you unless you know your own culture and appreciated it.” So, when I realized that I can’t get into the counseling major in the College Entrance Exam, my second choice was Chinese. So, that’s what I studied: Chinese Literature in college.
I have never regretted that choice even though I have never made a living with Chinese culture. However, I have always been able to explain to my American friends the origins of different culture and the meanings behind it ever since I moved to the US.
There are a lot of traditions in the Chinese New Year. For example, the Chinese New Year celebration actually starts on the New Year’s Eve. Before Chinese New Year’s Eve, every family cleans up the entire house inside out and throw out the things we don’t want anymore. My mom and female elders usually cook for the entire day for the “gathering dinner.” By New Year’s Eve, the tradition is the “gathering dinner.” My mom and female elders usually cook the entire day for the “gathering dinner.” The whole family comes together, and we all sat around the table to eat the meals that have been dedicated to the ancestors in the late afternoon. After the dinner, the elders give the children “red envelope,” and the adult children also give their parents “red envelope.” After that, my family’s tradition is to clean up the food, watch TV and play cards until the midnight. When the clock turns to 12 am, the neighborhood lights up the fireworks to “scare away” the “new year monster.”
I always explain to my American friends that “Chinese New Year’s Eve” is the combination of Thanksgiving (appreciating the family and the past year) and Christmas (red envelope = gifts).
The other Chinese New Year tradition that is very important in my family and country is the 2nd day of the New Year. Generally, that is the day when all the married women going back to their family of origin with their husbands and/or children. My family goes to my maternal grandparents’ house every single year, and my grandmother always cooked a table full of foods for us. We would spend a day there. My mom is the oldest of her siblings. When I was little, my father and my aunts and uncles would play cards and dices all day long while the children running around and eating all day long around the dinner table.
Throughout the years, the relatives next to the dining table have changed. As I think back to the people who come and go on the 2nd day of the Chinese New Year, it reminded me the changes of my family dynamics and the evolution of the family. What didn’t change is the meaning behind this tradition: for the couple, husband and wife, and the children in this nuclear family, to equally have a chance to interact with both extended family.
So, when I first came to the US and started doing family therapy, I was baffled by the couples who fought about the arrangement of the holiday. In Taiwan, it is very clear which family (maternal vs. paternal) do you go to It became my standard questions to ask them: “how do you arrange the holidays?” and “how did you make the decision which family to go to during the holidays?” The process of making the decision and whether both partners are satisfied with the decision is and an indication of their communication through a decision-making process. At the same time, when I am working with the Chinese couple, I would ask how they feel when interacting with the extended family and how their partner assists the integration with the extended family. By doing so, I can assess their communication through their expression of asking needs and providing support.
What is your family or cultural tradition? Is there a specific meaning behind specific rituals during the holidays or family gathering? I would like to hear from you of your memories of your family rituals.