Taking up cultural residency

Since moving to Hong Kong in 1995, I’ve been celebrating Chinese New Year, including sending greetings to friends and business associates here. Some non-Chinese friends have told me they think it’s weird for a gweiloh (literally ghost, used as slang for Westerner) to wish them a happy lunar new year. I think it’s just about going with the flow wherever you live.

In a Chinese society, you can’t avoid the spirit of Chinese New Year, or as some say, Spring Festival, anymore than you can avoid the spirit of Christmas in the West. My first new year in Hong Kong, I didn’t realize some of my favorite neighborhood shops would close for up to a full month for the holiday, so my cupboard got awfully bare. To a avoid a repeat in 1997, a couple of days before the year of the ox lumbered in, I made a special visit to my favorite vegetable stand in the Graham Street market to stock up. As I chose tomatoes, carrots and greens, the vendor excitedly blurted, “Come back tomorrow. Price even higher then.” Her enthusiasm may have been misplaced, but it was absolutely infectious.

Growing up Jewish in the US, I got a lot of practice celebrating other people’s holidays as cultural phenomena without getting caught up in the details. I’d visit Christian neighbors to admire their trees and join my friend Dimitri’s Greek Christmas celebration a week later, sharing the joy and not mentioning it was his father in the Santa suit. I was always happy to take those holiday shifts in the newsroom so that my Christian colleagues could enjoy that time with their families.

My first Christmas in Hong Kong, I took a walk around Kowloon on Christmas eve. Thousands of people were out for what felt like a spontaneous street fair, celebrating for no apparent reason. (Everyone who actually observed the holiday presumably had somewhere else to be.) It felt like being in the middle of a joy fountain.

In your homeland, when people celebrate holidays you don’t, you’re the cultural equivalent of an innocent bystander. Whether you participate or walk on by is up to you. You’ve got no skin in the game and an easy way out. But if you chose to live in a different society, you take up cultural as well as physical residency, with an obligation to respect and honor local culture and traditions, as well as enjoying the benefits.

From the start, I’ve been grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had in Hong Kong and the good friends I’ve made there and across Asia as a result of living and working there. Honoring the Chinese New Year custom of sending good wishes to friends and colleagues is a simple way of showing that appreciation. Just don’t ask me to eat moon cakes this fall.

Kung hei fat choi. Gong xi fa cai. May your prices rise every tomorrow.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.