Meet the Neighbors: Fern Lee

Welcome to planet Earth, a most wonderful neighborhood! Yes, it’s kind of small, compared to the Universe at large, but it boasts perfectly balanced air to breath, you can grow a vegetable garden like NOWHERE else, and there is even fresh water!

Another lovely feature is that the neighborhood is fairly diverse. I say fairly, because even though there are a great variety of races within the animal kingdom at large, the dominant species – humanity – only consists of one race, which has very little internal variation. Appearances do differ somewhat, but that’s it. Underneath their layers of culture and religious beliefs, human beings all function the same, and at the most basic level, they all strive for the same thing – a world where their children can be safe, fed and free (even though they regrettably fight terribly about how to work towards a future where that ideal can materialize).

My suggesting for you, as a member of this flourishing, albeit somewhat unstable, community, is to make sure you get to know your neighbors. This is a good idea for a multitude of reasons: First, it’s fun. Second, since your neighbors might not look like you, possibly will cook things that smell weird to you, or talk in a language you don’t understand, they might make you feel insecure, or uncomfortable, or worse. This HAS to be remedied, and the cure is, of course, to get to know them, so that instead of having someone unknown and scary next door, you have a friend. Third, I have no other ideas on how to bring about world peace. And I really, really want world peace.

With this in mind, please allow us to introduce you to your neighbors from around the world, a whole bunch of people who are pretty much exactly like you. We’ll start with Fern Lee, a Singaporean Lawyer, married to a British man, raising her family in California. She kindly offered to share her family traditions for Chinese New Year with us. It looks a lot like Christmas, the main family celebration where I come from. Families coming together, eating, caring for each other, remembering those we lost. Yup, we’re all the same.


Heralding in a New Year with food (and love)!

by Fern Lee

This year, Chinese New Year comes early, on 28th January. This year, we celebrate Chinese New Year in a different country. New culture, new people, new life.

But Chinese New Year isn’t the main event for me. I always enjoyed Reunion Dinner best, the night before Chinese New Year where the whole family come together to sit down for one last meal before the new year starts, to remember the year that has gone by. The house will have been swept clean, decorated with brightly coloured items for good luck, and flowers, red packets (ang pows) and oranges filling up every corner, ready for guests. Foods that signify luck and unity will be eaten that night, and cooked lovingly.

This year, I am cooking up a storm. I message my parents pestering them for recipes that are too hard to cook, too soon forgotten. Mine is a Peranakan family, from the Straits of Malacca, or Straits-born Chinese as we are called. The recipes are complicated, dishes often taking days to make, but the food is delicious. I feel very privileged to have these recipes. I have tried these dishes in the rare restaurant I’ve managed to find them in, in Malaysia and Singapore, and my mother’s, aunt’s and grandmother’s recipes are still the best, improved and tweaked with each generation. They are the ties that bind because the love that goes into cooking these dishes is unbelievable. You have to love the ones you cook for to cook these dishes! They link me to family and friends – living and dead. They, for me, hold the key to life and memories. And love.

This year, I am a jumble of emotions. I have lived away from my family now for 12 years but have always returned to Singapore to visit during this time. Having recently moved to the Bay Area, I do not have the flexibility to return easily. So this year, I will be away from them.

2016 has also been filled with a number of deaths – we’ve lost many close relatives and friends. It seems a good time to remember them, as Chinese New Year (and the Reunion Dinner) draws close. This year, we remember Third Uncle, First Eldest Cousin, Po Po, and George our beloved dog. In a way, Reunion Dinner is, for me, a time of mourning too, as we remember those who have passed and the absence they leave in our lives.

So Reunion Dinner this year is poignant – lots of changes, lots of lessons to be learnt. A time of reflection for the year that will be gone, and further planning for the year ahead.

This year I am cooking up a storm because I remember the ones who have died, how much I miss them and what foods they loved to eat. I am cooking up a storm because I too remember the living, what foods they like to eat, what they will be doing in preparation for the coming year. My link to my loved ones is through their stomachs and taste buds and preferences. The daily search for the best foods, best meals, best restaurants is for me a never-ending quest of love and camaraderie amongst loved ones, near and far.

I am privileged and very, very blessed to have so many people in my life, people whom I love and who love me. This year, I have new friends coming for Reunion Dinner and I am cooking up a storm.

Happy Year of the Rooster! Wishing everyone good health for the coming year.

Fern Lee

Fern is a writer, speaker, legal consultant, mother, wife, traveller, supporter of animal and human rights and observer of cultures. She writes about her observations of the different cultures she has lived in and the quirks she notices. Originally from Singapore, Fern has lived in Britain and now California. She has written a number of blogs about her travels, her most recent being From London to California She hopes to return to legal consultancy work soon.