Selections from the smorgasbord of spring celebrations, learning from Passover and Black Day
(This column has been revised to fix a typo.)
In fifth grade, my class held a Passover dinner as part of our unit on Exodus. Exodus was a big deal then, with Charlton Heston starring in the “Ten Commandments” rerunning every year on television, so we knew the story well (that and “Gone with the Wind”).
I remember baking the unleavened bread and marveling at how flat it was. I had only ever had Wonder Bread at that point and was unfamiliar with the concepts of crust and crumb. I remember mixing the bitter herbs in a bowl, the pungent smell of them, and serving a small spoonful to each student and parent at our long table. We each held a small piece of paper with our lines, our prayers, our questions.
Since I attended a Catholic school, I am sure we held our Passover dinner on Holy Thursday to tie it into the Last Supper, and I am sure this unit segued right into Easter. I do not remember being taught that Passover was a living tradition, that there were still Jewish people and that Jewish people still celebrated Passover.
In my child’s mind, Passover was something the Israelites did right after they escaped from Egypt with Charlton Heston. My image of it stayed in ancient times.
Still, it is one of the big events that I remember from elementary school, and I always think of it every year when Passover comes. My understanding of it is nowhere near complete, but at least I know a little bit about unleavened bread, bitter herbs, salted water, and “Why is this night different from all other nights?” And I know it viscerally because I was there.
April is a smorgasbord of spring and celebration, with only our recent snowstorm and the IRS to dampen our spirits. In addition to Passover and Easter, April also brings Songkran, the Thai/Cambodian/Laotian water-splashing New Year’s festival; Holi, the Hindu festival of colors; Persian New Year’s, Nepali New Year’s, Sikh and Hindu New Year’s; Buddha’s birthday; National Poetry Month; Earth Day; and our own local favorites Festifools, Hash Bash and the Naked Mile (R.I.P.). The dates may vary some years due to the lunar cycle.
I love learning something from all these different traditions.
I had to laugh at her level of cultural awareness. Black Day is not a real holiday. It is the cynical Korean response to the Hallmark manufactured lovey-dovey-ness of Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14, where women give chocolates to men) and White Day (March 14, where men give marshmallows to women). Some single young people in Korea then went on to invent Black Day on April 14 for single people to dress all in black, drink black coffee, eat black noodles — alone — and think somber thoughts about their singleness.
So I put Niu Niu to work making zha jiang mian (jajangmyeon in Korean) or black noodles. She grated the cucumber and summer squash, cut the pressed tofu and green onions, browned the meat and eggplant, washed the cilantro, added the sweet bean paste, served out a side of kim chee.
She laughed that the way we made it, it was not very black at all. Once again, we had added too much color, betrayed it into a celebration.
We have a tendency to do that.
Unlike some who are afraid to even learn other languages for the dangerous concepts that might come with them, we are not afraid to borrow and learn from all directions, but then we make it our own.
Note: April is National Poetry Month, and many poets have accepted the challenge of writing one poem a day, every day this month. Check out your favorite poet’s website, facebook, twitter, or tumblr! Cool poets: Beau Sia, Bao Phi, Kelly Tsai.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is an editor of IMDiversity.com Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for AnnArbor.com and a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog. She is on the Advisory Board of American Citizens for Justice. She team-teaches "Asian Pacific American History and the Law" at University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at franceskaihwawang.com, her blog at franceskaihwawang.blogspot.com, and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.