“Stories Yun Told Me” is a new series of illustrated stories created by Tenement Museum Educators Jason Eisner and Ya Yun Teng. The series will highlight celebrations within the Chinese Lunar Calendar and explore themes of language, interpretation, memory, and community through the adventurous eyes of Yun, a fictitious Chinese American immigrant born in the year of the Pig. At twenty-two, Yun immigrates to New York City from her native Taiwan. She loves to share stories about her experiences–stay tuned for further installments!
The banyan tree standing in the front yard of my grandfather’s house was very much appreciated by families who shared the same yard. It was planted by my grandfather and eventually grew into a solid tree with a pleasant leafy shade.
For much of the year, people gathered under the tree and chit-chatted over tea and melon seeds while the children chased each other around it yelling and screaming with joy. The more mischievous ones climbed into it or picked the hanging aerial roots from the branches. Eventually, the irritated adults ceased their conversation and took action against these subversive activities.
During the Chinese New Year the weather turned cold and no one would play in the yard. The banyan tree stood there at ease. Without harassment, it kindly offered its branches for the firecrackers.
Before sundown each New Year’s Eve, my grandfather and uncles would tie a string of firecrackers from the tree branches. Meanwhile everyone busied themselves preparing for the celebration: houses were being cleaned and redecorated; people made their last trips to the market; women chased their children, forcing them into new or nice clothes.
And everyone was also preparing themselves for the arrival of the Year Monster.
In stories passed down for thousands and thousands of years, it is said that the Year Monster visits earth at the end of every year. No storyteller knew where the Year Monster originally came from. No one even knew what the Monster looked like since anyone who’d seen it was eaten alive. Only the ones who fled were spared, and they returned only to find a devastated homeland.
Every year while the story is being told, the children, especially those shrewd ones, interrupt, “Why are we not running away? Why is there no sign of people fleeing their homes?” The storyteller assures them that they are going to be safe as long as they follow the lessons of the ancestors. With the ancestors in mind, the storyteller speaks confidently, almost louder than before: “We no longer had to leave our homes on New Year because we learned what the Monster was afraid of: the cracks from the firecrackers, decorations in red color, and the constant chopping sound from dumpling making.”
In the yards, the faded red paper decorations on the doors were stripped down and replaced by bright new ones. The chopping sound of dumpling production could be heard from every kitchen.
As midnight approached so did the Year Monster. The adults stopped their conversation, and the children, although already rubbing their eyes, were stuffed into their jackets and shoes. We gathered in the yard around the tree. The night was dark, deep, and mystical, more mystical than any other night.
The banyan tree with a long string of firecrackers seemed more glorious than usual. As if performing a sacred ritual, my grandfather lit the firecracker fuse with a stick of incense. Everyone looked on in solemn silence. As the wick sparked and grew smaller, my grandfather moved away with quick but cautious steps. We held our breath until the first explosion. A great amount of joy was released in the explosive energy.
The sound of firecrackers set off by other families could be heard in the distance coming from every direction. It was midnight and the village had awakened. The sound of firecrackers formed an orchestra announcing the arrival of the New Year. And The Year Monster, who sneaked so close, was turned away. The night was interrupted with interludes of explosions but gradually returned to its tranquility. Everything became quiet, except for a random lonely firecracker that popped out into the cold peaceful air. We could feel the old year pass, and we welcomed the new one.
The Year Monster once again spared us, and, in theory, we gained another year of wisdom. The banyan tree stood with a sense of pride, shining under the moonlight and the street lamps that spilled light into the yard.
The tree was cut down when the village was demolished.
The government moved my family to an apartment building. When New Year came, we found ourselves without a tree or yard, so when midnight approached, we all gathered in our living room. From there we listened to the concerto of firecrackers. The Year Monster continued to come and threaten us, but always ran away as the script instructed. As my grandparents grew older, cousins graduated and moved away one after another, the excitement for the holiday started to peel away like old layers of paint left on the wall.
(to be continued)
—Posted by Jason Eisner and Ya Yun Teng