HONG KONG (BP) -- Bodies press against each other as everyone tries to get a better position in the line outside Hong Kong's most famous shrine, Wong Tai Sin Temple. Hundreds of people are standing shoulder-to-shoulder, with only a thin rope holding the crowd in place.
We are waiting for the "year of the dragon" to begin.
I look around and realize that I'm the only one not carrying fistfuls of incense sticks. This is my first time experiencing Chinese New Year like this -- in my parents' homeland and with traditions that go back thousands of years. This is the most important festival for more than a quarter of the world's population. The excitement from the crowd is electric as drums beat out the "countdown."
Finally, the clock strikes 11 p.m. The lunar year starts with a roar from the crowd as the rope drops. The mass of people surges forward, racing into the temple with their incense sticks.
A gray-haired man lunges at the altar and his incense stick is the first to touch the stone. Others crash in around him, just milliseconds behind. The man ignores the jostling and pushing around him that almost causes the statue to crash to the ground. He bows three times and closes his eyes in thoughtful prayer. He gained the honor of being the first to bring his offering to Wong Tai Sin, a Chinese deity who grants the power of healing. In exchange for the first offering, he believes he will receive a special blessing.
All around me people are in awe of this special blessing, but my heart aches. What I see are people searching for peace and healing from a life filled with pain and struggle. Underneath this New Year's temple ceremony is a real yearning to be "blessed" by the giver of all blessings.
I came to Hong Kong to learn about my cultural heritage through the Chinese New Year's celebration. As a first-generation American, I often live between two worlds. God is giving me a better perspective when it comes to sharing truth and love to others through my experiences this week. While the chaotic first minutes of this new year play out before me, my mind drifts back to another altar experience from earlier today.
Aunt Kuen Lai laid out a whole-boiled chicken, roast pork and garden vegetables before an altar sitting on a worn shelf in her living room. Small wooden monuments marked a spot for each deceased family member: her husband and grandma and grandpa. Aunt Keun is the mother of two adult sons. I had hoped to meet my cousins today, but they had to work. So, it's just the two of us.
I quietly observed as she placed her offering at the wooden monuments to the deceased loved ones. She explained that she was sending well wishes. In return, she asked for favor this season.
The spirit inside of me moved as I saw her sincerity to resolve feelings of abandonment and pain. I knew these feelings well -- that's what began my search for God.
She placed three incense sticks into a bowl of rice. The sticks represented worship towards heaven, earth and our ancestors. I watched as the ash on top of the sticks, like memories from the past, toppled into the bowl.
"Bring peace to this house and I ask for purpose and goodwill," my aunt prayed as part of her search for blessings from our ancestors.
My aunt explained that some families make small fires and burn televisions, Rolexes, cell phones -- even Mercedes Benzes -- as an offering to the dead in the spirit world. (Don't worry, they're all made of paper.) Today, Aunt Lai burned wads of "hell money" meant to give ancestors in the next life a "little extra spending money."
Many Chinese believe that ancestors can influence their lives for good or bad. So the act of ancestor worship comes down to appeasing the spirits and encouraging them to bring good fortune.
For the longest time, I struggled with how to remember my family's lineage and build loyalty while staying true to my own faith. Remembering one's family lineage is an important part of Chinese culture. I pondered, as I have so many times, "How do I do this now that I'm a Christian?"
I thought about the power of God that I've seen in recent years, let alone what I've studied in the Bible. This power provides more blessing than any ancestor could offer. There is no way can I turn away from that.
This thought gave me the courage to speak to my aunt about the giver of the blessing that I've come to know -- Jesus. His words echoed throughout her cramped apartment as we read from Scripture.
She received it openly and responded, "I think I'm becoming more open to what you are telling me. But it will take time."
That evening, the chaos and noise at Wong Tai Sin Temple focuses my attention back on the people surrounding me. I take it all in and think, "God deeply cares for the temple worshiper just as much as He cares for my family."
I can't imagine starting the "new year" any better -- understanding and experiencing my family and culture in a new way and sharing the "blessing" God gave me through His Son.
T.Y. Po is a Chinese-American videographer and two-year Journeyman worker with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. For Po's initial story on his visit to Hong Kong for Chinese New Year, go to http://www.bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=37007. To see more stories, photos and videos his visit to Hong Kong for Chinese New Year, go to www.asiastories.com.
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