Tiffany A. Co
“When are the dragons coming?”
My mom does not answer me but instead picks up the shumai with her chopsticks and places it in her mouth.
I am big enough that I no longer need the booster seat, but small enough that my feet can’t touch the ground. They swing wildly under the table, my heels occasionally hitting the legs of the chair.
“Mommy, when are the dragons coming?” I say a bit louder.
“Soon,” she says. “Eat more food.”
I pick up the fork and take a bite from the rice roll, shrimp and sweet soy sauce surging over my tongue. I take another bite before putting the fork down.
A few moments pass, and I sit there waiting for the dragons, feet still swinging under the table in hopes that somehow, they’d be able to skim the carpet. Over the table, my family converses, Chinese and Vietnamese being used interchangeably.
My aunt, Di Yi Ma – a Chinese title that goes to the eldest aunt on my mother’s side – declares to the table, in her usual shrill and frantic voice, that it is almost time for the dragons. Her round eyes glancing owlishly over each and every individual.
My other aunt then brings out the pack of red envelopes. The gold accents from the lucky cat picture glints as she begins to hand them out. Her eyes are soft, and her movements are gentle as she methodically passes each one over to my uncle who then continues to pass them down the rounded table.
When Di Yi Ma is handed hers, she asks, “how much should I put in them?” in loud Vietnamese.
“Five dollars,” my grandmother replies.
My mother keeps all three of the envelopes.
“I’ll give these to you two when the dragon comes,” she says to me and my sister.
I slump into my chair and stab one of the dumplings on my plate with my fork. As I am lifting the dumpling from the plate to my mouth, drips of soy sauce fall onto my red dress.
“Yun, keep your mouth over your plate,” my mother chastises me before I stick the dumpling into my mouth and chew greedily.
After the envelopes for the dragons are passed out, my grandmother passes out the red envelopes for the kids.
“Kung hei fat choy,” she says to each of us. Happy Chinese New Year.
Like the other one, my mother takes a hold of it and hides it away in her purse.
Like thunder, loud drumming erupts from the front of the restaurant accompanied by the cheers of the patrons seated there.
I sit up straighter in my seat, trying to peer over the heads of the adults.
The dragons have arrived.
The air is filled with the constant beat of the drums. It’s loud enough that my sister jumps up from her seat to run towards our mom. She climbs into her lap and stays there.
Slowly, they dance their way towards our table, and I’m able to get a better look at them.
There are two of them. One red and the other one gold.
They’re bigger than I expected them to be. Shimmering red and gold fabric conceal the dancers underneath. They are completely hidden until a dragon opens its mouth, and a face is seen from the darkness. The head of the dragon holds the most attention. A huge, square head of the same shimmering fabric. Light, fake fur decorates the edges of the eyes and the mouth, continuing across the back of the dragon in zig-zagging motions.
Although there are only two people under one dragon costume, they take up the entire aisle.
The drum gives them a beat to dance to, their head swinging from side to side, their feet coming out to kick along with the beat. The fabric of the costume sways along with the movement. The puppeteer in the front controlling the eye and mouth movements allow the dragon to come to life.
Someone feeds the dragon lettuce. It makes a show of eating it before all of the lettuce comes tumbling out of its mouth.
“Why are they feeding it lettuce?”
“For good luck,” my mother replies. She then hands me a red envelope.
“Go feed the dragon,” she tells me, urging me towards the two beasts, “before they pass our table.”
My sister is already crying from the sound of the drums and from the dragons blinking at her. I stand rooted to the spot, the beating of my heart easily keeping up with the rapid rhythm of the drums at the thought of approaching one.
I look back at my mother, hoping that she’d come with me, but she just stares at me expectantly, her hand running smooth circles into the back of my sister.
Even though I know that there are people under the costume, the way the dragons’ eyes scan searchingly around the room, the playfulness of the head tilting, and the way the dragon saunters around each table makes it seem real.
I have my uncle walk up with me. When the dragon sees me approaching, it opens its mouth awaiting.
I see the face of the performer through the opening, shadowed by the costume but still visible.
For a moment, I am soothed, and I reach out the red envelope towards them.
A hand reaches out from the mouth and grabs it. The mouth clamps shut, and the dragon goes back to dancing to the rhythm of the drums.
When the dragon is a dragon again, I slink back towards my mom, my red envelope traded for luck.