Mun Yuet Day
I hear Dennis cry. I hear feet shuffling hurriedly. A door opens. His cry is loud, then he’s soothed to silence by the warmth of his mother’s full breast. Rubbing my eyes to clearly greet the morning, I see Mama in Brother Don’s kitchen, her fingertips and chopsticks stained red. She has just finished arranging a circle of bright red eggs on a large plate, placing two more to fill in the center. Mama had earlier explained that her first grandchild is now one month old. It’s Mun Yuet Day, my nephew’s First Month Day, and she’s preparing for Got How, a Chinese ceremony.
Mama unwraps a moist paper towel to remove a small sprig cut from an evergreen plant. She carried the fragrant sprig all the way by train from our home in New York City to Buffalo, where Brother Don lives. Now the evergreen lies alongside the red eggs. On a smaller plate beside the red eggs is a razor, like Baba uses to shave.
“But why shave his head?” I ask, brushing my hand over his head. “His hair is so short and soft! Not scratchy like Baba’s morning beard.”
“Wait and see,” Mama replies, telling me to step aside.
Aunt Mimi readies Dennis on her lap, holding his arms to his sides. As Mama rubs a small piece of special soft chalk across his forehead, I start to feel badly for him. Every so often, Mama does “hair threading” on my face and Sister’s. Soft chalk is rubbed all over to make unwanted hair stand out. By twisting thread held between her teeth and fingers, she plucks them away. Mama says that our skin will be smooth and glow as we grow older. We’ll both be beautiful.
But, she’s using a real razor on Dennis!
Mama slowly, carefully runs the razor across his chalked forehead up near the hairline. Then she adds chalk to his fine sideburns and shaves some hairs there. Dennis is mostly still and looks bewildered as his grandmother hovers over him so closely. When Mama puts the razor down, Aunt Mimi lets her son’s arms wave freely, and Mama steps back to admire her handiwork.
“But Dennis still has hair on his head!” I exclaim.
Brother Don explains, “In our ancestral village in Toisan, China where I was born, babies did have their heads shaved. Doing so assured that no evil ghosts were hiding there. Since Aunt Mimi is Catholic, Dennis will also be baptized into the Catholic Church. Both Got How and Baptism allow newborns to have a fresh start in life. But, here in America, the Chinese custom has changed to shaving facial hairs. Until Mun Yuet Day, mother and child do not go out to be seen. They need time to rest. When Got How is done, the celebration begins.”
I’ve seen a photo of Mama holding me looking a few months older than Dennis is now. There’s a short tuft of hair on top of my sparsely covered scalp. I shudder to think that Mama might have shaved off what little hair I was born with on my Mun Yuet Day!
Next, Mama removes one of the red eggs and rolls it across Dennis’ forehead saying, “May you grow up big and strong. May you have happiness, good health, and longevity.”
Then Mama places a red envelope on his chest for good luck. Dennis happens to grab hold of it, too. He has survived his most delicate first month of life on Earth.
Now that Got How is done, Mama prepares special dishes to celebrate, and everyone can have a red egg. By the time I peel and devour my egg, my fingertips are red. I tell Dennis, who is resting quietly in his bassinet,
“I’m now your “Goo-Goo,” your Aunt, and I’m only eight years old!”
Sixteen years later, I’m inducted into the life-long, protective role of motherhood. Peter’s parents, Gnin Gnin and Ye Ye fly from New York City to Los Angeles, California to meet our first child. Gnin Gnin has been busy all morning in the kitchen. Soon a strong vinegary smell permeates the air of our graduate student apartment at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). I carry month old Steven out of our bedroom and see an image from the past on the table – a plate of red eggs, a sprig of evergreen on the side, and scissors.
With Steven on my lap, Gnin Gnin begins the Got How ceremony. She has me turn Steven around for the back of his head to face her. She carefully selects some strands of hair by the nape of his neck. Snip! Snip! So minimal an act, that I almost wished it otherwise. Like, isn’t there more? Steven missed the whole event!
Fifty-three years go by in a flash. From two sons and a daughter, I’ve had plenty of practice performing Got How on six grandbabies. Viola’s Mun Yuet Day was the most recent one. With scissors, I clipped along the nape of her neck and placed wisps of hair into a special envelope for keepsake. I took one of the red eggs from the plate with a sprig of evergreen, rolled it across her forehead, and wished her love, happiness, health and longevity. She happened to grab hold of the red envelope I placed upon her chest.
Viola, my daughter’s first born, is now twenty-one months old. As her maternal grandparents, we agree that Viola can follow her five cousins to call us Nai Nai and Ye Ye. She knows her paternal grandmother as Abuelita and her Aunt as Tía. When she points correctly to the everyone whose name is called out, she receives thunderous applause.
Although traditions evolve with time and circumstances, and may become blended with traditions of another culture, my wish is for some semblance of the Chinese Mun Yuet tradition to continue and, one day, for Jennifer to become a Gnin Gnin, too.
Elsie Wu is a second-generation Chinese-American from New York City, now living in California. The importance of many Chinese traditions was impressed upon her at an early age. As an elementary teacher in Andover, Massachusetts, she integrated Chinese New Year and age-appropriate immigration study with required curriculum, produced an immigration play, and organized the first International Fair for students to share their culture. She published in “Teenagers Ingenue” magazine, 1962. Currently, Elsie is writing her memoir.