Saturday, January 03, 2009

Sin chia kiong

"Sin chia kiong!"

For many years those three syllables were at the core of an annual ritual in our household. We children would scream those words into the telephone, all the better to be heard above the din of firecrackers going off in the background of both ends of the connection. In later years, shouting was still the norm, because we had gotten used to it and because the people on the other end had become hard of hearing, said people being Grandmother and Grandfather in Dumaguete.

Up to now, I am unsure of the exact literal meaning of the greeting. "Sin" I know means "new", and that indicates its roots in Hokkien. Of "chia" or "kiong" I'm not so certain. "Kiong", my mother says, takes from "kiong hi", which is our way of saying "congratulations." "Chia" is not at all in our regular vocabulary, but I guess it would be "year."

Compounding my confusion was the fact that only we seemed to use the greeting. Everyone else said "kung hei fat choy", which is Mandarin (or in Hokkien, "kiong hi huat choy"); when I gave friends the usual family greeting, I would be met with puzzled and bemused looks. I really don't know why that should be: "kung hei fat choy" means "more happiness (and wealth) to you", and is thus less literal than "sin chia kiong."

But what did it matter if people outside the family circle understood it or not? It was the greeting Guama and Guakong used. It was the greeting linked to the happiness of the new year. "Sin chia kiong, Ama! How are you? Are you well?" "Sin chia kiong, Angkong! Yes, it's very noisy here; I can hardly hear you. Are they tossing firecrackers there, as well?" And we said all those tangential things because, by our convention, we never said "I love you."

These days, we could say "sin chia kiong" without shouting. Davao, having banned firecrackers for the past five years, is the quietest place to spend the New Year; there are no explosions to shout over. The telephone calls are much clearer and cheaper -- we can talk as long as we want for only P10 per call. It would be a fine time to greet Guama and Guakong: "Sin chia kiong!" I would still shout, though, if only from habit.

All but for one thing: Guama and Guakong are no longer there to hear it; and so I content myself to whisper it:

"Sin chia kiong, Guama; sin chia kiong, Guakong."