Reflections on Lunar New Year

Lunar New Year is upon us. For those of us that celebrate it, excitement is in the air. On Feb. 5, the valiant and responsible Dog will hand the reins over to the optimistic and generous Pig. Celebratory preparations started weeks ago and will culminate in several days of festivities. Shops are decorated with auspicious red displays, red lanterns have been hung, and spring floral arrangements have been meticulously arranged. The color red is critical for the holiday, as it is associated with luck and prosperity. It is also thought to scare off bad spirits.

Tri Nguyen, Father Hai Ho '03, OFMCap, Aurora Le '19, E. Elena Songster, Xiao Guan '18, Emily Cai '21, Hwa Seong Oh MA '05 & 16, and Tracy Pascua Dea

 

Lunar New Year: It's My Turn —Tri Nguyen, Senior Director of Institutional Marketing

Lunar New Year used to be a daylong celebration for us. My parents tried really hard to re-create the season for my sister and me here in America. She did not want us to lose sight of who we are and where we came from. She went to great lengths to find and make traditional dishes associated with the holiday. Our Lunar New Year’s Eve dinner was by far the most elaborate one of the year. The dinner table was covered with an abundance of dishes, some of which had been stewing for several days or took weeks to prepare. One is called bánh tét in Vietnamese. It is a savory cake made from glutinous rice rolled in a banana leaf with a mung bean and pork filling. It is the central food of the holiday and holds historical meaning.

On New Years' day, my family, including all my uncles, aunts, and cousins, dressed in new clothes, gathered at my Grandma’s house first thing in the morning. Since this is not an official U.S. holiday, kids were pulled out of school, and adults took the day off. We gave each other best wishes for the New Year and exchanged customary gifts. The little ones gave tea to the adults and received blessings in return. For my sisters and I, this was the best part. We did not have school, got to play with our cousins, and received red envelopes! This was followed by a trip to the local Buddhist temple to pray and give thanks. The celebration continued throughout the day and late into the night, with one tradition following another.

Lunar New Year shoppingRed envelopes and firecrackers are two of the most recognizable icons of the holiday. As tradition has it, firecrackers were used to scare off evil spirits and bad luck. People typically stay up on Chinese New Year’s Eve and set off firecrackers at midnight. Elders use red envelopes, or  红包 (hóng bāo) in Chinese, to give money to children in hopes of passing on a year of good fortune and blessings. It is also known as “lucky money” or “New Year’s money.”

Fast-forward to 2019: My Grandma has passed away, the adults are elderly, and the kids have grown up and are living their own life. A few have picked up roots and live in another state. The Lunar New Year celebration is no longer as elaborate as it used to be. As we assimilate and become more deeply  ingrained into American culture, the “olden ways,” as we call them, have fallen away. Life seems to have gotten busier and much more complex.

For us first-generation kids, it is oftentimes easier to let go of the traditions and customs of our parents. It doesn’t mean as much to us as it does for them. At the same time, it is still a part of our culture. I realized that the diaspora of young Asian Americans in the United States is not unique to me. It is an ongoing internal struggle that we all wrestle with. I came to the United States when I was 7 years old. I do not remember much of the “motherland” or the old customs. I do not identify entirely with how I look. My Asian features and skin color do not entirely define who I am: They are only a portion of my identity. I am as much a hamburger, fries, and beer kind of guy as a rice and soy sauce individual. I can’t quite fully claim that I am an American and not fully Asian as well. There isn’t really a check box that I can mark. I am Chinese-Vietnamese-Asian-American. The internal dialogue can sometimes be deafening.

To complicate matters a little further, I now have two little boys. A part of me wants to re-create the olden days for them. It saddens me to think they will never be able to experience what my sisters and I did as little kids during this holiday. They will never feel the uncontrollable excitement of the Lunar New Year—the fresh start and the promise that the New Year brings, the loudness and laughter that erupts when a bunch of Asians gets together.

Recently, I’ve started to make more of an effort for them. For the first time, I’ve hung up Lunar New Year decorations around the house and replaced our Christmas wreath on the front door with decorative firecrackers. In a way, my sons are forcing me to slow down and explore my heritage.

I suppose sometimes we need to look back in order to gain clarity on the path ahead.