by Amanda Ong
Like many Chinese Americans of the diaspora, I have never spoken the dialects of my family with any fluency. There were the words I knew only in Chinese to speak in public without anyone understanding, like “that’s cheap” in Cantonese, ho pang, or “too expensive” in Shanghainese, gesu. There were the words we used at home because they were intimate to us, like pet names, but there were never words that flowed into full sentences, conversations, articulate thoughts. Still, I always knew the language of food. And there is no time that is more important for food than the Lunar New Year. Long noodles are for a long life, whole fish is for abundance, egg dumplings are for money, mandarin oranges are like gold.
My parents grew up mostly in the United States; my grandparents had immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s from Hong Kong and the former Nationalist China, governed by the Republic of China, or Kuomintang, a government which later fled to Taiwan and out of my grandparents’ hometowns of Shanghai and Zhongshan.
Growing up, it was hard for me to make sense of my place in the diaspora. During Lunar New Year, I remember my mother shoving pomelo leaves at us to rub on our bodies, urging us to clean ourselves, to get haircuts, to open the doors and the windows on New Year’s day. Once, in college, I called my parents for Lunar New Year’s after a particularly arduous class on police brutality, and my mother’s first reaction was to tell me, “Well, you must not cry, it’s bad luck. Wait until tomorrow at least!”
But, at the end of the day, the Lunar New Year was a day for feasting, for red packets, for celebration with family and friends. There was always something renewing about the process of cleaning yourself of the past and welcoming a fresh year. My first Lunar New Year away from home, I didn’t practice the traditions I was raised with and it was the only time I became homesick at college. So, sophomore year, I practiced all of the traditions I had found strange as a child, cleaning every crevice of my one-room dorm, cutting my hair beforehand, handing out chocolate-coin-filled red packets to friends, wearing red, cracking my dorm window open at night. I needed to observe the traditions I had grown up with or I just didn’t feel at peace.
Since then, I realized not observing the Lunar New Year felt like I was being dishonest to my own upbringing. Now, I make sure to see any family I can during Lunar New Year, and continue to pull out all of the stops to try to maintain my culture’s traditions — if nothing else, at least cleaning and cutting my hair and hosting family or friends for as elaborate of a Lunar New Year feast as I can manage.
Like me, the Lunar New Year can both feel empowering and confusing for other children of the diaspora as well. I spoke with my friend Meilani Mandery, a third generation Chinese American. She celebrated with her grandparents in California’s San Gabriel Valley growing up, visiting the nearby Lunar New Year Fair, seeing the lion dances and watching bursting firecrackers. But her hometown also lacked many Asian American folks, and since moving to Seattle, she has been able to surround herself with far more Chinese Americans and Asian Americans who celebrate the Lunar New Year.
“Lunar New Year was always put together by my Popo [so] I didn’t know what celebrating on my own would look like,” Mandery told me. “I have a diagram drawn on my Popo’s scrap paper of our altar set up. Rice here, incense there. The days before my [own] first Lunar New Year in my first apartment were spent with my Chinese American friends in the CID, buying joss paper, roast pork, and oranges. Sure, my little altar set up isn’t as big as years past, but I’m content with that.”
For my other friend, Ning Wan, a Taiwanese-Chinese American, her relationship with the Asian diaspora has often felt lopsided. Her father is a Taiwanese immigrant but her Cantonese American mother has a many-generations-long history in the United States. This lopsidedness has complicated her identity as an Asian American, relating both to first generation identity and to many generations in the United States, and colored the way she celebrates Lunar New Year. Though she didn’t celebrate the Lunar New Year much as a young child, she remembers her cousin from Hong Kong moving to the United States and the way they celebrated changed.
“It really brought the biggest sense and presence of Chinese culture that I had ever really felt in my life up until then — and that’s when we started to do more like family dinner, making nian gao, red envelopes,” Wan said. But for Wan’s family, following classic Lunar New Year’s isn’t as imperative. The Lunar New Year doesn’t mean they need to clean the entire house beforehand, or not shower or cut their hair after the New Year. “I think it’s an excuse to get together and enjoy time with family and friends and people you love and just celebrate through food and gathering,” Wan said.
As an adult, Wan hosts family dinners or potlucks with friends who celebrate or are just interested in celebrating. They wear red, bring food to share, and enjoy each other’s company. But just doing this presents an impactful connection with her identity.
“As an Asian American, I do all of this work to try to overcome the dissonance I feel with my racial identity, to connect with the culture that my parents are bringing to me, or that I’m seeing in Asian American communities around me,” she said. “If I were ever to go to live in China for an extended period of time, or just even take a vacation, there’s nothing I could do to overcome my apparent foreignness as an American Born Chinese. I feel even farther away, and it just increases that dissonance. I feel like I’m grasping for straws. So having something like Lunar New Year gives me a way to bridge that gap and find a connection.”
It is a strange thing to be raised of a culture you are across the world from. But knowing that some things are shared helps us connect and build around each other. Many Asian Americans, especially having immigrated two or three generations ago, can be out of touch with our cultures as they exist in the present. “[Our sense of culture] is not necessarily relevant anymore today,” Wan told me. “But Lunar New Year is still a huge part of Chinese culture, and it kind of makes me feel like that connection to my culture is relevant.”
Mandery also feels like the Lunar New Year has become a conduit to connect with her culture overall. “When I was a kid, [Lunar New Year] was the one day a year to be Chinese, to celebrate and be loud about it,” Mandery said. “I’ve grown so much in my relationship to my identity and culture. I’m Chinese every damn day. While Lunar New Year is a chance to slow down and be intentional about my relationship with my ancestors and my culture, I’ve learned to incorporate these elements in my daily life — admittedly with less lion dancing.”
As I get older and I meet other Asian Americans, I think more than anything that the Lunar New Year is a symbol of connection, of togetherness, of celebration and love and food that we can band together around. Perhaps it’s not always strictly traditional, but it is what reminds us that we are born of something larger than ourselves, something that is shared, that is global, and that we can all celebrate. Across Seattle, Asian Americans come together and celebrate, with public celebrations in CID, online fairs with the Wing Luke Museum, Lunar New Year flowers from Asian American businesses, and Year of the Tiger calendar fundraisers from Asian American organizations like Song2Sea. The Lunar New Year brings us together for our community. Happy Year of the Tiger to all!
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Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.
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