Lunar New Year traditions evolve in the Asian diaspora
Jan. 1 is an opportunity to start fresh for many people around the world. Resolutions are made to eat better, become healthier or take control of finances. Unfortunately, many people around the world also abandon their resolutions by February. Luckily, it's around this time that I get a second chance to reflect on my year and set the tone for a new one by celebrating the Lunar New Year.
This year, Feb. 1 marks the beginning of the Lunar New Year. It's one of the most important festivals in many Asian countries, including Vietnam, China, Korea, Mongolia as well as the Asian diaspora. The holiday prompts what is considered one of the world's largest annual human migrations as hundreds of millions of people travel back to their hometowns to spend the festivities, which last up to two weeks, with family. Certain foods are eaten only at this time of year, and often traditional costumes are worn. Celebrants gather to see parades and perform various rites and rituals with elders in order to guarantee a lucky year ahead.
Here in the U.S., I've only celebrated each Lunar New Year — or Tet, in Vietnamese — for one day each year, as it's not a federally recognized holiday. Nevertheless, my parents made sure we spent our time wisely. The whole family would take the day off and we would wear our traditional ao dai to go visit my grandparents. We would receive red envelopes, called li xi, filled with "lucky" money, but only after giving well wishes to our elders. Leading up to the new year, we would clean the house up and down and spend days making banh chung, a sticky rice cake filled with pork belly and mung bean. Tet was a reflective holiday focused on mindfulness and setting ourselves up for another successful year.
It wasn't until my first Lunar New Year alone in college that I came to appreciate how grounding it can be to spend the first day of the year focused on joy and family.
While Lunar New Year festivities have been carried on for hundreds of years in Asia, for members of the Asian diaspora, celebrations have evolved as people invite loved ones from other cultures to join in. Here's how some of us at NPR celebrate.
Kathleen Hoang, manager of business partner operations
Hoang's parents are divorced, and she often splits her holiday between her mother, who is Korean, and her father, who is Chinese and Vietnamese. Her mother's family serves soju and Korean side dishes called banchan alongside photos of loved ones who have passed away. By moving the glasses and dishes around, it's as if her loved ones are enjoying a meal with her beyond the grave.
When she's with her father in Florida, Hoang's family does a deep clean the day before and wakes up early the next day to visit Vietnamese Buddhist temples in the area to pray and donate money. The family has a big meal in the evening. Food is laid out on an alter to honor and welcome ancestors. "New year is important to us because it's a fresh start for the year," her dad says. "Whatever we do on new year day sort of sets the tone for the rest of the year."
That side of Hoang's family has always been close, and even during the pandemic they made efforts to stay in touch. For her, the Lunar New Year feels like any other regularly scheduled family gathering, albeit slightly more festive. "My dad's older sister makes sure we always meet together every month," she says. "I want to continue that tradition."
Wanyu Zhang, senior marketing and international business manager
Zhang is from Beijing, but she hasn't been able to celebrate with her family in nearly 12 years. When she was living in China, her family would come together to make dumplings, hand out lucky money in red envelopes and watch the spring gala on China Central Television before enjoying fireworks at midnight. The Lunar New Year was one of the only times of year she could see her entire extended family. People usually get a week of vacation to celebrate. Special street markets are open all day and night for several weeks.
When Zhang moved to the U.S for college, she found a community of Chinese students to celebrate with, and was able to share the holiday with her non-Asian friends as well. "We built a new family," she said. "I sort of enjoyed it. We were doing something different." These days, it's become a tradition for her to invite a few friends over for a new year studio photo shoot with her boyfriend.
She keeps in touch with her family regularly, but the Lunar New Year is still a time for her to video chat with the whole family. They still watch the spring gala together virtually. "I want to keep that tradition no matter what," she said.
Zhang plans to stay in the U.S. for a long time, and she finds herself focusing more on the Western holidays that almost everyone celebrates, like Christmas. But she still finds small ways to celebrate and see her family. "It's a reminder that yes, this is still my holiday. But the definition is changing, and emotionally it's changing."
Gary Duong, senior marketing manager
Duong's parents are ethnically Chinese, but were born and lived in Vietnam. They came to the U.S. during the Vietnam War as refugees. Duong grew up in the Little Saigon area of Orange County, Calif. He remembers paying tributes to his ancestors and eating the same traditional dishes every year, but his relationship with the holiday is complicated.
"My parents never really got me," said Duong, who is gay. "We've always had a distant relationship. The new year doesn't represent much to me," he said. "I sort of know when Chinese New Year is coming up, but I don't really celebrate it. I will call my parents and wish them a new year." He'll also get in touch with his younger brother and niece every year.
Though he doesn't celebrate, Lunar New Year for Duong is still a reset for what he's accomplished, a retrospective look at how far he has come and a celebration of the newness of life.
Maureen Pao, editor and digital producer
Pao grew up in South Carolina with her Taiwanese immigrant parents, and Lunar New Year for her was a "big fun holiday," akin to Christmas. Their celebrations usually included partying with the entire local Chinese association. Because there weren't many other Asians in her community, the association spanned several counties. "There was a feeling of community," she said. "Most of the stuff that I learned and practice came from that association." At home, her grandparents would send the family red envelopes, clothes and food from Taiwan.
Pao became much more immersed in the traditions when she spent time in Taiwan and Hong Kong after grad school. "There was much more cleaning of the house and all the special foods," she said. "Many of my Chinese New Year memories center around the food."
Every Lunar New Year marks a different year in the Chinese zodiac based on 12 animals, and the upcoming year will be the year of the Tiger. It's an extra special year for Pao, because her son was born in the year of the Tiger. Her kids attend a Chinese immersion public charter school, where they get more exposure to the holiday. At home, she makes sure to decorate the house for the New Year — a tradition she's picked up that her parents didn't do.
Pao and her husband, who is white, were both keen on making sure their kids grew up familiar with their Chinese roots, and the Lunar New Year is a time to do just that. "It's a time to take stock of the past and to celebrate and get excited about what comes next," she said. "But to me it's especially about family and food. Even when it's just my kids and my husband and me, it still feels very special. It keeps us connected to each other and to Chinese traditions."
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