新年快乐(Xīn nián kuài lè)

Chinese students at RUHS share their family traditions for Chinese New Year

PHOTO FROM iSTOCK

PHOTO FROM iSTOCK

A toast to the past. But simultaneously, a time to continue on with the future. The 15-day celebration – known as the Spring Festival – of the Lunar New Year marks the beginning of a new year full of luck and prosperity. The traditions of this holiday differ from person to person, but half-Japanese and half-Chinese senior Malina Au details how she celebrates with her family. 

For me, it mainly consists of attending a family dinner, usually at a Chinese restaurant, because it’s not that easy to have everybody come to one house and make food, especially right now with COVID,” Au said.

For Au, her family’s traditions are primarily focused around eating food surrounded by family members from all over the country. Occasionally though, she’ll go into Chinatown and watch all the festivals and lion dances that are held in honor of the Lunar New Year. 

“The lion dancers actually come inside the restaurant, and they do their performance inside. So all the tables are on the sides and then the middle is open for the lion dancers to walk through and move in a fluid way. Then you have all these musicians that come in on the side. They’re always banging and making loud noises,” Au said. 

Chinese teacher Chichen Lu brings these traditions to her classroom to give students a first-hand experience of the lion dances that Au describes.  

“I showed them the Chinese lantern festival, and I also hung up all the red banners that people write their good wishes on and hang up. Then I showed them a lion dancing dragon because China used to be an agriculture-based country, so the dragon is the animal that controls the land and water so it is very important. Lion dancing can also ward off evil spirits,” Lu said.

While Lu allows her students to explore the Chinese traditions in the classroom, full-Chinese senior Julianna Lai typically spends her holiday in the comfort of her own home. 

“We eat at home because my grandma usually cooks food, or we’ll just bring food home because it’s more of a family environment. And we’ll watch the countdowns and the special shows that are streamed online,” Lai said. 

Although in two different environments, one thing Lai and Au have in common are the foods they eat on New Year’s Day. 

“A lot of foods we eat are supposed to represent symbols like luck. There’s a lot of dumplings (jiǎozi) that are supposed to represent ingots, which is old traditional Chinese money,” Au said.

Along with the dumplings, Au starts her course meal with a black chicken and melon soup with lots of vegetables. Au and Lai also both detail the significance of one of the main courses of the dinner – steamed fish. 

“Usually for Chinese New Year you make one steamed fish and you make it on New Year’s Eve and then eat it on New Year’s Day. This is to bring wealth or surplus into the new year because fish is a representative of surplus,” Lai said. 

Although one of the main ways to celebrate is by eating food, Lai and Au also receive the traditional gift of a red envelope, called hóngbāo, with money inside. 

“The way my family does it is if you got an odd amount of money, you were ‘eh’ this past year, but if you got an even amount of money, that person’s very happy with you. Usually the kids get it from their grandparents,” Lai said. 

The amount of money differs but money values in multiples of eights are usually the luckiest. Au said her family distributes money with serial numbers with many eights in it to show good luck for the new year. 

For Lai though, the fun traditions, food and gifts are just a portion of what makes her feel proud of her culture and less guilty. 

“It makes me feel less American because when relatives come they’re like, ‘You’re just an American-Chinese person. You’re not a real Chinese.’ But the fact that we celebrate the holidays and festivals in similar ways just makes me feel less guilty about being American,” Lai said. 

Like Lai, Au also just enjoys the cultural appreciation aspect of the Lunar New Year celebration. It allows her to stay connected to her roots through the traditions. 

“Just because knowing that in the US, a lot of traditions diminish and it makes me a little bit upset just to see that being lost,” Au said. “So I like celebrating just as a way to continue to remember my culture.”