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Clinging onto Lunar New Year

<h6>Joshua Yang / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Joshua Yang / The Daily Princetonian

You are reading the words of someone who has celebrated Christmas Eve in a McDonald’s and New Year’s Eve in bed before 10 p.m. These are the words of someone who spent Thanksgiving online shopping for five hours in a fit of mild delirium and Independence Day frowning at the American tourist who yelled “Happy Fourth of July!” in the middle of the seventh arrondissement of Paris last summer. 

In other words, I am not someone who makes a big fuss over most holidays. There’s no hostility on my part toward New Years, Christmas, Thanksgiving, or the rest. It’s simply that, like many other immigrants, my parents only made half-hearted attempts to celebrate American holidays throughout my childhood. As I grew up, holidays inevitably blurred into one another, often passing by without comment or notice. 

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There’s just one exception to this rule. 

For as long as I can remember, each year, every year, around the end of January or the beginning of February, my family makes a Herculean effort to celebrate Lunar New Year. In years past, we’ve put up red posters with carefully calligraphed gold characters proclaiming joy and luck on windows, rolled out enough dough to make dozens and dozens of dumplings from scratch, and brewed “laozao,” a sweet, fermented rice wine concoction. 

Celebrations begin two nights before the New Year when my mom fills our kitchen with all the ingredients we’ll need for the days ahead: dried mushrooms, diced ginger and minced garlic, a plethora of fragrant sauces and spices, and bowls and bowls of raw pork and poultry.

The eve of the New Year passes at a frenetic pace: hour after hour, my family cooks, cleans, and prepares for the evening’s festivities. The stove runs nonstop for hours as we constantly adjust oven racks to get everything baked on time. One by one, we prepare traditional dishes like lotus root, eggplant, rice cakes, andshuizhu” — thin-sliced meat poached in boiling water. 

By 7 p.m., the hard work is done. Together, we gather around the dining table, dig in, and watch “chunwan,” the annual New Year’s Eve Gala broadcast. Over toasts of champagne and apple cider, we wish each other good fortune for the year ahead. Our extended family across the Pacific sends us voice messages and festive emojis via WeChat. 

Over the years, I’ve often questioned why my family continues to celebrate Lunar New Year, especially when we’ve mostly given up on every other holiday. 

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The answer to these questions isn’t simple. 

It feels too reductive to view my family traditions as a way to keep in touch with our Chinese heritage. It’s too simple to say that when my family hangs up bright-red paper lanterns and cooks Sichuan cuisine, we are mooring ourselves to a country that we no longer call our own. 

Because the truth is, if this is the reason why we persist in our celebrations, we’ve done an awfully poor job of mooring ourselves to anything at all. The traditions of Lunar New Year dictate that we head back to my parents’ rural hometowns in the Sichuan province, gather with all of our extended family, and set off firecrackers to scare off the mythical, evil beasts that prowl on New Year’s Eve. Obviously, none of this is possible when we are an entire continent away from our relatives and when the local county code prohibits firecrackers of any kind (California has an issue with wildfires). 

Even the traditions that are easier to follow — older relatives giving out red envelopes stuffed with cash to children, eating noodles and dumplings on New Year’s Eve, pulling an all-nighter to auspiciously bring in the new year — have been eschewed by my family. Instead, when my family celebrates Lunar New Year, our celebrations are a mixture of American and Chinese influences, of new and old. 

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When my grandparents across the Pacific send me red envelopes, they do so over the internet, and the money goes straight into my digital wallet. When my family plans the menu for our New Year’s Eve dinner, we incorporate decidedly non-traditional items such as cheesecake, champagne, and dinner rolls. And, because I nearly always had school the following day when I celebrated New Year’s growing up, I never quite managed to pull off that all-nighter. 

All of this is to say that nearly every way in which my family celebrates Lunar New Year has been shaped and modified by our time in America. Plus, after two decades in California, my parents can hardly moor my family to the traditions of a country that they left in the 20th century, because that country has moved on, too. 

The lack of a solid foundation behind our celebration of this holiday worries me sometimes. Some part of me fears that once I graduate and no longer have an abnormally long winter break to spend at home, Lunar New Year will be consigned to the same scrap heap of obscurity that Thanksgiving and Christmas currently occupy in my mind. The philosophy major in me also wonders whether, after my family has changed and modified all the traditions of the Lunar New Year, the celebration will even be considered the Lunar New Year.

But maybe, I’m overthinking this too much. 

I write this essay on the last day of the old year, on a cold afternoon in the middle of winter. From the door of my childhood bedroom, I can hear the clanging of pots and pans as the rest of my family prepares the meal for tonight. In a moment, I will close my laptop, grab a knife, and start chopping up vegetables for the soup. I think I’ll stay up late tonight, maybe even pull an all-nighter, because why not? It’s not like I have school tomorrow. 

I don’t know what the years ahead will bring, whether I’ll continue receiving red envelopes from my relatives and watching the New Year’s Eve Gala, or whether Lunar New Year will still occupy the same place in my life. 

Regardless, right now I am simply thinking of this: my mother and father were the only two people out of my large, extended family that chose to immigrate to America. Here in California, we are a solitary immigrant family. We only have each other on this vast, vast continent. And in spite of that fact — or because of that fact — we’ve managed to cling on to Lunar New Year, even if the holiday doesn’t really exist anywhere else like it does for us. 

Maybe that’s good. 

Maybe that’s enough. 

Joshua Yang is an associate editor for The Prospect at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at joshuayang@princeton.edu or on Twitter at @joshuaqyang.

Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at prospect[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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