Lunar New Year is a widely celebrated holiday across Asia and throughout Asian diasporic communities in the world. I talked to three Asian-Americans around Seattle, wondering about their memories of Lunar New Year, their favorite traditions and foods, and ultimately what this holiday means to them now.
When they tell their stories, they unfold vibrant memories and share sometimes complicated relationships to cultural preservation, painting an honest reflection on what it’s like to be Asian in America today.
A Hoa Mai by any other name would smell as sweet
Elizabeth Mai (24) is a Vietnamese-American Americorps member from Everett. Growing up, her household always referred to the Lunar New Year (LNY) as Tết.
“I remember the Lunar New Year being mentioned in the movie Wendy Wu Homecoming Warrior and thinking that I couldn’t relate,” she laughs.
Mai’s recollections of Tết bring her back to the church she attended during childhood. Her church served as the only Vietnamese community she had in Everett, whose population is 73% white. Tết celebrations at Mai’s church were lively and spirited. There would be performances of people singing and dancing, while people grabbed food from the feast of potluck dishes.
“We’d also have Bánh chưng. Inside, there is pork wrapped with mung beans, which rice wraps all around. Then, a whole entire banana leaf packages it up and people would steam it. It comes in an almost cylindrical, almost cube-like rectangle box.”
However as a kid, Tết was all about receiving the li xi, the red envelope with money. Also important was the lion dance, which for her was the most salient association to the Lunar New Year. It was watching the lion legs’ synchronized movements, but amazingly knowing that the maneuvers were actually just performed by people under a costume wearing strikingly colored pants. It was the lion’s dance partner, the Ông Địa, an Earth god that both conducted the lion (unicorn) and danced around too. It was the pounding of the drums, felt in the chest, that beats as music to this memory. Her dad once tried to teach her the rhythms to the drums.
Sometime in middle school, Mai started to endure a lot of familial life changes. Some extended family moved away, and others slowly stopped celebrating Tết. When this happened, she found herself putting this piece of her identity away.
“On my parents’ end,” Mai says, “there was a miscommunication where for some reason they just assumed that I didn’t want to learn how to speak Vietnamese. I don’t know if they blamed me, but there was something about it where we all stopped speaking it.”
Mai proposes that maybe instead it was her parents, and her entire family, that slowly assimilated to American culture. Maybe for her parents, assimilation was a way to prioritize safety and protection, albeit at the cost of cultural preservation.
“It makes me sad, but maybe it was their defense mechanism.”
Recently, Mai gave a presentation about the Vietnamese Lunar New Year to people at her work. On one hand, she felt proud. She was excited to learn more about her culture, and was fascinated by her research on Tết customs in Vietnam. On the other, she felt conflicted.
“I, a little bit, felt like an imposter. I love getting to share Vietnamese culture, and the traditions that occur on this specific holiday that means so much to people. But there’s me, who’s looking at what I’m actually celebrating, and it’s nothing like that. I wish I was as cool as this, but I’m not! I don’t want to trick people into thinking that this is what my yearly event consists of,”
What Lunar New Year’s means to her is the beauty of its unity. She revels in the fact that it is not only celebrated by Vietnamese communities, but also Chinese, Malaysian, and other Asian communities; this is a holiday that connects her to her broader Asian identity.
When I ask Mai what Lunar New Year means to her personally, she bravely and honestly says that she does not know. However, Tết means telling herself that she wants to learn more. She mentions that in her gut, she knows Tết has to do a lot with family. But talking about family can be painful.
“I want to rely on what’s authentic, by talking to my parents, my family,” Mai says, “but then it’s like: for people who can’t talk to their family, how do they go about living their life, expressing that part of their culture?”
After giving the Tết presentation, Mai realized that sharing her research and enthusiasm for foods like Bánh chưng, or the traditional dress Áo dài, helped forge connections to her own identity – a journey she embarked herself, on her own initiative, to help find out who she is. She felt more complete.
One thing Mai discovered was the meaning of her last name. She found out that it was a yellow blossom, a delicate flower that blooms in South Vietnam during this time of the year. And fittingly for our conversation, also an iconic Vietnamese symbol of Tết. Although her relationship with her last name has ongoing complications, she has now a connection to her name rooted in the part of herself that loves nature.
“My last name is dope! I appreciate my surname for sure now.”
Lost and found: The tiger ornament
Sue Kay (77) is a 3rd-generation Chinese-American who was born and raised in Seattle. During our meeting, she is wearing an incredible sweater: a midnight-neon collage of Chinatown-International District’s historic institutions, restaurants, and buildings that highlight the bright lights and signs of this part of the rainy city she grew up in.
Her hands are also wrapped around a cup of warm tea. As a kid during the Lunar New Year, she would look forward to receiving a red envelope from her grandmother, whether it be twenty-five cents or a dollar. She also loved eating a steamed tapioca flour and brown sugar layered mochi-like cake in her grandma’s rectangular pan (“we never ate it hot!”), a dessert that has many romanised variations of its Taishanese name like Liang Foon Tay, Lang Foon Tay, or (Nine-Layer) Goh.
One of Kay’s favorite family photos is one that she is not even in. It’s one that is framed on a wall, that she takes down to show to me. It’s an old black and white photo of a traditional lion dance, often performed during Lunar New Year. In it, a colossal lion’s head approaches a group of young children dressed up in warm coats and hats, Mary Janes, and wool suits. Some look at the camera, and others look apprehensively at the lion. This is a special photo to Kay, because her mother is in the photo (along with two of her aunts), standing behind the toddler looking diagonally up. Kay believes this photo was taken in 1927, because she says her mother looks about seven. Her mother could name every person in the photo.
Another one of Kay’s memories is standing with other kids around a circular aquarium at one of Chinatown’s grand venues, where Chinese New Year banquets were hosted by her or her friends’ family associations. These were mutual aid service organizations based on regional dialects or last names. They historically provided social services, financial support, and general assistance to the Chinese who immigrated to western cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They exist still to this day — in Chinatowns across the U.S. from San Francisco to Chicago. Kay’s family was part of the Eng Family Association.
These days, Kay isn’t part of any Family Association anymore. However, she sometimes will attend a dinner if there’s one organized by one, and for Lunar New Year she’ll occasionally get together with her relatives or visit a local Chinese restaurant with her kids. But speaking about how she actually celebrates Lunar New Year is a bit complex.
“It wasn’t until you started asking me about what I used to do for Chinese New Year’s, I really had to sort out: what is Chinese New Year’s?” Kay says. “I don’t celebrate New Year’s here either.”
She continues, “There are strings of…’shoulds’, or this is a tradition that you clean your house. That’s been passed down to me but I don’t pay a lot of attention to it.”
This Lunar New Year, Kay chooses to focus on her interests and priorities that have stuck. She loves attending Mandarin class every Wednesday on Zoom, and is practicing to get past the Pre-K level. Her friends have invited her to have hot pot and visit a nearby temple, and she’s excited to stay in touch with the younger generation.
Kay is also conscientious of the time. What this Lunar New Year means to her is the hope that more people have time for introspection, and the ability to think of health on both the personal and global level, ensuring the survival of the planet.
In the background of our call, I see a home that is thoughtfully decorated with carved antique Chinese furniture which she jokingly calls “old chinese stuff.” She hangs old photos of family history and genealogy trees that trace their long origins in Washington. She shows me her favorite ornament that she once lost, but finally found, a satin gold tiger with a floating head, just in time for the Year of the Tiger.
“So I guess those traditions do linger, I mean they stay,” she says.
Words of fortune
Joseph To (25) is a music director and teacher who lives in Seattle. Food and red pocket money – these were his favorite Lunar New Year memories. He laughs, remembering that every time he visits back home in Hong Kong, he is greeted with a mountain of red envelopes that has accumulated from the annual new year’s celebrations that he missed. As a kid, they were always fun to receive; it was a procedural exchange, where he would recite a traditional Chinese New Year saying to an elder, and then receive one or more red envelopes.
“Sun Tai Gin Hong!” Wishing you good health.
“Gung Hei Fat Choy!” Wishing you prosperity.
He remembers a crucial part of the New Year being the anticipation of it itself. On the 28th of December on the Lunar New Year calendar, he would diligently help clean his household to prepare for the new year coming in. Then on the first, second, and third day of the new year, his family would eat vegan. It was pure food, offering a renewal of intention and reflection. But what may even be more important to To’s family than New Year’s Day is the Winter Solstice holiday in late December. Like a Chinese Thanksgiving, it is celebrated by gathering with family and sharing a bounty of auspicious food.
To will never admit it, but he is a fantastic Cantonese home chef. He grew up learning how to cook by watching his grandma, who never actually offered instructions. The one time he asked her to write down a recipe, she responded with “I don’t know,” and continued to show him unmeasurable amounts of different ingredients.
This year, To says that he is not really celebrating the Lunar New Year. It lands on a weekday, and these days he is quite busy: juggling multiple jobs as a choral music director, a school teacher, and a member of a local choir’s Board of Directors. A significant part of the joy of Lunar New Year’s has always been the element of sharing – sharing food, sharing the culture, sharing stories. But this year, it’s hard to do that.
At the same time, he mentions subtle actions that clearly show his efforts to pay homage to his Hong Kong origins. He has prepared little red envelopes filled with chocolate and Chinese words of fortune, ready to give to his students on the eve of the Lunar New Year. He also prepared a special lesson plan that includes showing Chinese New Year music and a traditional Chinese orchestra. On a recent trip to San Francisco’s Chinatown, he picked up some traditional red new year banners, fai chun, which now hangs on his bedroom door.
Although he may not have time to celebrate Lunar New Year, Joseph is still a proud Hong Konger. He is proud of the unique culture that has resulted from the fusion of both Chinese and English values and traditions. And having lived in Seattle for eight years, this is something he upholds, dearly.
“Sometimes you can lose your identity when you live in a place for a long time, because you’re not home anymore. But there are some things that if you uphold dearly, you will keep the traditions. And if you keep doing the practice that you have been doing, you can keep your identity going.”
This article is part of a special project between the International Examiner and the South Seattle Emerald to produce content in 2022 addressing Asian and Pacific Islander racism and resilience through activism, art, celebrating culture and community organizing. We thank the City of Seattle Human Services Department for their support in bringing this content to our readership and others.