The first time I wondered why my family had never celebrated the Chinese New Year, the new year of the Lunar calendar, I was in the middle of a jealous fit. A friend at Stone Mill Elementary School in North Potomac, Maryland had shown me a red and gold envelope known as hong bao during lunch. Inside was a crisp $20 bill from her grandparents, blessing her with good luck in the New Year. “How much money did you get?” she asked innocently. “I know someone who got over a hundred dollars.” I came home indignant, certain that my family was missing out on the most spectacular holiday in the world.
Fed by books and movies, my understanding of Chinese New Year had only grown more fantastical. I dreamed of one day being in Beijing for the New Year, where there would be giant firecrackers, lion dances through the street, and dumplings stacked like gold in banquet halls. One year, while I was pursuing a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Michigan, I was finally invited to a Chinese New Year party by a graduate student from Dalian (a port city along China’s Liaodong Peninsula). I felt like I was about to be inducted into a secret society. Imagine my disappointment when we simply ate tofu, cabbage, and fishcakes from a simmering hot pot and watched a Batman movie.
I started asking Chinese-American friends how they celebrated the holiday, certain I would hear about the traditions of my imagination. Instead, they either replied that they did nothing, or that they went home for a meal. The most consistent tradition I could pinpoint was making dumplings with family. Where were the households decked in red banners, the firecrackers, the envelopes full of money?
Finally, I asked my own parents about their celebrations growing up in China. Their memories proved equally prosaic. They remembered getting time off from school, a blissful few weeks where all the children played in the streets. Most of all, they would reminisce about the food they prepared for the New Year. My mother, who grew up in Beijing, remembered the government passing out extra ration tickets, which her family used at the market to buy usually restricted items, like young chicken and freshwater fish. She would wait in line at the market for hours to buy groceries for the then three-day celebration and later watch her mother spend all of New Year’s Day in the kitchen, steaming whole carp, simmering chicken soup, and sauteeing sticky, savory rice cakes with scallions, until the entire apartment smelled of meat and starch. New Year’s Eve, however, was reserved for making dumplings as a family, stuffing homemade dumpling skins with pork and cabbage or chives. They would then gather around the living room to watch the New Year’s Gala on CCTV (China Central Television).
The “authentic” way of celebrating Chinese New Year turned out to be in front of my face the entire time. The centerpiece of my parents’ celebrations was simply being at home with family.
My father, who grew up in Yushan, a small southern town in Jiangxi, had slightly different memories. Instead of dumplings, a northern favorite, his family made rustic stews with braised pork and dry-cured ham, tofu, and wood-ear mushrooms. While firecrackers were heavily regulated in Beijing, my father remembers the sound of them going off in his hometown from New Year’s Eve until New Year’s Day. When I asked either of my parents about hong bao and lion dances, they parsed through their memories and came up blank. They surmised that in the ’60s, China’s communist party still viewed old superstitions and traditions with suspicion.
The “authentic” way of celebrating Chinese New Year turned out to be in front of my face the entire time. The centerpiece of my parents’ celebrations was simply being at home with family. My mother remembered Beijing emptying out on the first day of winter vacation. Everyone, from students to migrant workers, had the day off for the New Year. When my father was in Beijing for college, he says he’d often take a standing-room-only train ride home, a 36-hour trip, one-way. Once, he stood for 18 hours straight, without a single complaint. Anything to get home to his family.
I had gotten so wrapped up in hong bao and lion dances — the outward displays of the celebration — that I had forgotten what those traditions were celebrating in the first place. Every family has its own holiday traditions in order to highlight not so much the holiday itself, but the time they get to spend together, time that school and work and life tend to interrupt every other day of the year.
I finally asked my parents the question I’d always framed like an accusation in my head: Why don’t we celebrate the Chinese New Year? The answer was shockingly simple. “We couldn’t get time off work,” they told me. “And you still had to go to school.”
Both of them hoped that America might make the Chinese New Year a more nationally recognized holiday so that Asian-Americans can keep their traditions alive. For the holiday, also known as Lunar New Year, is celebrated by many more than the Chinese — Koreans, Singaporeans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians are just a few others who do, each with their own traditions.
If the point of Chinese New Year is celebrating one’s family as a family, then I realize that my parents have managed to give us our own authentic New Year after all. For nearly a decade, we have made what is traditionally Thanksgiving weekend our version of Chinese New Year. We celebrate Thanksgiving Day with a feast for our extended family featuring all my father’s signature delicacies — red-braised pork belly, sweet-and-sticky spareribs, sesame noodles, and no turkey in sight. The next day, we celebrate my twin cousins’ birthdays with a day of play. The third day, it’s just my parents, my brother, and me, eating simple dishes of egg-and-tomato and steamed Chinese sausage, the homesick foods that we miss something fierce in our far-flung lives — I’m in Michigan while my brother is in New York. No firecrackers, no lion dancing, and no 36-hour train ride home, but home, nevertheless. Home, most important of all.