Family, Food, and Festivities: Lunar New Year Despite a Pandemic

A look into how Stuyvesant students celebrate Lunar New Year, and what impact their Asian American identity has on the holiday.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

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By Alyssa Choi

Firecrackers pop in the distance as happy voices trail from the dinner table. The TV is blaring songs and flashing dances. And the smell of delicious food drifts through the house, creating a bubbly atmosphere that salutes the arrival of spring and the New Year.

Lunar New Year as we know it today was created based on the Lunar Chinese calendar, as well as the appearance of the full moon between January and February. But beyond being just a way for people to tell the time, Lunar New Year has become a holiday for celebrating family and traditions and has spread to many countries throughout Asia. This year, February 12 marked the beginning of Lunar New Year. It is a day that many Asian Americans at Stuyvesant use to celebrate their heritage with family, food, and festivities.

A large number of Asian Americans have either rarely, or never visited their home country, a pattern that is only exacerbated by the pandemic. Junior Alyssa Choi detailed what celebrating was like in quarantine: “This year I didn’t really have a celebration because all my family, like my grandparents, are in Korea,” she said. However, in the past, the celebration was grand. “My oldest memory [of celebrating] is in kindergarten, because I used to live in Korea when I was in kindergarten. Every Lunar New Year we would just have this really big celebration with all the traditional foods, and then my cousins and I would dress up in 한복 (hanbok), and then we would bow down to my grandparents, and they would give us money and stuff,” she said.

The Korean Lunar New Year morning starts off with a savory scent filling the air. The table is not set yet, and there is a huge pot filled with 떡국 (Tteokguk) prepared the night before. 떡국 (Tteokguk), a rice cake soup eaten with egg garnish, is an essential food to the Korean tradition. To Choi, it’s what makes the New Year special in the first place. “[Lunar New Year] is definitely special, especially in Korean tradition [...] because in Korea it means you turn a year older,” she said.

Meanwhile, Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations typically last a little over a week, but on Lunar New Year Eve, families get together and have a huge feast. Some might even watch special performances to start the new year off in a positive way. Sophomore Gil Zheng would usually celebrate with many relatives and eat lots of different foods. “I usually invite some relatives over and we eat hot pot or rice with a lot of other side dishes. And we watch TV afterward, something called the 中央电视台春节联欢晚会 (CCTV Spring Festival Gala) where there’s a conference or festival that occurs in China that we just watch,” he said. “We eat 红糖年糕 (nián gāo) and eggs––a lot of eggs, boiled eggs.”

Similar to Chinese New Year, due to their large Chinese community, Malaysia and Singapore celebrate Lunar New Year with overlapping traditions. In the streets of Malaysia, there are often dragon dances and big feasts with traditional Chinese foods; in Singapore, there is 红包 (hóng bāo), or red envelopes, decorating the streets with fortune.

Tibet also celebrates Lunar New Year with a different name: the Losar Festival. Two days before the actual New Year, Tibetans eat Guthuk, a dumpling which, at times, would be jokingly filled with wool, coal, or any number of things.

In Vietnam, the celebration is known as Tết, and it can’t be celebrated without the essential chung cakes. These are made out of sticky rice, green beans, and pork, in a shape that symbolizes the Earth and are used to show gratitude to their ancestors and homeland.

Yet, many normal festivities this year were canceled due to COVID-19. “We usually watch the dragon dance in Flushing or Chinatown, but this year we didn’t go,” Zheng said. “I definitely got less money this year because not as many people could visit.”

Similar to Zheng, freshman Unique Zhang didn't participate in the normal festivities. “I don’t want to say that it lost its meaning, but it certainly has a different feel. I didn’t go to church and see the big dragon dance and whatnot,” she said. But though this year’s celebration wasn’t quite what she expected, Zhang just appreciates spending time with her loved ones. “[Lunar New Year] is just for me to be with my family honestly, cause I don’t really expect many 红包 (hóng bāo) anymore, so it’s okay. I don’t mind,” she explained.

But Zhang also reminisced about her prior celebrations that were full of festivities. “I remember distinctly waking up and [hearing] the chatter from downstairs or from another room and it [felt] like a dream,” she said. “I would go to church and we’d have this whole little festival, a little celebration. And they had dancing dragons and whatnot. I would get scared that the dragon would bite my hand off,” she said. She also recalls the bag of colorful chips she received from her grandmother as a child. “I don’t know what they are, what they’re called, but I remembered I had [a] specific bias toward the green and the pink one [...] It just sucks the living daylight out of your tongue,” she said.

Sophomore Ryan Lee shared a similar experience. In an e-mail interview, Lee wrote: “My family always has this tradition of having a large dinner with tons of extended family, with so many amazing dishes you’d get to eat once a year.” Lee especially loves how each dish represented different attributes of luck for the coming year. 盆菜 (Pén cài), a Chinese casserole mixed with abalone, shrimp, and pig’s feet, represents unity and teamwork, while 伊面 (yī miàn), or longevity noodles, is said to bring long life.

In addition to food, Lee also celebrates the holiday with a praying ritual to connect with his ancestors and spirits. “We would pray to pictures of them with a table filled with food for the spirits to eat, and after that, we would get a large pot and start burning fake money and other ceremonial items as a way to wish us and the spirits of our ancestors good fortune,” he explained.

Lee also faced differences in his celebration due to the pandemic. “Usually we’d have over 30 people over with hundreds and if not a couple thousand dollars worth of food for everyone, but this year it was just eating takeout,” Lee said. “In addition, the rituals we'd usually perform just didn’t happen, and we weren’t able to go to the temple because they had closed because of the coronavirus.”

Still, despite the pandemic, sophomore Isabella Jia felt that she still had a meaningful time with her family. “Usually I would visit our relatives’ house and make barbeque pork called 叉烧 (chā shāo) and all that stuff but this year we just made dumplings and 发糕 (fā gāo) [a type of muffin],” she explained. “It was a very small gathering [at my home but] I don’t think that really degraded my experience for Chinese New Year. I think the feeling still stayed the same even if it wasn’t a lot of people,” Jia continued. She went on to reminisce her favorite memory from a typical Lunar New Year gathering: “[When] my parents and relatives were all done playing mahjong and the pieces were all messed up, my cousins [and I] would just go and pretend we were playing the game, such as stacking the mahjong piece, even though we didn’t know what we were doing and just pretending to play.”

Beyond just food and festivities, Lunar New Year is a way for Asian Americans to connect back to their roots. Many Asian American students often feel disconnected from their heritage, but Lunar New Year provides a way for many students to embrace both sides of the story by celebrating their Asian ancestry in America.

Choi lived in Korea for a few years as a child, and she still misses being fully immersed in Korean culture. “In some ways my culture kind of diminished, and I miss being able to live in Korea and be surrounded by my family,” she said. “In the end, I don’t feel less Korean, but I still wish I was closer to my culture and family.” While Choi does feel nervous to take on the pressure of continuing a tradition, she wholeheartedly still wants to. “I don’t know if I could hold a whole tradition. But when I become an adult, if I have kids, I definitely want to pass down this tradition and celebrate with my mom when she becomes my kids’ grandparent and celebrate with my whole family and relatives.”

Similar to Choi, Zhang felt that she could strive to better understand her Lunar New Year culture. “I don’t know really the actual tradition, all I know is that I get hóng bāo and I get dragons dancing, [and] I get to see my family, but I don’t really understand the true meaning of Lunar New Year,” she explained. “But I enjoy celebrating it and that’s all that really matters. And I look forward to more.”

Zhang also enthusiastically added that she would still celebrate Lunar New Year for years to come. “I don’t want to be whitewashed. [...] I don’t want to be so American,” she said. Zhang’s Asian identity is a large reason why she wants to continue the tradition. “I’m Asian, I want to be proud of being Asian. And that is one good step toward it. And I don’t want to teach my [future] kids like, ‘oh, Chinese New Year is [only] all about hóng bāo,’” she added.

Zheng also feels strongly about continuing to celebrate Lunar New Year: “My parents aren’t really religious [and] we don’t celebrate Christmas or anything, but we still celebrate Chinese New Year like it’s a religion.” He added that he would continue to celebrate. “Of course, I’ll definitely make my future generations do the same stuff that we do now,” he said.

Alternatively, Lee feels that Lunar New Year helps him explore his identity. Lee comes from a third-generation immigrant family and at times feels incredibly Americanized; the holiday is a way to reconnect with his heritage. “I can speak Chinese and eat the dishes my grandma makes me, but it doesn’t really substitute all that well,” he said. “When the New Year comes, that’s when I really get to see a lot of my heritage. I get immersed in these traditions and get to know myself and my identity to its fullest extent.” Lee also expressed a similar interest in sharing this holiday with future generations: “I want to see my future kids have the same joy that I have and had. This holiday is extremely important to me because it’s a way I can see family and friends and have a good time while also exploring and celebrating my heritage.”

Beyond identity, Jia sees the Lunar New Year as a way to connect and honor her ancestors. “Recently, my grandpa passed away and it definitely helps with remembering him better. And ever since I was young, it was a holiday I looked forward to because my relatives are always working and everything and it was just a chance for us to come together and just enjoy each other’s embrace,” she said. For Jia, the holiday is a living memory.

Especially in the pandemic, and with the recent surge in Anti-Asian violence, the Lunar New Year not only provides solace to Asian tradition, but also celebrates the existence of Asians and their culture in America. As a considerable number of students at Stuyvesant are Asian, Lunar New Year is a meaningful and important holiday for family, food, and festivities—all despite the pandemic.