Upon the Wishes of the People

For me, life is an ever-changing shifter, springing into a novel being that introduces itself as a new series of animated experiences with each coming year. Yet, one event has remained consistent amidst all the action: a pillar of stone amidst the torrent of time. Every February, my world drapes itself in a cloak of celebration, adorning its dress with the colors of union and laughing with the chimes of festive greetings––all to welcome the Lunar New Year.


When I lived in China, Shanghai’s neon street lights and colorful banners paraded our turnover of the lunar calendar as the “Spring Festival.” The same name was echoed in Singapore six years later, with some regional variations like “the Lunar New Year” or even just “New Year.” Friends and family would gather around a table, surrounding a plate of Lo Hei (fish salad) the size of a full moon. Picking up our chopsticks, we then reach into the delicacies as if fishing for gold, ending the ritual by tossing it all up in a toast while declaring our wishes for the new year. These blessings arrive in all languages and accents, every color of the world. 


Yet, upon stepping foot in America as a high school freshman, culture shock hit me like a truck. Gone was the universal holiday that I loved dearly; “Chinese New Year” was the only name I heard from the people here. Tying it down to an ethnicity established a sense of ‘otherness’ around the Lunar New Year celebrations, as if me and the thousands of other Chinese immigrants across the country couldn’t truly be a part of their ‘new’ society with such a practice that was distinctly labeled and alienated. At the same time, the Western moniker implied a certain kind of restrictiveness with the people that ‘could’ celebrate the holiday. It struck a dissonant chord within me: though it was not entirely mistaken in recognizing a culture that celebrated it, it bore the discomfort of exclusivity in suffocating all the nuances and internationality the holiday bore. 


Any festival is an accumulation of all the voices and happenings of the individuals that celebrate it, and for Lunar New Year to be trapped within one geographical and ethnic facet simply fails to encompass the true diversity of its audience.  


Ethan Wong ’23, a student from Shanghai, described his experience with Lunar New Year to be beyond the conventional Chinese experiences with an emphasis placed more on the people rather than the location:


“My family usually travels a lot during LNY…[it] was actually a time of exploration as I went to different countries and explored different types of food with my family. We didn’t really stick to a traditional ‘Chinese’ diet. [Regardless, the] food brings people together, food creates joy amongst the gathering people…it facilitates conversation and a good atmosphere.” 


Following the theme of gathering and connections, Celeste Robinson ’22 expressed her Lunar New Year to be an opportunity to reconnect with her Asian family amidst her years spent abroad. 


I think [Lunar New Year] is a time to connect with my heritage that I didn’t get to connect with lots of the time. I’m not connected to the language of my family, I’m not connected to a number of my family members. I’ve only somewhat recently been able to go to Malaysia and see some of them so this is my way of connecting with my ancestry that is normally closed off for me.” Robinson said. 


Lunar New Year can even become a time of union for those who did not come from a culture that celebrates it. Tom Armstrong, Instructor in Computer Science, shared his perspective as one who was introduced to the tradition as an invitee of friends’ festivities. He appreciates the holiday as one that taught him about other communities while allowing him to engage in the company. 


“When I lived in New York City, we would be invited by friends to go to a dinner celebration with a large group of friends and acquaintances and we would share a meal together with a little bit of a narrative from the host around what we were doing and what we were eating and their practices. That and just being in New York City in a space that I did not grow up in––I’m not from New York City, I never thought I would live in New York City––and having the opportunity to see how other people celebrate and have community,” Armstrong stated. 


Of course, in no way do I mean to commodify Lunar New Year and turn it from a holiday into an empty title that is merely tacked onto some product purely as a marketing ploy devoid of culture. It is important to establish the difference between appreciation and appropriation, and I would like to define the latter as performative actions that diminish and discredit its cultural origins. Rather, I believe that Lunar New Year should be reconceptualized to be more inclusive to audiences beyond those with only Chinese lineage with a shift to welcoming all who honors the intentions of this festival.


With that, we arrive at a final question: what should be the purpose of the Lunar New Year? Once again, we should respect the wishes of the people and look back to the memories and ideologies people associate with the holiday: connection. Whether interpersonal or cultural, everybody deserves to bask in the light of the world around them and the world they come from, regardless of whether they are living abroad,  mixed-heritage, or anyone seeking another’s warmth in the light of a new year.