Skip to main content
Tracy Lai in her Chinese New Year jacket, circa 1960s

Tracy Lai in her Chinese New Year jacket, circa 1960s.

Sharing Lunar New Year: Longevity, Lion Dances and Learning

February 8, 2024

Sharing Lunar New Year: Longevity, Lion Dances and Learning

Learning about the deeper significance of Lunar New Year and acknowledging the myriad ways that humans practice their culture and express their values help to make us more whole.

Share

Share On Facebook
Share On Twitter
Share On Pinterest
Share On LinkedIn
Email

By Tracy Lai

When I was a little girl, I knew there was something special about “our” new year. Unlike the Jan. 1 celebration, Chinese New Year had nothing to do with champagne and resolutions. It was all about family.

Now we call the holiday “Lunar New Year,” embracing traditions from Korea and Vietnam, and I love that inclusion. But in my childhood home, it was “Chinese New Year,” and it always made me think of my grandmother.

My sister and I were born in Maa Maa’s (my grandma’s) San Francisco Chinatown apartment building, a home she purchased by scrimping and saving because she wanted a place where her whole family could stay together. In fact, when my parents first married, my father — her son — brought his bride to that building, and we stayed for years.

Maa Maa, who moved to the United States from China as a bride in 1923 through Angel Island Detention Center, was a quiet matriarch who ruled the roost. She was the one who kept us together, organizing weekly family meals, for one thing, and when Chinese New Year came around, she determined what special foods we would have. My favorite was always longevity noodles, for long life and prosperity. Don’t cut those noodles!

The new year meant the excitement of everyone being together: That warmth, the good feeling and the optimism of a better year ahead.

Maa Maa also made new jackets for each of the children, carrying on the tradition of wearing new clothes for the new year. We were given red envelopes for good luck: Each had a coin like a half dollar or silver dollar in it, or maybe a crisp, new one dollar bill. Your lucky new year money!

Once we moved to the suburbs, my family brought treats from Chinatown: I always knew there would be something delicious when I saw the pink bakery boxes full of bao or custard tarts. Mostly, though, the new year meant the excitement of everyone being together: That warmth, the good feeling and the optimism of a better year ahead.

Sharing Traditions

This year I will celebrate by sending a little red envelope to my 9-month-old grandson. It’s important that he knows our family traditions from the beginning. In fact, I want our traditions to be widely known — a part of the American culture, since that is really what they are.

Things were different when I was young: During the Cold War, many Americans had negative associations with China, and as a schoolgirl I didn’t like to draw attention to my heritage. That didn’t stop me from enjoying a Chinese language class at my otherwise white, suburban high school, though. It was thrilling to learn with Mrs. Chan, especially when we got to talk about familiar rituals like Chinese New Year, as if they were not so foreign after all.

When young children are exposed to different traditions, they’re less likely to consider something like Lunar New Year as 'foreign.'

Today I teach Asian American History at a community college in Seattle, and I encourage my students to make as many connections as they can to the history, language and culture they’re learning about. They learn to avoid clumping all Asian American and Pacific Islander people together: Chinese is not Korean, not Japanese, not Filipino. Even in China, there are 55 distinct ethnic groups; the language Mrs. Chin taught was Mandarin, which was familiar to many of my classmates, but my family spoke Cantonese.

This kind of learning is essential at all levels. When young children are exposed to different traditions, they’re less likely to consider something like Lunar New Year, with its references to kitchen gods and lion dances, as “foreign” or, as some people view it, threatening to mainstream Christian culture. It is just something their best friend’s family celebrates. It might even mean trying a savory dumpling or watching the lion dance in Chinatown.

Beyond the New Year

Of course cultural inclusion and celebration is not just about holidays, and we can’t say discrimination is over just because a non-Asian person knows the difference between bao and bubble tea. But learning about the deeper significance of Lunar New Year and acknowledging the myriad ways that humans practice their culture and express their values help to make us more whole. I really think it can break down other kinds of hate and misconceptions.

Our schools are ideal places to do this work. The AFT recently partnered with the UCLA Asian American Studies Center in Los Angeles to facilitate a training for teachers who are now required by state law to teach Asian American history. I am really proud of the AFT for making this commitment, which involves a new textbook — including a chapter I am writing about the intersection of Asian American and labor history — and a teacher training. The project should launch in 2025.

Meanwhile, as Lunar New Year approaches — it begins Feb. 10 this year — many of us are thinking about our hopes for the coming year. There are so many crises right now — wars and violence at home and abroad — so this year I am hoping we will find more peace in the world. I am hoping for a high level of civic engagement. I am hoping that people will reignite that spirit and remember how important our votes really are.

We have a world so worth building and preserving and nurturing. And we do have the tools to do that. I hope we’ll all use them.

Republished with permission from AFT Voices.

Tracy Lai

About the Author

Tracy Lai is a social sciences professor at Seattle Central College where she teaches history, ethnic studies and women’s studies. She is a co-chair of the AFT Asian American and Pacific Islander Task Force and the AFT Civil and Human Rights Committee and a national leader in the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO.

Additional Lunar New Year Resources

Find more resources to help you celebrate the Lunar New Year in your classroom with this curated list.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Want to see more stories like this one? Subscribe to the SML e-newsletter!

AFT
The AFT was formed by teachers more than 100 years ago and is now a 1.8 million-member union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and our communities. We are... See More
Advertisement

Post a comment

Log in or sign up to post a comment.