In keeping with the sweetness and light we are trying to maintain to honor the New Year, I offer the following post…
Last night, I went to a party in celebration of Chinese New Year. My friend Anna, originally from Jinan, is quite the cook, and with the help of her father and several cousins, prepared so many courses that I’m surprised the table held up under the weight. The four people attending born in the Dog year received stuffed dog toys, the kids got hong bao, and we all ate far too many dumplings in order to get one with a coin inside. Only one coin was swallowed, to my knowledge.
Here in Los Angeles, celebrations of the Lunar New Year are increasingly common, and not just among Asians and Asian Americans. I turned down a couple other invitations myself. Of course, Los Angeles isn’t necessarily like the rest of America, but we aren’t the only ones celebrating. Now there’s a movement afoot for official recognition of Lunar New Year:
Emily Yee-Mei Lee remembers that as a child in Taiwan, she longed for the next Chinese New Year, that fabulous day when she would receive neon-red envelopes with $100 bills and gorge on scrumptious pork dumplings.
But in the United States, Lee usually confronts the festival with angst and guilt: Instead of spending the whole day celebrating, she trudges to her job as a computer programmer and ships her 15-year-old son off to school.
“It makes me feel like it’s impossible to be a good Chinese and a good American,” said Lee, 47, of Ellicott City. “It’s just so hard to properly celebrate the holiday in this country.”
The Lunar New Year — which is celebrated today by more than a billion Asians around the world — presents a troubling annual dilemma for many of the country’s 12 million Asian Americans: honor your millennia-old traditions by taking the day off, or bow to the pressures of Western society by going about business as usual?
Asian Americans such as Lee say they shouldn’t have to make that choice. In a sign of their increasing political power, Asian American groups in the Washington region and across the nation are pushing measures that they hope will eventually result in a federal holiday, with public schools closing and employees staying home from work.
“This is about respect for our culture,” said Henry Lau, a co-founder of the Maryland Coalition for Recognition of the Asian Lunar New Year. “The New Year is the most important festival in our culture, and that needs to be acknowledged.”
The Howard County Council passed a measure this month to prohibit public meetings on the holiday. The Maryland General Assembly is considering a bill to officially recognize the day, and activists in Virginia are lobbying for a similar measure. Groups in the District are proposing to close school on the Lunar New Year.
The growing movement echoes efforts by earlier immigrant and minority groups that fought for recognition of holidays that honor them, Lau said.
“The Italian Americans have Columbus Day, the Irish have St. Patrick’s Day and African Americans have Martin Luther King Jr. Day,” said Lau, 60, a manager at the Environmental Protection Agency who lives in Columbia. “But the Asian American community has nothing. It’s like we’re not real Americans.”
The movement has had some success. In San Francisco, Lunar New Year is a school holiday; in New York, it’s an official “Day Of Commemoration,” along with other Jewish and Muslim festival days. The ultimate goal is to make Lunar New Year a Federal holiday, just like Christmas and Thanksgiving.
I think this is a holiday most Americans could get behind – why not? Get together with family, celebrate, eat, wish each other luck and prosperity for the year ahead. And maybe set off a few firecrackers. You know we Americans do like our fireworks.
Thanks to Michael Turton for the tip.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.